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Logan’s Run (1976)

A case might be made that our son, who has only turned six recently, might be too young to appreciate or understand Logan’s Run, and maybe I should have held off on showing him this. However, we’ll be watching Star Wars in a couple of weeks, and I wanted him to have a little idea of what American science fiction films were like before George Lucas showed up and kiddified everything.

He’s far too young to grasp the cerebral likes of 2001, Westworld, or The Andromeda Strain, and while Planet of the Apes is on the agenda for later this year, I still worry that film’s going to scare him quite a bit. So I decided that Logan’s Run, despite the worrying premise of early death and fleeting glimpses of nudity, would serve as our example. It also led to a much more kid-friendly TV series the following year, and so I decided we’d watch that as well, so look out for that next month.

So the techno-future of Logan’s Run is all lights and computers and travel capsules and escalators in shopping malls under a big dome. It’s a PG film of the seventies, so much of the discussion of pleasure is left understated, but this is a world where the people play with abandon and sleep together without repercussions. They’re under the thumbs of the Sandmen, who wear black and there are quite a few more of them than you’d expect standing around in the background. The Sandmen take their orders from a sultry-voiced evil supercomputer. People are promised the possibility of renewal – reincarnation, basically – after their lastday, and a garish and totally over-the-top death ceremony called Carrousel. People don’t question the system, and people don’t ask what’s outside the domed city.

The film stars Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who has been given a deep undercover assignment to find the secret exit to Sanctuary which Runners – people who make a bid for freedom before their lastday – have been using. He realizes that Jessica, a girl that he recently met while looking for some free evening company who is played by Jenny Agutter, wears an ankh symbol affiliated with the Sanctuary movement.

This level of detail went a little over our kid’s head. We did have to pause early on, because the first half-hour is a little talkier than our six year-old wanted to handle, and so we had to tell him to quit kicking his legs around and pay attention, and if he had questions, actually ask us instead of ignoring the movie until some shooting started. He improved, but in fairness, the action quotient did, too.

Logan is so deep undercover that the other Sandmen don’t know about his mission. He’s forced to become a Runner himself and make his way through the strangely complicated way out of the city that the underground resistance movement guards. Unfortunately, the network of Runners have made their own jobs so difficult that none of them know that they’ve been sending Runners to their deaths at the hands of a demented robot who has killed hundreds and hundreds of people. Until Logan shows up, nobody has been armed and able to defend themselves from it.

The robot, Box, is played by Roscoe Lee Browne, and I don’t mind telling you that when I first saw this movie on HBO around 1979 or so, Box really gave me the creeps. He’s not around for long – educated guessers have figured that the Box scene, and an earlier one in their run in which Logan and Jessica get separated in a steam room orgy, were both ruthlessly edited down to remove as much nudity as possible so the movie would get a PG rating – but Box is one of those creations that every kid of the seventies remembers. Until Star Wars made them safe, robots were often very menacing.

The movie is flawed in places and certainly dated, but there’s really a lot to like. I enjoyed how the music is all disco synthesizers and Jean-Michel Jarre electronics inside the city, but is played by a traditional orchestra once our heroes get outside. I like how the lasers used in the New You clinic are surgical things that cut you with solid beams of light, and not zap guns. I enjoyed Farrah Fawcett and Peter Ustinov, and I especially liked that the writers didn’t make Ustinov’s character, the old man that they meet outside the dome, the wise fellow who can explain everything. The old man is just as baffled by the world as Logan and Jessica, but he understands a tiny bit about how families can work in a society where kids aren’t born in tanks and raised by computers. And Richard Jordan, who plays the Sandman who believes Logan has betrayed the system, is an entertaining villain, but heaven knows how a guy who’s never seen the outside world before is able to track our heroes on an overnight excursion.

Actually, the real flaw in the film is its need to make Logan the savior of the story and individual cause of the city’s explosive downfall instead of the protagonist who got out and began getting the outside world ready for people leaving the dome. Things should have been set into motion by having Jordan’s character call for as much backup as possible once he found all of the bodies that Box had frozen, and then let a large company of Sandmen see the sun for themselves.

The writer seems to have painted himself into a corner by the path they took, which means there’s no real way out except for explosions and destruction literally driving the population outside. This means that the sultry-voiced evil supercomputer has to do that “Does not compute… SELF-DESTRUCT!” thing that evil supercomputers often did around the seventies. No wonder all of our generation’s parents were terrified when we gave them their first hand-me-down PCs. They spent more than a decade waiting for the darn things to blow up in movies.

I’m grousing a lot over a generally entertaining movie that has our son curious to see its retelling as a weekly show, but the ending is massively silly, and I love the way all the people fleeing the dome just show up at the top of some stairs. None of this army of extras has any urgency, none of them move like “our entire world is blowing up,” they just show up and say “check out Peter Ustinov and his old man hair.” It’s a good setup, an interesting dystopian utopia, full of good actors, and one deeply goofy ending. Maybe the show will do it better?

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