Thursday, September 4, 2014

Logan's Run

The most recent selection in my program of seventies sci-fi films was Logan's Run (1976). (Previous entries here and here.) I'd been putting it off, as the reviews seemed somewhat middling, but I actually thought it was a really cool movie. It's based on a book, which I haven't read, but I understand that the plot is quite different aside from the basic premise. (FYI, this post contains a number of spoilers, so beware if you haven't seen it yet.)

The premise is a hedonistic future society where everyone is euthanized at age thirty so that no shadow of degeneration or death can cloud the universal satisfaction. Those who wish can undergo the quasi-religious rite of the Carrousel, rising up in a column of light toward the ceiling of the arena, with screaming throngs cheering them on, in a bid for rebirth. The ones who don't make it explode in mid-air. (Guess what? No one makes it.) Those who seek to evade their fate illegally are called Runners. They're hunted down by agents known as Sandmen. The city sees to reproductive matters, and the people are classified into genetic breeds with color-coded clothing; delinquent youth are shut away in the Cathedral, where they go feral in darkness.

The city is enclosed by an opaque dome, so that no one is even really aware that there is an outside. It's like a huge combination shopping mall and resort apartment complex (a lot of the film was shot in shopping centers and other businesses around DFW). But it's all very futuristic in a retro way, with lots of glass and neon lights, kind of like that salon you still see in malls nowadays, the one with all the black and mirrors. (Is it called Regis? I think it's Regis.) I've always been both fascinated and repelled by malls; when I was a teenager I had this recurring nightmare about being lost in a busy mall by myself. They're gigantic indoor spaces that just go on and on into infinity, kind of like the Library of Babylon, but with everything screaming for your attention, urging you to forget everything but pleasure and comfort. It's interesting and appalling to imagine a culture living inside a giant mall.

Incidentally, the set design (and plot) reminded me a lot of Blade Runner, though bright and glittering where the latter was grimy and rainy. The effects are generally good.

The protagonist is Logan 5, a Sandman assigned a secret mission by the city computer to find the location of the legendary Sanctuary where all the Runners go. He's artificially made a Runner but slowly becomes one in truth. Eventually, after various bizarre adventures and narrow escapes, he and his love interest find their way though the interstices and out into the world, where rocks are hard and plants are prickly, and come upon a ruined, overgrown Washington, D.C., evoked by some nice matte paintings. (I wish movies still used matte paintings. Crazy, I know.) There, in the Capitol, they come upon the Old Man (Peter Ustinov!), the first old person they'd ever seen, living by himself with a large number of cats.

For me this is the heart of the movie. The Runners are like children in the lap of their grandfather as they ask about his white hair, ask to feel his wrinkles. The film gets quiet and still, and just lets him ramble on as they question him, quoting bits of T. S. Eliot, mumbling about this and that, making little jokes. It's quite a shift from the frenetic pace of the first half of the movie. Logan 5 and the girl are filled with wonder to realize that there's nothing fearful about growing old and dying, that these are natural and even beautiful things. They resolve to take the Old Man back to the city to show everyone how mistaken they've been, imagining that their word and his presence alone will convince everyone.

Here I had the delightful surprise of discovering that some of the final scenes were filmed at the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which I visited this summer. I'd stayed downtown about a block away and taken my kids all over them. The most famous one (shown here in a picture taken by Yours Truly) provides the Runners a point of entry to the city, while the Old Man waits outside. It was neat to discover that I'd walked down the same steps as Peter Ustinov, though I didn't know it at the time.

The message preached by Logan is received with jeers and incomprehension. But when the computer melts down upon receiving his intelligence, and the city starts to destroy itself, he escapes and leads the people outside. Here the film assumes almost mythic dimensions as Logan harrows the "underworld" of the city. The liberated young people discover the Old Man and gather around him in wonder.

The point here, which I think many reviewers misunderstand, is not so much that people can live so long, as that it's okay to get old. I was surprised to discover the film to be so warm and life-affirming at the end. It's not a message you hear much nowadays, with celebrities striving to remain about thirty in appearance while aging well into their seventies, disfiguring themselves at last with countless plastic surgeries until they all start to look the same.

There's nothing wrong with growing old. Don't fly from it. Embrace it.

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