The Running Man Still Predicted An Optimistic Future

The Running Man

In The Running Man the future is depicted as an authoritarian police state with a broken economy. When our man Richards (Schwarzenegger) faces airport security and has no travel pass, he rummages through his bag until a line of anxious tourists forms behind him. “We got a plane to catch!” one yells, so the guard lets him go! Watching it today, we’re shocked at how stupid this is.

But airport security was like this in 1987, back when you boarded the plane on a staircase outside the airport, so we all believed the scene. Today, Richards would have been arrested after a DNA analysis of his dandruff, unless facial recognition software caught him first.

This depiction of the Orwellian Police State in The Running Man recalls the 80s when trust levels were so high that you could jump onto an airplane just by threatening to slow down business. They projected this sentiment into the dystopian future, which was complete with game shows, money spewing from every crack, and what in general seems like a lot of vibrant, happy people, a stark contrast to the 2010s’ Hunger Games or Looper.

Actionist Mini-review – Pet Sematary

While Pet Sematary‘s presentation might feel a tad Lifetime-y now, it still serves up a great tale on the human inability to accept the end of life, hitting all the right beats with regular thrills, superb gore moments, and eerie atmospherics that make for an exemplary horror film. As a bonus, it would be utterly impossible to repeat the film’s finale in today’s uber-sensitive culture. It’s no wonder a package like this would make over 5x its initial $11M budget. Stream on Netflix here.

Genre Mini-reviews – How films measure up to the Action Kickback Model

I’ll be posting short reviews for the sake of search-ability, focusing on genre and how they live up the Action Kickback Model. I’ll review genre films in general; action, horror, sci-fi, etc. The main points I want to address with the reviews are:

Story – Do we care what’s happening?
Genre Promise – Does the film deliver on the genre promise? Does the sci-fi film use science as a device? Does the action film have action that serves the narrative? Etc.
Marketability – How well did it sell?

My hypothesis is that films that excel in story and genre promise tend to do the best on the market. There are exceptions, like the great films that failed due to poor advertising campaigns or being released on the same weekend as other major films, or good films that were saved by one-off advertising gimmicks that (probably) couldn’t be repeated, but my hypothesis is a general, high-level one that I hope will serve as a guide for anyone looking to make genre films, action or not.

How Science Fiction Lost Its Edge – A Genre Study

While working on a science fiction concept I’m developing, it’s been interesting to study how the genre itself functions. Science Fiction has two key responsibilities:

  • Predicts the logical ends of a technological trajectory and sets it up as the conflict.
  • Utilizes current filmmaking and computer technology in a profound way.Or “Tech-porn”. Often sci-fi films will have throwaway scenes that really have no place in the story except to showcase a new technology. These are necessary for the trailer, so they’re  forgiven because they’re profound enough to elicit a strong response.

    (My favorite example is in Total Recall, where police see an x-ray of Quaid’s gun, so he just breaks through the x-ray glass, toward them! The police then cower and let him run away. The scene obviously had no logic to it, yet it’s iconic, so it’s forgiven.)

This is backed up by Wiki’s explanation:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible (or at least non-supernatural) content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.

We expect sci-fi films to extrapolate on our current trajectories and set those up as the conflict. AI goes berserk (2001, Terminator), space travel finds more than it bargained for (Alien), and playing God goes bad (Jurassic Park, Gattaca). It’s what the genre promises. Take what we know about technology and show the consequences. The results of scientific innovation could be positive, but when a human is the main character, the genre tends to fall into the realm of man vs. technology. This is not an error of mere convention, but rather how stories have evolved over thousands of years.

Yet many recent sci-fi films depict scenarios already unacceptable, such as increased pollution, corporations exploiting the population, oppressive police states rising to power, etc. To make them “sci-fi”, technological elements are mixed in, often as solutions to the problem rather than problems in and of themselves. These stories are “What-if” scenarios, not logical ends to scientific innovation. Contrary to these, I can predict with certainty that in 10 years, no matter who takes office, there will be more green energy, smarter artificial intelligence, less religion, no time travel, and no zombie Hitlers. Last two notwithstanding, it’s disappointing that sci-fi filmmakers rarely tackle such issues.

In case you’ve been in a cave for the last 30 years, you won’t be surprised to hear that government-funded Science (with a capital S) has settled into a cozy era that has placed it on the pedestal. Artists are less inclined to predict its drawbacks and more interested in “what-if” scenarios should the trend reverse. That is the new sci-fi. Exceptions aside, for a genre which produced dozens of classics before the 2000s, its continual reneging on its promises has cause it to go soft and limp.

Basically, sci-fi sucks because Science takes itself so goddamn seriously.

My prediction is that this trend will not reverse any time soon, unless somehow Science loses its government funding and falls from grace, or an alternate information source springs up that competes with it. Until then, there are thousands of sci-fi concepts just dying to be made, and the audience is still there. It’s a good time to be a genre filmmaker.

Small Fish and a Promise

The latest series of events in Stunt People history have made it painfully obvious to me that you have to be a huge player to get any momentum in the entertainment world.

  • Materials – Getting a printing company to make 1,000 DVDs on time when their regular clients print 50,000 is like pulling teeth. Printing 1,000 units through a smaller printing company will cost you far more since it’s not as streamlined and requires more man-hours.For example, I’m trying to make DVDs and the people at the press are utterly unresponsive after running into multiple errors with the discs and hard drives I sent. I’m not convinced these are my errors and I’ve seen no attempt on their parts to figure out what to do next, but since they’re not making much money from this deal compared to the 50,000 disc runs they’re used to, they have no incentive to respond to my emails very quickly. I’ll end up on the phone with them today, probably a lot.

    I recommend kunaki if you’re doing single-layer DVDs or CDs. Quick, cheap, and easy.

  • Distribution – If you’re indie, you rely on a core, fan audience, but once your film is done, sales agents tell you not to make too much noise, for fear of hurting international sales. If international distributors get word that your film is “old” or has been released already, they may drop their deal. The alternative is to stay silent and avoid getting too much press for your film, and avoid showing it to people until some distributor picks it up, which these days might take years. Getting people to review your film and showing it to the world before its eventual release requires stealth and will result in a lot of aches and pains.

    For example, I went ahead and edited the IMDB listing for my last feature film (starts with “cont” ends with “or” … see that shit? stealth, though don’t be surprised if I have to edit this damn blog too now) to give it its new alternate title. An hour later, our distributor contacted me saying, “Hey just a quick note, just in case you’ve been telling people about the old title of the movie, don’t give out that information, because it will kill the film.” When I told him about the IMDB update I made, I think he had a heart attack. Currently I’m trying to cancel that, which is incredibly difficult if, again, you’re a small fish.

  • Being Talented – If you’re talented, and you make a big splash, the way The Raid has, you’ll get noticed. Then you become a big star, right? No. You get hired to work behind the scenes on the remake of your own film.

This isn’t meant to be a bitter blog post. It’s a snapshot of how the industry works, and why only the hugest conglomerates survive. Conglomerates are no more evil than Manzanita in California or killer whales in the Pacific, or mold on your bread, they’re just the things that survive. And I’ve got no interest in fighting the system because, like it or not, we’re all knee-deep in it. In fact I like the system. It made many of the world’s best action films.

The big guys are, however, sweating. The market is volatile as ever, and the people in high positions are clinging to their spots, which explains why nobody would ever just GIVE Evans and Uwais starring parts in a new film. Since the studios can’t make action films like The Raid, they just co-opt the people who can. And being co-opted is a valid decision, because the alternative is a lot of cancelling IMDb changes, sneaking around while trying to release your film to your fans, fighting with disc printers to get your stuff done on time, and making roughly 25% of the salary of a stuntman. It’s not glamorous by any means.

But that hasn’t been the decision for me and I don’t plan for it to be in the future, despite opportunities that have presented themselves. I like the stuff I do, I like my audience, and through all this I’m still convinced that this is the best way to do it.

Avoid Lecturing Your Audience

The recent hit Haywire with Gina Carano is putting the spotlight on actors who do their own fighting and stunts, but there seems to be a viewpoint that audiences are somehow responsible for the diminished quality in our action genre. An article on the subject has this to say:

7. Audiences: Free your mind – Audiences themselves bear some of the responsibility for what they get to see. Don’t just demand the same actors in every action movie. Open your minds to performers from other realms too. That’s what real MMA fighter Gina Carano says. “I don’t want to take anything away from actors,” Carano said. “I don’t think just anybody can do it. I believe if you like watching an actor, a singer, a fighter, usually for me it’s because [of] a creative thing, an artful thing is coming out of them. I think if people start relaxing and letting people creatively express themselves more in different areas, I think we’re going to see more mixed martial artists, we’ll see more crossover. People have to be willing to let go of that in their head because an athlete is somebody that people get emotionally attached to for who they are and then you see them playing a character and that’s not them. As fans of the people we like to watch, we have to learn to let them go and let them creatively express themselves in whatever avenue they want to. I think that’s going to be a huge movement.”

There’s a word for this: elitism. Elitism in this form demands the audience suppress its human desire for entertainment, the desire that creates the action genre, so that it can respond to some higher calling. We could also define it by its historical term, “Puritanism”, only in its 21st Century form divorced from all theology yet still attached to an anti-masses mentality. Like a preacher who asks his congregation to absolve themselves of all earthly wants, film elites continually demand audiences take advice from cultural professionals like journalists and academics. In this case, it’s so the audience can make the right decisions about martial arts actors, even if these folks, talented as they are in the ring, are stiff as boards and will take on any script tossed their way. Open my mind, you say? Not if that stuff is going inside it.

Like I’ve said in my Action Kickback model, story comes first. Once we have that, then we worry about the genre, the “martial arts” part. Don’t put pressure on the audience just so you can be lazy and neglect that first step. If you just wanna do martial arts for a living, the ring is where to be.