by Ken Sanes
At the most obvious level, Logan's Run is a warning about the dangers that now face humanity in an age of high-technology and extravagance. It takes the world we live in, with its automation, malls, and self-indulgent lifestyles, and exaggerates it to create an image of a future none of us would want to live in.
To understand how it came to offer us such an image, one has to examine the book it is based on, by the same name, which was published in 1967. (1) Logan's Run, the book, was written during a period in American history that saw the rise of the counterculture, primarily among teenagers and those in their twenties, which viewed traditional culture as a fraud, and was identified with drug use and the sexual revolution. At the same time, a parallel political movement opposed the national government, and saw its lies over Vietnam as part of a larger deception at the heart of American society.
The authors took these elements and transformed them into what is, at best, a mediocre book about a society of the future in which the youth movement has triumphed with a vengeance. The inhabitants of this world have turned free love into a life of nonstop sexual license. They routinely take hallucinogens and now it is they, rather than an older and more traditional adult population, who oppose any effort to challenge the system.
In place of LBJ, the book's fictional society is governed by a computer that kills everyone at 21 to guard against overpopulation. In place of draft dodgers, it has runners who flee death at a tender age. And in place of an anti-war movement, it has a political resistance that aids runners and is busy co-opting the computer, so one day a new system will be born.
The book's message, other than that there is a danger of being controlled by computers, is that the youth movement's rejection of age is misguided. As it states, unsubtly, at the end: "The young don't build. They use. The wonders of Man were achieved by the mature, the wise, who lived in this world before we did."
The movie took this story and blended it with themes from science fiction and with images from America in the 1970s, to create the rich mythic world of the city that is folded in on itself. By the time the movie was made, the 60s counterculture had been transformed into the self-oriented lifestyles of 1970s popular culture. And so the movie shows us this world, with a city that is like a giant mall (it even has escalators) and like a singles complex (it even shows an exercise room). (2) But we can still see a vestige of the 60s in the way the movie takes an idea from the book -- that everyone is killed at 21 -- and blends it with the adage "Don't trust anyone over 30", to create the computer's guiding idea: knock everyone off at 30.
In creating this image, the movie is repeating a very traditional message. A decadent consumer society, it tells us, could end up giving us a flattened out culture that is not unlike being stuck in a giant mall for life.
The movie couples this with another image taken from the book, of humanity controlled by a computer, to add a second warning that intelligent technologies could infantilize us, turning us into techno-narcissists who are dependent on machines and unable to do for ourselves. When the movie was released in 1976, the self-oriented culture of the time had not yet gone through another transformation into the age of computers. Thus, the movie's message, that intelligent technologies might wrap themselves around us and become our surroundings, separating us from nature and ourselves, still seemed like it belonged in the more exaggerated realms of science fiction.
The fact that the city exists in a ruined world adds a third element of meaning, turning the movie into one of many post-apocalyptic visions of how technology might destroy us by amplifying the flaws in our character. The connecting link between all of these depictions -- of self-indulgent lifestyles, dependence on machines, and world destruction -- is the image of technology that has run amok as a result of our failure to control its negative consequences. The computer that infantilizes and destroys the people it is supposed to care for; the robot that mistakes people for the food it is supposed to freeze for them; and the destruction of most of civilization as a result not merely of war but of pollution and overpopulation, which are made possible by advances in science and industry -- all these ideas show us unintended consequences in which humanity ends up being sacrificed at the alter of uncontrolled technology.
When you add in the way the computer has to be destroyed at the end to free the inhabitants of the city, it is obvious that the movie expresses a deep pessimism about -- and opposition to -- technology. The vision it offers is Luddite (3) in inspiration, extolling the virtues of a life free from machines. Of course, this is also an idea that was expressed by some in the 60s counterculture.
But this image of technology run amok is only one idea offered by the movie. Seen from a slightly different angle, the movie shows the connection between self-oriented lifestyles and the dependence on technology, on the one hand, and the way power is exercised in contemporary society, on the other. In particular, it shows us inhabitants who play their days away while true power is in the hands (or circuits) of the computer. What looks like a life of ease turns out to be an evasion of responsibility and a form of social control.
This depiction links Logan's Run with the work of various writers on the left, such as the late Herbert Marcuse, who have asserted that those who govern society in an age of advanced capitalism manipulate its inhabitants with consumer abundance and entertainment-oriented lifestyles. Free sex and television for the masses, while those who control the levers of power do their work in secret, at our expense. In this interpretation, the movie is telling us that the appearance of freedom can mask its opposite.
In this regard, it is interesting that the city has social classes with some similarities to our own. It has the privileged elite of sandmen who keep the public in line for the computer. It has a middle class in the majority of the city's inhabitants, and it has its poor in the wild children who are separated off from the rest in a kind of ghetto, where they are free of the computer, in exchange for which they get no enjoyment of society's material benefits. But all these classes, even the sandmen with power and perks, are ultimately disenfranchised by a larger power, the movie tells us. That message is also an essential element of the philosophy of the left, which sees America's affluent and more modest middle classes, its working class and its poor stuck in crime-ridden ghettoes as all victims of exploitation by the capitalist system and those who control it.
Like Marcuse and others on the left, the movie also portrays its fictional society as being governed by an "instrumentalist rationality" that treats people like objects -- like means toward ends -- rather than as subjects. They are cogs in the computer's mechanism of death, to the point where they have "life clocks" built into them that determine the time of death.
Here is a quote from the book Counter-Revolution and Revolt by Marcuse, published in 1972, four years before the movie came out, which portrays America much as the movie portrays the city. In this passage, it is "capitalism" rather than a computer that is described as instrumentally manipulating the public by offering fake freedoms.
"Capitalism now produces, for a majority of the people in the metropoles, not so much material privation as steered satisfaction of material needs, while making the entire human being -- intelligence and senses -- into an object of administration, geared to produce and reproduce not only the goals but also the values and promises of the system, its ideological heaven. Behind the technological veil, behind the political veil of democracy, appears the reality, the universal servitude, the loss of human dignity in a prefabricated freedom of choice."
One of the things this universe of steered satisfactions produces, according to Marcuse, is "the images of a world of ease, enjoyment, fulfillment and comfort which no longer appears as the exclusive privilege of an elite but rather within the reaches of the masses."
Marcuse even sees in contemporary society "the social steering of sexuality through controlled desublimation," (4) which results in freer sex lives, reducing the sense of guilt and promoting a greater sense of satisfaction. Among its uses, he believed, free sex serves to reduce people's dissatisfaction and thus protect the system.
For Marcuse, all this is in the service of capitalism, which is an idea the movie doesn't explicitly convey. And his central idea that what this system covers up is our capacity to use technology to free ourselves so we will have a sensual and aesthetic appreciation of life, is almost the exact opposite of the movie's stoic vision of a society that has forgotten the meaning of marriage, reproduction and work. But the essential idea that society's controllers use the instruments of rationality (science, technology, administration, and so on) to trap the public in a closed system full of false satisfactions is essential to both Marcuse and the movie. I don't know whether Marcuse ever saw Logan's Run, (hard to imagine as that might be) but he would have immediately recognized the pseudo-benevolent computer that offers its inhabitants a life of trivial pursuits and planned obsolescence at 30. The movie is clearly saying something about us and, whatever it is saying, has important similarities to what theorists such as Marcuse are saying.
Just as the movie includes a critique of the way power is exercised in contemporary society, so it also covertly critiques our contemporary world-view and perceptions. It does so by portraying a culture that isn't merely a physical prison but that also traps its inhabitants by lying to them and "structuring" their minds, to control what they see as normal and deviant. The inhabitants believe the city is the world and its system is the only way things can be. They are convinced that the only hope anyone has of living passed their 30th birthday is to take their chances in carousel. And they view unacceptable desires, such as wanting to run or wanting to know who one's children are, once the seeds for their children's creation have been donated to the city nursery, as sick and strange. Such desires signify that something is wrong with the person, rather than the system. By shaping their minds this way, the computer is able to present a constructed world as if it is the only possible world. As a result, the inhabitants mistake slavery for freedom, falsehood for truth, invention for nature.
The movie conveys this idea in various (not-very poetic) conversations between the characters. At one point early on, for example, the other sandman, Francis Seven, (who will later chase Logan) is bewildered at why Logan would even wonder if those who die in carousel are renewed. And he thinks there is something very odd about Logan being curious about whether a particular baby in the city nursery is his own. When he asks Logan if he also knows who the baby's "seed mother" is, Logan responds: "Of course not. I'm curious not sick." In other words, the desire to know things that the computer says should not be known, is viewed as being as alien to normal life as the world outside the city.
Soon after, Jessica asks him: "Why is it wrong to run."
"You shouldn't even be thinking such things let alone talking about them," Logan responds.
But the scene that is central to this depiction of a culture that traps its inhabitants in a prison of unknowing, in which they stigmatize and turn away from truths that challenge their conditioning, is the one in which Logan fails to convince the inhabitants that there is no renewal. They are so completely immersed in their mad society that they believe the one who knows the true state of things is the crazy one.
Here, once again, the movie is conveying a philosophy common to the left, which started to win popular attention in the 60s and 70s. Not only does government lie, this philosophy asserts, but our culture and world view may also be deceptions. We have to go outside our society, intellectually and not merely physically, to see the larger truths it obscures.
The first source of these ideas for the movie was, once again, the book, which used them to create a fictionalized version of the domestic battle over Vietnam, projected into the future. In the book, questioning the culture of youth and computer-control is seen as unpatriotic and abnormal, and a bearded protester, with a sign urging people to run, is subjected to name-calling and abuse from onlookers, before he is arrested.
But this idea was coming from all kinds of sources in the 1960s and 70s. It is clearly expressed in the first quote from Marcuse, above, in which he claims people "produce and reproduce not only the goals but also the values and promises of the system." In the book, One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, he similarly writes: "Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual." The result is "an immediate identification of the individual with his society," which is the product of "a sophisticated, scientific management and organization." In this society, he claimed, "ideology is in the process of production itself.... The productive apparatus and the goods and services which it produces 'sell' or impose the social system as a whole." (5)
Another variation on these ideas can be found in the anti-psychiatry movement that challenged definitions of what it means to be normal. And it can be seen in the ideas of Peter Berger, a sociologist (not of the left) who helped popularize the idea that our perception of reality is a social construction. As he put it in the 1964 essay "Marriage and the Construction of Reality": "Every society has its specific way of defining and perceiving reality -- its world, its universe, its overarching organization of symbols."
This social construction is perceived as "the only world that normal men can conceive of." And it is "sustained through conversation with significant others." (6)
Although a full discussion will have to wait for another essay, these ideas have also received a rich treatment in fiction, especially in depictions of other false utopias, such as the ??? novel Brave New World, which traps its inhabitants in another psychological prison of endless pleasure.
The movie takes these ideas and creates a fictional culture that is a good symbol for the entrapping and delusional qualities of culture (and government) in general, and of our own culture, in particular. To a minor degree, it uses these ideas to expose traditional American culture as a fraud, since carousel is an image of the misplaced faith people place in religion, willingly sacrificing for what the movie says is the illusion of a reward after death. But the movie's primary interest is in using the idea that culture can be a delusion against the new way of seeing things that came with the 60s and 70s. Our new fascination with youth and pleasure; our faith in the curative power of machines, and our criticisms of traditional ideas about work and marriage may be a new way of warding off truth, it tells us. Much like the philosophies of the traditional left and right, it eschews relativism, telling us that beyond these misperceptions is a real world and a real human condition that we have lost the ability to see.
The essence of the movie's plot is precisely the discovery of this fact, by Logan, and, ultimately, by the inhabitants, as they realize that what they mistook for objective reality and nature is artifice. When the computer makes a similar discovery, recognizing that its ideas about the world are wrong, it dies. But for humanity, this insight will set it free.
Thus the movie is telling us that self-oriented lifestyles, and the perception that this is the way life should be, are both manipulations. What look to us like nature and freedom are contrivances, it says: they are forms of ideology that have been turned into false pleasures and a misperception of reality. To put it in more obviously Marxist terms, the movie portrays the inhabitants of the city, and, by analogy, us, as suffering a state of false consciousness that causes them to mistake the interest of those in power for their own interest.
Logan then returns to this class of oppressed consumers (who are ultimately consumed), playing Karl Marx to the computer's evil capitalist and dictator-bureaucrat (and Woodward and Bernstein to the computer's Nixon), with a manifesto in the service of class consciousness and liberation. He gets passed the walls of the city, but must still break through the walls inside the minds of the people.
In the end, the movie offers a message of hope, which allows it to serve as a defense against despair and a source of inspiration. Once the truth is made known, it says, something inside us drives us to fight for freedom. (7)
To sum up this first realm of meaning, (and at the risk of repetition) Logan's Run portrays pleasure-oriented lifestyles as a way of losing our selves and our true nature. It warns us that those in power can use these lifestyles, along with dependence on technology and a false world view, as a tool of manipulation to make a prison look like home. It also provides another meaning, in which the computer represents, not society's governing classes, but technology that has run amok on its own, imprisoning us emotionally and physically, and causing us to regress.
The movie offers these truths about society in general; about the society in which it was made; and about a possible future that could evolve from this society. Like all fiction, it uses information about the present as its raw material and it comments on the present by doing so.
But the movie only takes on its true significance with the next realm of meaning, which will be examined in the next section.
(1) Logan's Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the Dial press, New York, 1967.
(2) According to the Highly Unofficial Logan's Run FAQ, most of the scenes that took place in the city were filmed in the Dallas Market Center Apparel Mart, a mall. "It had just about the right kind of glitzy ambience the producers wanted for a futuristic utopia, plus, you have to admit, there's a lot of parallels between (an) indoor shopping mall and a hermetically sealed city."
(3) The Luddites: "Opponents of the introduction of labor-saving machinery. The original Luddites, followers of a legendary Ned Ludd, were British laborers of the early nineteenth century who smashed textile-making machines that threatened their jobs. Modern opponents of technological change are sometimes called 'Luddites.' "
Dictionary of Cultural Literacy Second Edition. Revised and updated. Edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil. Accessed via AOL.
(4) Herbert Marcuse Beacon Press Boston 1972 Counterrevolution and Revolt. Quotes are from pp. 14, 19, 60.
(5) One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964. pp.10-12.
(6) "Marriage and the Construction of Reality" by Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner in Recent Sociology 1970 The MacMillan Company New York pp 51, 53.
(7) Marcuse believed that the greater freedom brought about by technology has the potential to mobilize our inherent desires for a sensual and aesthetic life. As a result, we might break free of this false utopia and usher in a true utopia based on true pleasures. In Logan's Run, it is Logan who breaks down the false utopia, in favor of a more difficult world of work and responsibility.