Saturday, July 8, 2017

Page and Screen

The original Logan's Run novel is a good lesson in how science fiction can get caught by events, even when it's set in the future. William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's 1967 novel extrapolates from the swell of young people seen in the Baby Boom and the pressure of overpopulation to set its stage. In this world, the 20th century closes with a revolt by teens and young adults, who make up more than 80 percent of the six billion people on the planet. Unwilling to accept their elders' plans to force families to stop at one child, they instead institute a regime of mandatory state-conducted suicide at the age of 21. The execution of everyone over that age and handing control of society over to a supercomputer called the Thinker cements the system in place. "Deep Sleep" operatives or "Sandmen" enforce this ultimate law, hunting down and killing anyone who does not report for death on their 21st birthday.

Logan 3 is a Sandman, loyal to the system although questioning the purpose of the hedonistic society he's supposedly protecting. When he meets Jessica 6, the sister of a runner he hunted, his questions deepen. And then his own Lastday happens, and Logan decides he himself will Run and seek a safe haven called Sanctuary, beyond the reach of Sandmen and the Thinker, where people can live out a normal lifespan.

Nolan has said one of the points of the novel is demonstrating how a society without age lacks any kind of roots or sense of understanding. The beginning chapters help demonstrate this idea to a degree, but it fades away into an echo once Logan and Jessica begin running. At that point, the novel turns into a long high-tension chase sequence. We get hints of the empty pleasure-seeking that's fueling the ennui of their society. We see some unusual aspects of the society that pairs Brave New World license with Nineteen Eighty-Four groupthink. But they remain mostly hints, as Nolan and Johnson press the pedal to the floor and run Logan and Jessica through one peril after another.

Some aspects of Logan's world offer food for thought. The aforementioned inability to grow or build anything when life is ended just as mature thought and innovation begin to develop is one. The emptiness of pure libertinism is another. But the main lessons turned out to be a miss. Nolan and Johnson wrote in 1967, as youth unrest began peaking and showed signs of some of the violence that would end that decade and begin the next. They extrapolated the increase in young people and the pressure of population growth, but didn't anticipate the effect of abortion and birth control on birth rates in First World countries. They also overestimated the effects of population pressure, seeing the crisis point at 6 billion. That figure was reached in 1999, a year earlier than they suggested, but did not provoke a global revolt.

Overtaken by the real world, Logan's Run winds up as an interesting sci-fi page turner, a little deeper than average but ultimately less impactful than the movie made from it.
Said movie was made almost a decade later, and reflects the reality that some of the people who said never trust anyone over 30 had passed that milestone and found themselves surprisingly trustworthy. Screenwriter David Zelag Goodman tweaked the Nolan-Johnson novel in several respects. The mandatory age of death was 30, rather than 21. Humanity was confined to a single domed city instead of spread out across the world, probably as protection against some unnamed holocaust. And rather than a quiet death from toxic gas, a ritual spectacle called Carrousel supposedly offered a chance for a kind of reincarnation called Renewal.

Michael York plays Logan 5, still a Sandman but one now artificially aged to his Lastday in order to infiltrate an Underground Railroad-type organization offering Sanctuary to Runners. Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), has some connection to the Sanctuary operation but is appealing to Logan in other ways as well. He begins by using her to gain access to the Sanctuary operation but eventually changes to go on the run for real and develops real feelings for her. They find a path to the world outside the City and are forced to deal with how much of the life they have known is a lie. Logan's former partner, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), has pursued them and they will have to confront him as well.

York, Agutter and Jordan are all quality actors and generally handle their material well. They sometimes overmatch it and York especially is pushed into the kind of scenery-chewing reserved for William Shatner. Peter Ustinov is amusing and interesting as the Old Man they encounter in the ruins of Washington, D.C., but his role is more or less decoration. Agutter's character starts out with some depth and potential interest, but once the chase begins in earnest she has less and less chance to steer the action.

Most people who write about the move Logan's Run mock the 1970s-era special effects, which do look horribly dated by today's standards. The City is obviously a miniature, and Roscoe Lee Browne's teeth and lower face show plainly beneath his android costume. But it pioneered several advances, including the use of holograms and Dolby stereo sound on 70mm prints. The Carrousel sequence featured more than two dozen wire-lifted performers and was easily the most complicated scene of its kind.

Johnson, who passed away in 2015, seems rarely to have commented on the movie. Nolan frequently mentioned his dislike of it and the changes in the screenplay. But several of them, such as corralling the setting to a single city and introducing a hazardous Outside, impart to the story more logic than did the novel. And some others had to happen to get the story onscreen -- keeping the upper age limit at 21 might have meant shooting the movie with Danny Bonaduce and Maureen McCormick. Not to mention a complete rethinking of the decadence and hedonism against which Logan reacts; none of that would have been filmable with an under-21 cast.

The movie Logan's Run has a little more staying power than the book, primarily as an early example of some of today's well-developed film technology and as a precursor to the big sci-fi silver screen breakthrough that Star Wars would kick off the next year. Absent those characteristics, though, it also remains dialed in as a solid "a little better than average."


Todd Bergman said...

I'm glad you did this. I have been wanting to return to the movie. It has been 35 years since I last saw it. I was worried I was remembering it more fondly than it deserves, but it sounds like I can still get some joy from it.

I'm also interested in grabbing the novel at some point.


Friar said...

Happy to help. Although neither of them equaled my memory of reading and viewing, both book and movie had held up better than I thought they would have.