I mean the 1976 film directed by Michael Anderson, not the 1967 book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson upon which it was based, nor the 1977-78 television series which recapitulated the events in the movie and took the action out into independent episodes.
I watch the film about once every year or three because it’s so interesting and fun. I should admit up front that Logan’s Run falls short on many grounds, most seriously in not following up on interesting ideas suggested by the plot while doubling down on visuals. But what visuals! As far as 1970s nostalgia goes, Logan’s Run is the pure stuff. The sets, the model city, and the costumes are wondrous masterpieces of mid-70s, pre-Star Wars (and, maybe more saliently, pre-Alien) design. And ailurophiles take note! There’s Farrah! Fighting Jenny Agutter (figure 1)!
I assume you know the movie going in. You can read quick reviews with plot summary here and here, if you don’t. I just want to explore a handful of ideas the movie raises, not give it a thorough treatment.
Except for what we can infer from the film as it plays out, there is little direct exposition (despite Michael York’s presence in the film) beyond the title card you can see at the head of this essay:
Sometime in the 23rd century…
the survivors of war, overpopulation and pollution
are living in a great domed city, sealed away from the
forgotten world outside. Here, in an ecologically balanced world,
mankind lived only for pleasure,
freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything.
There’s just one catch:
Life must end at thirty unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carrousel.
II. An ecologically balanced world
The City is described as an “ecologically balanced world,” not because the film rigorously or extensively explores this concept but because it justifies the main premise around which the plot develops. The human inhabitants of the City are kept to a constant, manageable number. At thirty the inhabitants must report for voluntary compulsory euthanasia, and new babies grown in vitro (evidently removed into the vitro from women who have conceived them in the time honored method), exactly replace that number.
Demographics are thus largely taken out of the equation by having a young, robustly healthy population always aging at the same rate with no spikes. At one point a character states that she is sad because a friend died, acknowledging the possibility of death by misadventure or disease in the City.
The film makes it clear that the euthanized are heat-flashed out of existence at the climax of Carrousel, and that despite the belief of some citizens to the contrary, no participant ever escapes this fate. This means that there is no Soylent Green (or Matrix) scenario here in which the bodies of the dead are processed into food for the living, as the title card’s claim that the city has a balanced ecology might suggest. Rather, the ecology is balanced only because the population level is kept constant, not because of any evident resource reuse. Presumably those servo-mechanisms mentioned in the title card are providing food (and other stuff) behind the scenes.
III. Decaying support apparatus
All well and good. Yet when Logan penetrates the seals of the city and enters into its underpinnings, The set designers depict a support apparatus that is dirty and in severe disrepair. There is only one servo-mechanism in evidence, the android Box, who seems to have gone mad after too many years of lonely duty harvesting foodstuffs from the sea for the people of the city. He’s not too busy harvesting “seagreens, plankton, fresh as harvest day” when we meet him in the film.
In fact, as it is presented in the film, the support apparatus is worn out and not supporting much of anything. So how is the City population of some implied thousands regularly fed and otherwise supplied? Whenever the interior of the city is shown, the citizens do in fact look robustly healthy, well fed (but trim), and able to get luxuries like booze and drugs without difficulty. One wonders, therefore, if there had been an abandoned plot thread in which the Carrousel victims were indeed being somehow recycled for food—an ecologically balanced solution (or more so than what we see in the movie).
IV. What about the runners?
The computer that runs the city apparently keeps close tabs on the numbers and status of the living, as we would expect. In the world of the film it seems to be a sinister enforcer of the euthanasia regime, acting through human police called “sandmen.” In any event, the “runners” who seek to avoid euthanasia one way or another are counted by the computer, which has made an elementary computation. Taking the total number of known citizens, and subtracting those terminated by the police (the alternative to Carrousel being a flaming bullet in the back), and those terminated in Carrousel, and those few who die by natural means, The computer is aware of a certain residual number (the computer tells Logan 1054) unaccounted for over time. These runners have evidently been successful, and that is unacceptable to the computer.
And so Logan, a sandman, is given a super secret job to go undercover as a runner to find out how runners are escaping to a “sanctuary,” or, as the computer defines it, “a place of immunity.” One of the plot points of the film comes when Logan discovers that Box has been freezing all the runners who have successfully made it to his portion of the underpinnings of the city. We don’t know that Box has gotten 100% of all runners, but it’s strongly implied that he has, and that Logan and Jessica are the first to escape him. We see some of the earlier runners frozen in huge blocks of ice. Do some of these get turned, in due time, into food for the city? This is never explored.
V. The conventional religion of carrousel
The majority of citizens apparently hold a conventional religious belief that carrousel is not an end but a new beginning. One is reborn into a new life (as a baby) under this view, if one succeeds in struggling to a goal in the ritual. The nature of this belief is fleshed out a little when characters are made to piously (or resignedly) parrot what is meant to be a stock phrase, “you have the same chance as anyone else” in Carrousel. This is true, though not in the way the characters think. There is a subsidiary belief uttered by one character on her way to Carrousel that flameout (the heat flash of euthanasia) is “wild,” i.e., 70’s speak for pleasurable. The film makes very clear that the computer, in its cold, computery way, knows exactly what’s going on with the maintenance of the population level.
Carrousel’s promise of rebirth is presented by the film as an opiate of the masses to relieve fear of lastday, and if no character when asked can remember anyone who was actually renewed, still, they defend their religious belief by adopting a pitiless stance toward runners. The idea seems to be that running is an immoral breaking of the social compact, and termination of runners is righteous. There is for example a scene cut from the very beginning of the film (in the screenplay and reconstructed in YouTube) where Francis, Logan’s fellow sandman and pal, takes great pleasure (as Logan does later) in terminating a runner, and not without a round of spontaneous applause from the citizens who witness it.
VI. The Carrousel ritual
Under the streamlined demographic regime of the City, each cohort of newly turned thirty-year-olds is euthanized on their birthday, called lastday. This is a ritual that happens every day, like a mass. At the beginning of the film we are shown the Carrousel ritual, in which all of the participants are anonymous, in that they wear white flowing robes over skin-tight flame-colored leotards, with masks (figures 2, 3).
Here we run up against the color symbolism in the film; the people of the city each have a lifeclock crystal embedded in their left palm which regularly transitions from white/clear at birth, to yellow, to green, and finally to red at age 25. On lastday it blinks red, and we are shown that if the person dies, it turns black. In Carrousel, then, we see the participants gathered in white, the color of renewal, symbolizing their hopes for a new life, surrounding a giant simulacrum of one of the lifeclock crystals in red. The idea seems to be the transition from the old (red) life to new (white) life through the flames of Carrousel (echoed in the leotards, figure 3).
In the ritual shown, there are 36 participants. Logan terminates one runner that day, and another is found to have fled and is killed by Francis. This means that there were 38 people who turned 30 on that day. Since balance is stressed in the film, we can assume the computer brings in 38 each day and terminates likewise 38 each day. For the entire cohort turning 30 in the year in which that last day falls, there are 38 * 365 = 13,870 citizens; cohorts of equal size will exist for each of the respective years of age going down to 1. So the total number of citizens will be 13,870 * 30 = 416,100. This is an inexact but reasonable population estimate, I think, based upon the putative size of the city as seen in the model.
How many people attend Carrousel as spectators? Is attendance compulsory? Clearly not, as the visuals of the seating arrangements show that there are far fewer than even 1,000 spectators. I count about 65 people in one wedge of the amphitheater (figure 4).
There is some distortion as there is vfx happening here, but I think we are meant to envision 12 wedges, or three times the number shown in figure 4. That would make some 780 seats, and an SRO crowd would maybe come close to 1,000.
The film shows the spectators cheering and emotionally involved. They leap to their feet sometimes, as though this were a sporting event, and this is perhaps what the filmmakers intend us to think. So maybe the filmmakers envision the closest, most religiously committed friends of the 38 attending. On the other hand, Logan and Francis appear to attend Carrousel as casual (if involved) spectators.
VII. The religion of sanctuary
But there is a second, underground religion, and this is where things get quite interesting, because even the computer seems to believe in it. The film is clear that the computer knows nothing of what happens to runners that escape its domain, only that they are unaccounted for. Rumor has come back to the computer of a certain ‘sanctuary,’ where the runners are headed. (Not all runners; some are shown merely to be panicky.) This is why, in its authoritarian way, it wants Logan to go and destroy sanctuary. But there seems to be a fair number of Carrousel skeptics who believe in sanctuary and there is an underground railroad (inferably of maybe a hundred people) dedicated to helping runners escape. Somehow (maybe for plot convenience) these rebels are able to get into the interstices behind the public spaces of the city and even, somehow, have access to a computerized lock mechanism which lets runners through if they produce a key. Beyond this door lies the murderous Box, who has been picking off all runners as a jolly hobby.
But this underground organization is substantial, making and distributing keys (in the form of ankhs), and well enough organized and serious enough about their business to attempt murdering Logan when they realize he’s pursuing them. In their own way they’re as cold-blooded as the computer.
The film establishes that Logan, despite being a sandman, does not know about sanctuary and these ankh keys until the Computer spells it out for him. Yet this knowledge must be out among the citizens who, like Christians in ancient Rome, are skeptical of the conventional religion. Jessica even wears an ankh (“a symbol of life,” as the Computer puts it) around her neck, as a Christian would wear a cross (figure 5).
In his adventures outside the city Logan combines what he had learned in his encounter with Box with the fact that the Old Man he meets in Washington, D.C., has never seen another person and concludes that there is no sanctuary, at least as the citizens of the City and the Computer believe in it. The film makes it clear that we are to trust his judgment in this. When he returns to the city he is “surrogated” (interrogated) by the computer, a process that the Computer, at any rate, thinks to be infallible. As the computer inexorably forces out of Logan an account of what he as seen (which can be summed up by the famous holographic image of Michael York slowly saying “there … is … no … sanctuary!”). The Computer, presented with information that does not conform with established facts, promptly crashes. Put another way, the computer believes in sanctuary as much as the underground movement does, and “can’t handle the truth,” as the saying goes.
Yet why shouldn’t the Computer calmly accept Logan’s perfectly logical accounting for the missing runners? Sanctuary turns out not to exist; the missing runners escaped the interior of the City but all were killed by Box. Evidently the computer was programmed to believe that there was a sanctuary (in the way 1970’s cinematic computers could be programmed to ‘believe’ things), and it was invested so deeply in this religious idea that it died before it would give it up. The Computer’s situation seems to me analogous to Bill Pullman and Sigourney Weaver in The Village somehow not knowing that the ‘monsters’ outside are a contrivance to keep the younger generation in place.
I think we must infer that the Logan’s Run filmmakers wanted us to conclude that sanctuary was a belief system added by the creators of the city centuries before. They somehow propagated the idea of a sanctuary among the citizens and built a system for runners to follow with ankh keys. This served as a pressure escape valve, keeping real revolutionary movements against carrousel from evolving. To them, sanctuary must have meant merely escape into the wilds outside the city. And so, the religion of sanctuary turns out to be yet another, if more sophisticated, opiate designed into the system by the creators of the City, to keep those who saw through Carrousel from getting revolutionary ideas. I see an analogy in the Matrix, where the Architect programmed an escape from the Matrix to Zion to relieve pressure in the system.
To my mind, the double refusal of Logan’s Run to affirm religion is vintage 70s. To be sure, it gestures favorably toward traditional ideas, as when Jessica suggests that human mothering might be better than high-tech in vitro rearing, or when Logan and Jessica discover lifetime pair bonding. The City is presented as a dystopia (though most of the people in it seem pretty happy, at least right up to the end), to be sure, and this dystopia was created as a result of overpopulation, war, and ecological collapse. Still, those are circumstantial, not what the movie focuses on. It’s hard to put one’s finger on a big lesson, and this is, as I mentioned at the outset, the film’s biggest failing: not doing justice to the ideas it raises. But three things I take away from the film are: 1) religion is manipulative and makes false claims; 2) our society’s technological excesses are making such a hell of the world that only a worse hell of our own making will save us; and 3) love is better than lust. Oh yes, and there . . . is . . . no . . . sannct . . uuu . . arryyyyyyyyy!
The stills and publicity photos from the film that I’ve grabbed from around the interwebs are not my intellectual property but rather that of MGM Pictures. I rely on a fair use justification for their use in this critical discussion.