In the wave of science-fiction that came just before Star Wars, the future was frightening. Films like Planet of the Apes, A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and 2001: A Space Odyssey imagined bleak realities of total authoritarianism or utter barbarism.
In the future, there were either way too many rules or none of it.
Star Wars, albeit a medieval fantasy (set “a long time ago,” even), also followed suit in its story of a hippie rebellion against fascist dominance. But with cool things like lightsabers and whirring TIE fighters everywhere, it was hard not to want to live inside George Lucas’ textured environments.
But before Star Wars, there was another science-fiction film with a far smaller legacy that also depicted a rotten-yet-appealing future. In a twist to the usual tropes that the old maintain a vise grip over the young, this film instead mused on the values of time, wisdom, and experience. It is also eerily prescient, even if none of its “predictions” about the future actually came true.
Logan’s Run, directed by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), is the movie you need to stream before it leaves HBO Max on August 31. Here’s why, and what you should know before you start watching.
Adapted from the 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan’s Run envisions a future — 2274 — where the remnants of humanity live and work inside a hermetically sealed city and life ends at the age of 30 (21 in the book). In the aftermath of some great catastrophe, humanity retreated inside a cluster of domes and surrendered to a powerful artificial intelligence. After hundreds of years, civilization has re-stabilized and people now live a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking existence where youth is prized above all.
On a person’s “Last Day,” they participate in an elaborate death ceremony, called “Carrousel,” which they believe begins their reincarnation. Existing between a circus and the Super Bowl, Carrousel ceremonies are watched in awe as people explode to their deaths hundreds of feet in the air — to cheers, yelps, and wonder from those watching below.
Law and order isn’t achieved without boots on the ground. Thus, a police force known as “Sandmen” (and the singular, “Sandman”) is assigned to hunt and terminate “Runners” — people who attempt to abandon their pre-determined deaths in the Carrousel.
One Sandman, Logan 5 (Michael York, best known to modern audiences for his roles in the Austin Powers films) kills a Runner and discovers a strange object in their possessions, an ankh necklace. He is later informed by his A.I. overlords the ankh represents a secret rebel group that leads Runners to “Sanctuary” — a place outside the city where people live freely past 30.
Logan 5 is assigned to go undercover as a “Runner” (his allotted life span is forcibly sped up) and return with intel. Teaming up with a beautiful woman, Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), who has the same necklace, Logan navigates the city’s underbelly and escapes to the outside world where he learns the truth about Sanctuary.
Despite a non-sensical plot that loses direction fast and a gleefully platitudinous production design that evokes covers of dog-eared paperbacks, Logan’s Run is still a sight to behold. And its prescient ideas of a technologically-dependent future are almost enough to make your eyes widen.
To be clear: Nothing in its imagined future actually stands the test of time. The filmmakers of Logan’s Run were certain aerobics would survive past the century, and its depiction of efficient public transportation is still (unfortunately) a faraway dream. But what the movie gets “right” or “wrong” isn’t the point. Logan’s Run film is keenly aware of the pitfalls of youth culture, from an obsession with image (witness a salon where a person’s face can be changed with the ease of a haircut) to a partner-seeking machine that functions a lot like Tinder.
In a society where youth is fetishized and a premium is placed on pleasure for pleasure’s sake, it’s no wonder life in Logan’s Run looks aimlessly busy. It’s a bit like a vision of the future where the only thing to do is go to the mall.
Most of the movie was actually filmed inside the Dallas Market Center, a real mall in Texas that was spruced up with chrome and aluminum by director Dale Hennesy. While the location was likely chosen to save money on building entire sets, it lends to an interesting thematic idea: Logan’s Run can be read as anti-consumerism, a critique of the fleeting and disposable nature of youth culture. When Logan and Jessica appear before an iconic American monument, they’re in awe not just of its size but what the monument is meant to stand for.
Chillingly, there can be an element of “Old Man Yells At Cloud” in decoding Logan’s Run. Taking into account the movie’s arrival in 1976, when the unpopular Vietnam War came to a disgraceful end and Baby Boomers had become ripe to enter the world as young adults, Logan’s Run and its rejection of technology, youth culture, and the future in general, feels regressive.
As Dan Persons argues on Tor, Logan’s Run was a Johnny-come-lately to the ‘70s sci-fi party, with derivative ideas that didn’t really click in the way its contemporaries encapsulated timely anxieties. “Cynicism, fatalism, and an overall mistrust of entrenched power were the orders of the day,” Persons wrote in a March 2021 essay, “That attitude seeped irrevocably into popular media, and while science fiction had already begun to veer away from tales of bug-eyed monsters and slinky, alien seductresses prior to 1968 ... [That’s how] science fiction became the conduit by which cultural tensions and controversies could be spotlighted and discussed.”
Persons further argues that Logan’s Run was the last hurrah for this kind of science-fiction, as Star Wars marked a seismic shift away from septic synthesizer music and clean designs, favoring sweeping orchestras (evocative of World War II serial fanfare) and dirty space ships with sand, dust, and grime everywhere. Funny enough, it was Star Wars that got young people into science-fiction more than Logan’s Run, a movie so obsessed with them.
The final image of Logan’s Run involves young people surrounding an aged survivor, touching his wrinkled face and grayed beard in confused awe. Watching the movie today, and possibly with fresh eyes, we’ll do the same to Logan’s Run itself.
Logan’s Run is streaming now on HBO Max until August 31.