Ever since Star Trek first arrived on our screens, it's been almost fashionable to dismiss science fiction as little more than enjoyable pantomime hogwash. Whatever interesting ideas the series tried to raise, more often than not the ideas would take a back seat to silly fighting, hammy acting and increasingly bizarre costumes. Coming a year before Star Wars rewrote the sci-fi rulebook, Logan's Run is a kindred spirit to the original Star Trek: campy, silly and utterly escapist, yet still passingly entertaining.
One of the initial disappointments of Logan's Run is how little of the original novel survives in the screenplay. The novel, written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, used the counter-culture and youth movements of the mid-1960s as a platform for a story about eugenics and social engineering, predicting a society where the power of youth was so great that ageing beyond 21 was forbidden. But in the screenplay for Logan's Run, written by Straw Dogs scribe David Zelag Goodman, this fascinating premise is compressed into an old-fashioned action-adventure story, with most of the political undercurrents being taken out.
Logan's Run still has an interesting premise in spite of this - people can only live to 30 before they are elaborately executed - but in both its execution and its place within the sci-fi canon, it is much more old-fashioned than its source material. The film is directed by Michael Anderson, who had reached his peak in the 1950s with The Dambusters and the Oscar-winning Around the World in Eighty Days. He approaches Logan's Run in the same way as his classic work: as a star vehicle with a lot of locations and fun-packed action, and not much room for the darker, more political aspects of science fiction.
Logan's Run contains many references to other sci-fi works, some classic, some contemporary. The idea of a totalitarian society in which people live only for pleasure can be traced back to Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's extraordinary novel which predicted (amongst other things) anti-depressants, test tube babies, and interactive media with the 'feelies', where you could see, hear and touch what was happening on screen. The Carrousel scenes are like more elaborate versions of the funeral from Soylent Green, while the general camp tone nods towards Planet of the Apes and its sequels.
In light of Anderson's track record, the film to which Logan's Run most closely aspires is The Time Machine, directed by The War of the Worlds producer George Pal. The whole of Logan's Run is comparable to the final act of The Time Machine, in which a docile, hedonistic and ignorant society are held captive by evil forces - respectively morlocks and time itself. But in its overly frequent use of model shots and strange collection of weapons, Logan's Run is much less George Pal than Gerry Anderson. The wide shots of the domed city are closely reminiscent of Thunderbirds or Stingray, while the costumes are akin to Anderson's contemporary venture, Space: 1999.
Logan's Run is clearly a product of its time, particularly where sets and costumes are concerned. While the men get to wear full-length uniforms or jumpsuits, the women are paraded around in a series of dresses and skirts which leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. When we first meet Jenny Agutter, she doesn't appear to be wearing any underwear - something which is confirmed on no less than two separate occasions. Despite having a budget of $9m (around the same as Star Wars), the film looks like it was made on the cheap and in a hurry. Whole sections of the domed city look like the inside of a shopping mall (which it is), with seemingly little time being spent on set-dressing.
For most of its running time, Logan's Run is a very silly film. We quickly forget that Logan 5 is infiltrating the runners with the intention of finding and destroying Sanctuary - we forget, in other words, that he is a government puppet whose lifeclock has been artificially accelerated. After Logan initially defeats Francis, the plot descends into a series of set-pieces in increasingly elaborate sets until Peter Ustinov turns up to help us get a grip.
The tone of these set-pieces is generally light-hearted, with our heroes surviving seemingly implausible scenarios while managing to maintain their perfect hair and make-up. But in the midst of this frivolity there are little pockets of creepiness, such as their encounter with Box. He trundles into shot like a bargain basement Dalek and starts spouting off about plankton and sea greens, all of which seems completely harmless. But then he leads Logan and Jessica to a corridor of runners frozen in ice: Box implies that they are now being used for food, pulls out two guns and laughs wickedly. While still silly at heart, it's as though we had accidentally wandered into Soylent Green.
The silly, campy tone of Logan's Run is consolidated by the acting. Michael York manages to keep his dignity for the most part: his unique voice gives him an air of authority while keeping his more sensitive moments believable. Jenny Agutter makes the very best of a duff role: she spends a lot of her opening scenes wandering around open-mouthed in next to nothing, but she eventually gets into her stride. But aside from the leads the acting is very wooden, and while no-one comes close to the 'quality' of Charlton Heston or William Shatner, it's difficult not to snigger at how straight-laced everything is. The film lacks the knowing deftness of Flash Gordon, with only a small fraction of the cast being in on the joke.
But in spite of its copious flaws, Logan's Run eventually emerges as a passingly enjoyable slice of science fiction. The irony is that once we have given up trying to take it seriously, the film begins to get off the ground and say the things that it really wants to say. The later sections of the film, while still a little ridiculous, make up for the loose, baggy opening act and do raise a couple of interesting issues around the central theme.
A big part of this transition is down to Peter Ustinov. Gene Siskel, who once called this the worst film he'd ever seen, wrote that Ustinov's cameo was unduly extended because he was the only decent thing in the whole film. While few would share Siskel's view, his performance is by far and away the best, and his character is the most interesting. He plays a seemingly senile old man who is found by Logan and Jessica wandering around the ruined House of Representatives. The film never states exactly why he is still alive; perhaps, like J. F. Sebastian in Blade Runner, he was too old to leave the old ways behind.
Like Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov has immense screen presence. He is able to take the most ridiculous or stupid line, and deliver it in such a way that it gains great weight or feels deeply important. He might be rambling on about cats having three different names, but his mannerisms feel more developed than the other characters, and his dithering manner works as a means of reaction to Logan and Jessica, who have no concept of age or decay.
In its later sections, Logan's Run also takes on a Biblical quality, with undertones emerging in the attitude and development of the characters. Logan and Jessica's escape from the domed city is akin to the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden - although, in line with the conspiracy element of the film, Eden is too good to be true in the first place. The ending of the film is also rooted in the Old Testament, with Ustinov emerging like a nervous Moses, ready (unexpectedly) to lead his people out of Egypt.
The film is also prophetic in predicting the increased social role for cosmetic surgery. In an age where breast implants, tummy tucks and facelifts have become both cheap and fashionable, it isn't too far-fetched to believe that, in the near-future, you could change your entire appearance through just a few quick flicks of a laser. The fight between Logan and the doctor (played by Michael Anderson Jr.) is one of the better action scenes, taking the laser sequence in Goldfinger to its natural conclusion.
There is much about Logan's Run which would be good cause to dismiss it. Its production values have dated badly, the ideas are compromised by a generic adventure story, and both its plot and execution are preposterous. But it just about manages to pass muster in the end, being consistently entertaining and getting a grip on things in the final act. It succeeds where so many of the Star Trek movies failed, and while it never reaches the heights of Flash Gordon, it passes the time rather nicely.