As I walk along I wonder, what went wrong with this film.
Runaway is a near future thriller that supposes robotic devices are more prevalent in society and also more prone to mysterious breakdowns. Its idea of where the film could go is unfortunately better than its execution.
In a near future society, Tom Selleck plays a cop that tracks down malfunctioning robots called Runaways. Unfortunately it looks like someone is using them as murderbots. There is much robot action in the trailer, as well as a guided-missile like bullet. Also starring Kirstie Alley, Cynthia Rhodes and Gene Simmons (from the band Kiss). I wonder who the bad guy might turn out to be?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
At some point in the near future when robots are a commonplace sight at work and at home, the police have created a squad of officers (the Runaway Squad) to deal specifically with rogue robots, also known as “runaways.” Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is called out for one such job, just as his new partner, Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) is brought on board. They deal with a glitched 7799 agricultural robot at a nearby farm. On the helicopter ride over, Thompson learns that Ramsay is afraid of heights, learning later that it was the reason he quit the regular police force.
The pair next respond to a model 912 domestic robot that has killed at least two people and is holding a baby hostage in a house. Ramsay sends in a floater camera but it is shot down by the robot. He manages to stop the robot and save the baby, but David Johnson (Chris Mulkey), the father, runs off claiming “he’s crazy!” Ramsay and Thompson return to Jack’s apartment where Karen meets “Lois,” a Series 12 domestic robot that helps around the house and takes care of Bobby (Joey Cramer), Jack’s ten year-old son.
While examining the 912 robot, Sgt Marvin James (Stan Shaw) discovers a non-standard chip on the board with a red stripe. But before they can fully investigate the chip explodes, torching all evidence. This leads Ramsay back to the scene to review the house video feed where he sees a strange man claiming to be from Acme Robot Repair. This man is Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons), who was also lurking at the previous night’s hostage situation. He has had Johnson and Harry (Paul Batten) build the chips, which turn ordinary robots into killing machines, in order to sell to anyone that will pay him the most, including terrorists and the mafia.
Luther is eliminating everyone involved in the project and kills Harry with an acid spitting spider robot, and Johnson with a heat seeking smart bullet–which is more like a small explosive missile. These deaths lead Ramsay and Thompson to Vectrocon to investigate where they soon find Jackie Rogers (Kirstie Alley) being attacked by a 577 office robot. She is Luther’s girlfriend (who Ramsay overtly thinks is very cute) and is smuggling a bag of red-striped chips out of the vault as well as the photo templates to make more. She leads them to a sale Luther is conducting. He escapes, but kills several cops and injures Thompson.
Luther has placed several trackers in Jackie’s clothes that he uses to find her at the police station. Ramsay uses her as bait to draw Luther out as they transfer her. A meeting is set up to trade the photo templates of the chip for Ramsay’s partner, who managed to get caught while on the stakeout. The trade happens and Luther kills Jackie, but she only provided part of the templates. Bitter, Luther escapes and takes Jack’s son hostage.When Jack finds his son missing he takes off without telling Thompson where the meeting is taking place. She manages to get a piece of the message from a nearly destroyed Lois.
Luther is holding Bobby on the 40th floor of an under construction high rise. Jack must confront his fears and take the long elevator ride up to save Bobby. Along the way he fights off several spider robots that injure him. Karen shows up to protect Bobby while Jack and Luther fight on the construction elevator. Luther falls off and is killed by his own spider robots. Jack finally sees Karen as more than a partner (which is what she has wanted) and the two kiss under the sparks that the construction robots throw off.
“It can turn any domestic computer into a killing machine.” – Sgt. Marvin James
History in the Making
Runaway was an early staple of the HBO cable channel, being run often. I remember watching this a number of times as a teenager thinking about the cool robotic devices in the film. It was a relatively low budget sci-fi action film which contained several actors that may have been a draw to different demographics, and directed by the thriller writer Michael Crichton. Unfortunately even with all these elements, the film just does not hold up, at least from a character perspective. The real stars of the film are the robots and the technology, as those are all lovingly shown and described. The actors do not get the same treatment. Their characters are all two-dimensional, cliched, meat bags that seem a secondary concern to the film. The villain is moustache-twirling evil, the police captain is an aggressively loud character, always telling Ramsay how he screwed up, and the two women are both potential love interests, with Jackie providing a little more titillation (excuse the pun).
Runaway marked the second to last film directed by Crichton, and his final directed sci-fi film after Westworld, Coma, and Looker. And like Looker, this film tends to focus more on advanced technology, which ended up being quite prescient. This of course was not the last foray into sci-fi for Crichton, as he would write a number of other screenplays based on his work for future films, such as Jurassic Park, Sphere and Timeline. Based on the previous Crichton-directed films viewed for Sci-Fi Saturdays it seems as if Crichton is more concerned with the technical elements of the films instead of the people. This is not always true of his written work, or for films directed by others. Jurassic Park definitely focuses more on the characters and their situation while still allowing ample time for the exploration of the science behind bringing dinosaurs back to life. This is probably attributed more to Steven Spielberg’s directing rather than Crichton’s writing. It’s kind of a shame, since the near-future aspect of the film is not something that could be replicated again, and the cast is an interesting mix of personalities.
The film obviously capitalizes on Tom Selleck as its star. Filmed during the 1984 hiatus of his popular Magnum PI television show, Selleck may have been the number one reason many people went to see this film. Having appeared in a handful of films, this was his third starring film role after his TV career took off–following the period pieces High Road to China and Lassiter. Unfortunately films from the 80s that star television stars seem to have been made differently, not putting the same budget and care into them as were done for traditional film stars. The film also featured the debut of Gene Simmons as the bad guy. This was his first role outside of his Kiss makeup (Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park) and he plays evil very well. Unfortunately there is absolutely no depth to the character. He is only evil to be evil and fulfill the antagonist role. Ramsay says that “he likes to kill people,” which is all the explanation the audience gets. The female lead is a first time acting role for Cynthia Rhodes who had appeared in Flashdance and Staying Alive as a dancer, and would get a larger featured part in the summer hit 1987 Dirty Dancing. Kirstie Alley was also a more known actress having appeared in the popular Star Trek II, and forgettable horror/sci-fi film Blind Date. She was also starting her television career at this time with the series Masquerade, a Mission: Impossible style show.
To a viewer in 2021, Runaway may not seem like much of a sci-fi film, but to 1984 audiences, the film had a lot of technology that didn’t exist, except in science fiction. The robots are the most obvious aspect of the futuristic technology in the film. As with Westworld and Looker, and even a film like Brainstorm, Runaway presents a near-future world that is not as fantastic as other sci-fi films, but contains lots of little technological tweaks to make the film feel sci-fi enough. Killer robots were nothing new to film, having appeared in Crichton’s own Westworld, and dating back decades to Forbidden Planet or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The biggest difference is that Runaway imagines robots as a pervasive element, like an oven or a typewriter would have been at the time. Everybody had one, so what would happen if they started going haywire? Other than that, there’s not a lot that sets this film apart from a police procedural or minor action film of the time. Much like The Terminator, it seems to take place in our reality with some very minor adjustments.
As stated above, Runaway eschews characterization for caricature, and as such removes nearly every element of commentary about the human condition. It ham-fistedly explains Ramsay’s fear of heights at the beginning of the film in a super obvious piece of foreshadowing, even going so far as to have the story be that the incident that led to his fear was an under construction building–just as with the finale. But being an older officer who was basically forced to join the Runaway Squad after his incident, Ramsay seems to have a basic mistrust of technology. His wife died at some point prior to the film, but it seems like there might be more to that story. Even though Ramsay has a robot, Lois, in his life who seems to fulfill the domestic role of partner and mother, he has a contemptuous relation with it, often arguing about silly things. Imagine berating Alexa for the way she did or didn’t turn on your lights?
Maybe a robot was responsible for his wife’s death. Ramsay gives a brief soliloquy to Karen, that “relationships don’t work right, People don’t work right. People make machines, so why should machines be perfect?” It’s a rather thoughtful commentary of the desire to automate so much of our lives, forgetting that a number of the same human foibles and biases might be built into the devices we covet to make life easier. This distrust is further evidenced when Jack refuses to let a robot remove the unexploded shell in Karen’s arm. He’s afraid that his partner will get killed by the robot just doing its job. So in a scene that feels like the “bomb under the toilet” scene from the 1989 action film Lethal Weapon 2, Jack sits with her and removes the deadly explosive himself.
The film also seems to be making a subtle and brief commentary on television journalism of the time. It’s not as overt as sci-fi filmmakers would do in Robocop or Starship Troopers, but still provides a contempt for the intrusiveness of the reporter. Reporter Miss Shields is seen during several scenes constantly sticking her microphone under Ramsay’s nose and asking for detailed information about the crime scene, often threatening the safety of others. Ramsay reminds her that she doesn’t want to have “a carved-up baby on your network,” which she brilliantly turns back to the camera and confirms that a baby is alive in the house. She then sends cameraman John into the house after Ramsay (somehow he was allowed past the numerous other officers) to get “exclusive” shots of the hostage rescue. Unsurprisingly the cameraman puts himself in the way of the murderbot and is killed. The next time Miss Shields shows up she’s got a new camera operator raring to go. The lack of respect for the officers and human life is on rare display in the film.
The Science in The Fiction
The biggest and most interesting aspect about Runaway is that, like many Crichton properties, they seem to accurately depict many future technologies prior to their actual existence. When watching the film in a modern context, not too much seems out of sorts. The robots used may be a little beyond what is presently happening, like office robots or construction bots, but many other aspects may not even be noticed by modern audiences. As an example, the film predicts the use of in-home assistants, like robotic vacuums and integrated home control units, wireless police headsets, home monitoring equipment (with video messaging), tablet PCs, cell phones and biometric security with the retinal identification shown here. In 1984 these elements were mostly sci-fi things that people could only dream of. Today many of the items are necessities that are used on a daily basis.
The robots, from agricultural bots (which look a little bit like Wall-E), home nanny bots, office workers, and construction workers, all are still a bit more fictitious than real, though aspects of each of these are realistic. The film does have a few items that are more in-use such as the floater camera used to monitor the crime scenes and the “lock-on” robot that acts as a remote controlled bomb. Both these items have analogous devices in the modern world such as drones. Police and civilians both have access to autonomous and near autonomous drone vehicles that can be equipped with cameras for quick and easy surveillance of areas that are inaccessible due to terrain or other dangers. The lock-on is more like a military drone vehicle, if it were contained within the housing of an RC car. This, along with the spider robots, are more pure fantasy than the other elements of the film.
The Final Frontier
Runaway is definitely a product of its time, for good or for ill. The film provides an interesting view of the future that is not too fantastical, peopled with characters that could have been fleshed out better. It does show that the changing world of sci-fi in the 80s was open to integrating tales of future technology with various other film types to create a variety of tales designed to appeal to new audiences. And while the film is not the memorable giant that The Terminator or Back to the Future may be, there’s still a lot to be gleaned about the era from its viewing.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.