Film Torments: Runaway (1984)


CONTINUING the mediocrity of November as a whole, Dan takes a look at a futuristic 80s police procedural thriller that’s got Gene Simmons in it. Oh yes. It’s Michael Crichton’s largely-forgotten Runaway.

One look at Runaway‘s poster will tell you everything you need to know. Tom Selleck’s inimitable moustache, oozing suave charm, astride a cumbersome space-gun, wearing chainmail and elbow pads, flanked by Staying Alive alumnus Cynthia Rhodes. “It is the future,” the writing bleeds, but it is also, undeniably, the 80s. Though concerned entirely with bleeding-edge future technology and human-robot ethics, Runaway betrays its contemporary, bouffant genetics from the very first frame.

It also quickly reveals its immediate influences. Runaway is as indebted to sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner as it is to cop shows like Hill Street Blues and, of course, Magnum, P.I.. While Blade Runner chose to cast a new light (or a new shadow, as it were) on noir, deftly combining old and new genre conventions, Runaway is a lumbering police procedural that looks, sounds and feels exactly of its time, its synth-laden score hammering home the point.

Set in a near-future (that looks suspiciously like 1984) where domestic robots are commonplace, the film follows Jack Ramsay (Selleck), a loose-cannon sergeant tasked with deactivating malfunctioning ‘runaways’ as part of a specialised police unit. Vaguely guilt-ridden by a bout of vertigo that allowed a mass-murderer to escape his grasp, Ramsay is given a new partner in the form of Karen Thompson (Rhodes). Together, the two must unravel the obvious mystery behind a spate of robot-related murders, the first of their kind.

It's definitely not Gene Simmons.

It’s definitely not Gene Simmons.

One of the first things we notice about Runaway is how lifeless it looks. Not necessarily in the sleek, white-lights futurist sense – or even in a thematic sense in keeping with its mechanical subjects – but more in the flatness of its camera angles, the poorly-lit interiors and the hysterical lack of chemistry between its actors.

There’s none of the imagination present in contemporary sci-fi like the aforementioned Blade Runner or The Terminator or even 2010, with none of the visionary ambition that governed either. Doubtless intended as a cautionary tale on robotics in Crichton’s technophobic style (see: Jurassic Park), the film acts more as a sedative, hilariously combusting into life whenever its titular robots waddle, crackle and fall into frame.

These things are, quite frankly, adorable; I wouldn’t be surprised if the designers behind WALL-E snatched a few glances at Runaway‘s brood (between bong hits) and took some notes. The sparking farmbot in the opening 10 minutes is a personal favourite, his tiny little claw arms rendering a chase scene in a wheatfield hilarious when it should be, reasonably, tense.

Look at him! He's adorable!

Look at him! He’s adorable!

It’s impossible for these little ‘bots to inspire fear, which is only amplified when Jerry Goldsmith’s limp synths attempt to ratchet up the tension. Gene Simmons’ ridiculous, acid-injecting spider-bots, awkwardly scuttling about on walls and elevators, are also a joy, particularly when they corner our heroes in the climax and start mechanically squeaking. The audience will end up falling in love with them more than the humans, and Crichton’s direction seems to, weirdly, emphasise this too, focusing more on the gadgets themselves than the mystery surrounding them.

Since the condescending romance between the widower Ramsay and the so-hot-for-him Thompson is a non-starter – especially when Ramsay loudly exclaims how sexy another woman is – the only thing we have left to care for is Simmons’ lopsided grin and, well, the ‘runaways’. Simmons is a terrible actor, no question, but he can snarl with the best of them, and his ham-fisted delivery of lines like, “Drop it, sucker!” is worth any price of admission.

Selleck is a fine actor and here, at the height of his fame, he is on similarly fine form, somehow managing to find stable ground in a cliche-ridden character. Rhodes has less luck, primarily existing to bat her eyelashes at Selleck and to look jealous when he isn’t returning her stare, but she tries her best. There’s a thankless role for Stan Shaw as Ramsay’s disgruntled office buddy, but G.W. Bailey barnstorms his part as the Chief of Police. Perpetually screaming, a stick shoved far up his arse, the Chief is a caricature of every Chief character since forever, and Bailey is having a blast with it. He even hires a psychic to track down the robots, in an actual scene in the movie.

I'd still be more convinced by Tom Selleck as Dr. Christmas Jones, to be fair.

I’d still be more convinced by Tom Selleck as Dr. Christmas Jones, to be fair.

Crichton’s leerier side was exposed in the screenplay for Disclosure, and here his fixation on the female characters is similarly unsettling, particularly when poor Kirstie Alley is forced to strip to her underwear for the purpose of “disabling bugs”, a scene made more awkward by the camera’s slow, leering pans on her body.

The script dribbles with fantastic corncobs like, “Dammit, Ramsay, you’re off the case,” and almost every word said by Ramsay’s golly-gee 1950s son saying things like, “Gee, Dad, when can we see that there Karen again?” Accompanied by Rosie the Robot knock-off Lois (the voice of Marilyn Schreffler), this little dweeb is almost as insufferable as your average Jake Lloyd, but let’s not go too far.

But, really, if it seems like I’m running down a checklist for this Torment, it’s because Runaway is about as dryly rote and mechanical as any other cliched police procedural could hope to be. It’s a largely forgotten footnote in the career of an esteemed writer (and not so esteemed director) that can only suckle from the creative teat of superior forebears, capable only of adding superficial whizzes and bangs to a beaten-down formula. It does, however, provide plenty of laughs for those in need of snark, its dated aesthetic and hammy performances offering plenty of entertainment for what it is: 80s cheese at its most pristine.

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