Director: Michael Crichton
Writer: Michael Crichton
Release Date: December 14, 1984
In 1984, Tom Selleck was a bankable talent. Magnum P.I. was 4 years into an 8-year run that saw solid fan support all the way to series end. Lassiter, a middling remake of To Catch a Thief (1955) did pretty well at the box office. The humiliations of Three Men and a Baby (1987) were still in the future. Heck, Selleck had already turned down the role of Indiana Jones – clearly this icon of 80s masculinity had hitched his mustache to a star.
Michael Crichton had a stack of bestselling novels and successful screen writing credits for classics like The Andromeda Strain (1971), Westworld (1973), and Coma (1978). His intelligent, high-tech thriller Looker (1981), a movie he wrote and directed, has been unfairly forgotten, but he was poised to offer more of the hard-science stories that audiences were learning to appreciate.
1984 should have been a good year for both of them, and Runaway should have been a good movie. But instead we have a performance barely phoned-in by the generally wry and affable Selleck, and a plot from the normally reliable Crichton that is as thin on the science as it is on the thrills.
In the “Near Future,” Selleck plays Sergeant Jack Ramsey, an essentially washed-up widower cop who has been relegated to the “runaway” division of the police force, where his job is to deal with robots that have run amok. Apparently in the Near Future this is a common enough occurrence to justify allocating staff to the problem, but not so dangerous that they need SWAT-grade weapons and training. Most of the robots in question are light industrial or domestic – think ambulatory toaster doing laps around the living room, scuffing the carpet – so Ramsey is little more than an animal control officer with a few electronics night classes under his belt.
Oh, and he’s afraid of heights. This is revealed in the first 10 minutes with all the subtlety of TC landing his chopper on your house. Crichton may as well have yelled Foreshadowing! from off camera.
His new partner, love interest Officer Karen Thompson (played by Cynthea Rhodes, and she’s totally game but doesn’t get much to work with), arrives just in time for a new twist on Ramsey’s old job: robots trying to run away – with murder!
From the beginning, this movie shoots itself in the foot. The robots look like file cabinets on casters with a single, stumpy arm – definitely not scary. They move slowly, and the ones that can talk are inordinately stupid. At one point Ramsey throws his jacket over a “Sentry” robot and then beats it to death with a chair, which I don’t remember happening to Ahnold in The Terminator – a movie that came out 2 months before Runaway, absolutely smoked it at the box office, and went on to become one of our reining dystopic archetypes.
Of course the robots aren’t malevolent in themselves, they’ve been modified by evil genius Dr. Charles Luther, played by – that’s right! – Gene Simmons, the front man of KISS! He spends the movie glowering appropriately, but his motivations are blandly economical: he hopes to sell heat-seeking bullets and robot murder chips to The Mob.
The plot boils down to your basic police procedural. Ramsey’s Chief of Police is the same trite, screaming idiot you expect. Because the people demand it, we see some boobs in a hotel room. The Sushi robot has an embarrassing Asian accent. In a movie set in the “Near Future,” I was surprised to see Kirstie Alley (Luther’s girlfriend, Jackie Rogers) get it in the back of the neck with a plain old knife.
Ramsey and Thompson suffer through a highway chase involving explosive RC cars. Luther kidnaps Ramsey’s kid – Joey Cramer after maybe a few too many Quaaludes – and Ramsey has to get him back in a climactic scene that, you guessed it, takes place at the top of a construction site way up in the air. Justice is done to Luther by his own maniacal, acid-injecting, robot spiders. Ramsey and Thompson kiss, in spite of what I would phrase a lack of electricity.
What you don’t have is a convincing robot culture. Say what you want about Star Wars (1977), but at least it takes the time to depict a society into which robots had been firmly integrated as a laboring caste. Even A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), a movie I despised, attempts to ask itself what the consequences might be when we bring robots into our homes and make them a part of our families. Finally, movies like The Terminator and The Matrix (1999) posit futures where, by asking machines to think for us, we become their slaves. All of these films share a common theme: how will humanity cope with the eventual manifestation of agency in its own creations? The question is as old as Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Crichton never asks this question, because he refuses to depict actual synthetic intelligence. Perhaps a man who could write this many Intel 8088 inside jokes into his script had a handle on just how difficult it is to model consciousness, and that future threats presented by technology will always originate with the man behind the curtain. There has to be a Luther, because no microwave oven has the capacity, the reason, to kill anybody. Now that we live in the near future, we see it’s a lot like the past. No predator drone is going to go AWOL and bomb your house – it just isn’t possible.
The most conspicuous thing about this movie may be the absence of the Internet, of software of any kind. The fluid availability of all information, everywhere, is more daunting than any of the robots in Runaway. And some Eastern European gangster has already made your home computer part of a botnet that he’s using to take over the world.
 She was actually nominated for a Saturn Award for this part – best supporting actress.
 Kids, you really have to read “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison.