If you watched “Runaway” as a kid, chances are you remember the spiders, and only the spiders. If you, quite rightly, remembered them as a terrible special effect then you might consider watching this again as a bit of a laugh, a cheesy tale of the near future with that bloke out of Kiss in it. But from the start – “written and directed by Michael Crichton” – onwards, there’s a lot here that you don’t remember and quality you weren’t expecting. If you’ve never seen this before…why the hell not? It’s thirty years old, you lazy hypothetical!
Tom Selleck was right in the middle of his run on “Magnum PI” when he made this, at the very height of his fame (although “Three Men And A Baby”, a few years later, maybe made him even bigger). He’s Sergeant Jack Ramsay, whose crippling acrophobia, resulting in the death of a family he was trying to protect, has left normal police work slightly problematic. He discovers a fascination with computers, and as he says, kept studying and picking up pieces of information until one day he just knew more than anyone else. So he’s in charge of the “Runaway Squad”, a small group of cops who handle all the robot-stuff; as new girl Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) joins the squad, the first robotic murder ever happens. The two aren’t related, which I don’t think is really a spoiler.
It’s all to do with a genius robotics guy called Dr. Charles Luther, played by Gene Simmons in his first screen role. His audition was to look at Michael Crichton for 1 minute without making any facial expressions, and he looked menacing enough to get the part. He does a heck of a job of being a villain, too – I thought he was going to try and play it cool and then gradually ramp up the crazy but he starts crazy and only gets better. Anyway, he wants some chips to sell to international terrorists, or whoever, plus he’s got heatseeking bullets that can be keyed to an individual’s unique heat signature and is a great hacker.
Selleck’s calm demeanour got some bad reviews at the time, but he predates characters like Fox Mulder and it doesn’t seem strange at all now. He’s one of the most dependable guys in Hollywood, and is sensible enough to keep his eye in with a big TV series every decade or so. Less can be said for gangster’s moll Kirstie Alley, who screeches all her dialogue as if she’s got no idea of how to play the part – it’s sort of a relief when she gets stabbed.
On the surface, it’s a fun, tense thriller. Luther is always a step ahead, but Ramsay manages to stay in touch thanks to his brains, which is a nice change; although the partners falling for each other thing is very standard. What’s interesting, though, is what’s hinted at or used as subtext. Robots are replacing workers all over, even if they’re thoroughly prone to breaking down. Where are the world’s poor people (and you know there’d be a lot of them, with fewer and fewer jobs)? Crichton said “It’s a nice looking future, no neo-Nazis, no Big Brother, no hideosity, no grime” so perhaps the birth rate dropped and there’s no poor people any more. As well as the unemployed, the fate of women also seems pretty positive. Domestic robots have taken on most of the roles that traditionally would be seen as “women’s work” and we see women as building site foremen and high up in the police force and so on. Perhaps it was just gender-blind casting, but it’s a positive thing.
What I really like is how, by not paying tons of attention to the inner workings of the various robots we see, the world they’re in feels real and lived-in. It is, of course, the future filtered through the eyes of the 1980s, but you shouldn’t really expect any more – how many genuinely out-of-time “near future” movies have there been? There’s no “smart person explains everything to dumb person” scenes, either…I think my friends and I all expected to have a laugh and, despite a few weird fashions, it’s a surprisingly clever movie.
Come for the awful robots, stay for the plot. It’s not going to make anyone forget “Blade Runner”, but it’s decent nontheless.
Rating: thumbs up