About the biggest takeaway from Runaway: so that’s where Spielberg got his Minority Report robot spiders. In a very crude, clunky, 1980s Mechano set kind of way. Likewise, the bullet POV tracking shots may have got the drop on – what, Sniper? – by eight years, but they’re nevertheless the premiere, crude, clunky 1980s STV version. Crichton’s early successes (Westworld, Coma), benefited from a spartan – shall we say, generously – directorial approach, emboldened as they were by strong core concepts. But he was on less solid ground as the ’80s arrived, with considerably more talented visual technicians outmatching him at every turn. Which explains why Runaway resembles TV movie fare for much of its duration, complete with a TV star and a “special guest star” of the week in the form of an ailing rock legend. Runaway seemed pedestrian, undernourished and low on thrills in 1984, and time hasn’t come around to its side.
It was the director’s fifth of six movies (the last being Physical Evidence, where he didn’t originate the source material), and the fourth science-fiction one. There’d be a resurgence in his reputation in the following decade, mostly in bankable terms, off the back of Jurassic Park. And then subsequent novel adaptations and screenplays that proved successful despite being less intriguing in premise than either Looker or Runaway. The difference was that they brought with them star directors and star wattage, and luxuriant budgets (see Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, and Twister; and bringing up the rear, The 13th Warrior and Sphere).
Crichton could afford Tom Selleck (previously seen in Coma, briefly) and Cynthia Rhodes’ perm (no dancing this time). Kirstie Alley also appears, failing to capitalise on her Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breakthrough until about ’87. It’s also the debut of Joey Cramer, later the lead in queasily paedo-symbols-strewn Flight of the Navigator.
Crichton called Runaway “about a year ahead” in terms of worldview (it appears to be set in 1991, based on visual evidence), and less a cautionary tale than “an updated police story with every police cliché turned a bit”. He didn’t suddenly lose touch in terms of coming up with a concept, in other words, just in the skill set of delivering it. The idea is of rogue machinery resulting from our increasing reliance on automation (household robots doing the cooking, cleaning the house and operating surveillance; retinal ID) but nothing “… super-intelligent. They’re machines. They’re not perfect. Being primitive, they’re sort of stupid and they make mistakes…”
We see this early on, with a “runaway” robot in a corn field, but the picture quickly switches to intentional mechanical aberrations, as Dr Charles Luther unleashes various items of tech causing robot homicides (he has developed a program enabling machines to differentiate between humans via unique heat signatures); he has the savvy to “turn any domestic computer into a killing machine”.
Luther’s also played by Gene Simmons, his feature debut and displaying a maximum side of rotisseried ham, so those acting lessons paid off, depending on how you look at it (“Listen, sucker!”) Luther foresees a goldmine of opportunities in his technology, of selling the chips to the mafia, terrorist cells and foreign agents. Which might make a good movie, but it ain’t this one.
Instead, we’re treated to a beleaguered Sergeant Ramsay (Selleck, and cursed with crippling Vertigo-esque vertigo) tracking down Luther but requiring very few detective skills to do so. “He said he’d kill me just the way he killed all the others” Alley informs him, serving the function of helpful exposition before expiring. She certainly makes Ramsay sit up: “She’s very attractive” he intones, no doubt all eyes for her shoulder pads, rather than partner Karen’s limber legs; female officers in 1991 wear regulation skirts, what with their being very practical on the job.
Regarding that business of tracking Luther down, Crichton throws in a genuinely blindsiding curiosity with the police psychic scene. I wondered for a second if the movie might go down an interesting detour, but it wasn’t to be. “You were brothers in another lifetime” Ramsay is informed; “You’ll definitely meet. He’ll see to that… You have what he wants”. Miss Shields (Elizabeth Norment) is right on all counts – well, the other lifetime one is moot – but alas, this is not her investigation.
Inevitably, proceedings culminate atop a high building, where Tom suffers rather bruised and smouldering cheeks via laser-spitting spider robots. Such smarting doesn’t prevent him locking lips with Karen, though, presumably because he’s quite a guy. It’s enough to make you long for Demon Seed’s Proteus IV to show up and take command of all household gadgets, terminally, everywhere. Alas, it’s not to be. Clearly, it was Tom removing that unexploded microshell from Karen’s arm that kindled the most powerful magnetic attraction between them.
Ramsay has a terribly funny comedy household robot called Lois (voiced by Marilyn Schreffler, of numerous Hanna Barbara productions), who expires with something approaching pathos, and Crichton admittedly is onto something when he has his characters casually exchanging notes on the model (“My mother had a Series 10” says Karen, of Tom’s Series 12). But the lack of messaging in the movie – aside from “machines make it easier to kill”, stop the press – rather disengages Runaway from prognostication. I don’t think we’re likely to see an HBO version anytime soon. This is closer to Glen Larson. The one interrogation of this environment of tomorrow relates to the labour-saving element of automation: “No coffee breaks, no union hassles” (on a construction site where only robots work). But it’s a passing remark, soon forgotten.
Selleck’s an interesting case of a miss at movie stardom. Sometimes, TV stars just don’t take – James Garner – but the reasons are never wholly clear. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been such a massive hit had Selleck not been waylaid by his Magnum, P.I. duties? Moustache acting can always be a hurdle (Burt’s would go out of vogue after the ’70s), but Selleck has the kind of smooth, laidback confidence you can readily identify in a Clooney or Costner (it’s debatable how much of a movie star Clooney ever really was, as far as opening pictures goes; NWO forced-jab-demanding gopher, yes. Pulling in the punters, questionable). Of course, Selleck’s face doesn’t fit, as an NRA board member and vocally libertarian in leanings (like fellow gunsmith Kurt Russell). He’s a man’s man, not a Clooney milquetoast. Why, when he uses the F-word here, he apologises for it! Like real men do.
The consequence of Magnum was that Selleck only ever played catch up in his movie roles. Be it the (billed as) sub-Indy of High Road to China, the sub-Blade Runner of Runaway, or the sub-inverted Crocodile Dundee of Quigley Down Under. His solitary hit factory was in the Three Men and a… franchise (ish), in the company of two other signature ’80s actors (albeit Ted Danson escaped such confines. Steve Guttenberg, however… ) But Selleck still has a fan base; most insist he’s a very likeable fellow, possibly even Rosie O’Donnell among them, and he’s held a recurring role in Blue Bloods for a decade. Runaway isn’t much cop, but… scratch what I said, I could see some enterprising, or not so much, producer turning it into a remake sometime soon. Alexa, why are you trying to kill me?