Monday, August 04, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Runaway (1984)

It's always a little disheartening when you recall a film from your youth as "cool" and then go back to watch it as an adult and find out that is, well...supremely dopey.

Alas, that's very much the case with Runaway, a "near future" thriller from the year 1984. I was fourteen when I first saw it on VHS (thanks to a local video store called Currys)...and, well, I loved it at the time. I was hoping I'd feel the same way as an adult, so I put it in my Netflix queue and screened it last night. Big mistake...

On a very superficial level, Runaway still appears credible. The movie is written and directed by one of my favorite authors, Michael Crichton. It stars a sexy Kirstie Alley (before she got weird...) And snarling rock icon Gene Simmons portrays the hissible villain, a criminal mastermind named Luthor. A no-nonsense Tom Selleck is our stalwart protagonist -- a brave cop named Ramsey -- who is assigned to a Metro "runaway" division tasked with wrangling out-of-control domestic robots. The film's plot also concerns a new (and impressive) type of bullet that operates like a guided missile, hunting victims by turning corners, banking, pivoting and so forth, thus permitting bullet P.O.V. sequences: Raimi-esque steadicam shots of elaborate and impressive construct.

Sounds like it should be a pretty good action movie? Right?

Well, hold your horses, because it isn't. Instead, this thriller is a risible amalgamation of every cop movie cliche you've ever seen, with hackneyed situations, off-the-shelf characters, and not-so-good performances (Simmons is especially bad). Worst of all, perhaps, is the underwhelming production design, which appears to indicate a future world that looks exactly like the 1980s, except that America has integrated (mostly-clunky) robots for agriculture, domestic use and so on. Let me be clear about this: there have been no other detectable advances in car design, home design, fashion, mass media or anything else. Nope, it's exactly Reagan's America...only with runaway robots. And if you think about it, that makes no sense whatsoever. If there's an advance in one technological field of study (like, take for example...robotics!), then those advances usually affect other fields too. Not so in Runaway.

The underlying premise is also wobbly. If robot escapes (not to mention robot homicide attempts) are so prevalent in this "future" society that urban police departments have added a "runaway" unit to track them down...then there's a pretty big problem in the culture, no? Yet nobody in the film acts as though this were an urgent situation that needed better understanding. It's just work-a-day cop-on-the-beat stuff. Oops, another robot picked up a kitchen knife and murdered a family...

Personally, I'd be pretty honked that robots had been integrated so thoroughly into society (preparing meals, farming, etc.) before they were safety-tested. Why do so many robots malfunction? The movie never answers that question. Oh sure, there's business about a chip made my Simmons that turns robots murderous, but that doesn't explain the existence of Runaway police divisions. Again, cops wouldn't create a new department unless this were a pretty big problem, even before criminal masterminds like Luthor. Runaway just never wants to ask the questions that a film like this should: are the robots sentient? Do they boast a will and "mind" beyond that which their human masters understand? I realize that addressing such issues would be a different movie all together, but you can't introduce a society with "runaway" robots and then not explain why so many robots are running away, right?

Runaway is also loaded down with the stale conventions of the 1980s cop-thriller format. Selleck reports to a character (played by G.W. Bailey) that Roger Ebert amusingly termed "the wrong-headed superior." You know the type. He's the policeman higher-up who is always mad, always makes the wrong decision, and always has it in for the good cop. You've seen him in a million movies by now. The wrong-headed superior is always stupid, and, well, wrong-headed, just to provide some artificial tension in the proceedings. And Bailey's character is epically wrong-headed in Runaway. His best advice: use a police psychic to catch Gene Simmons and his acid-spitting spider robots. Great. Because we all know how effective psychics are at...tracking robots.

But there's more. Besides the wrong-headed police superior (cliche # 1), there's Ramsey's tragic back story. His wife died in a car accident, leaving him widowed with a young son to raise by himself (cliche # 2). Ramsey also boasts a character flaw: a bad case of vertigo (cliche # 3). Years earlier, he pursued a bad guy to a building under construction, but let the villain go because of his fear of heights. Wouldn't you know it, Runaway's climax occurs -- wait for it! -- on the roof of a building under construction so Ramsey can conquer his fear (cliche # 4). And did I mention that Ramsey is breaking in a new partner whom he is romantically attracted to (Cynthia Rhodes) (cliche # 5)? Or that he has an African-American sidekick (cliche # 6)? Or That Luthor turns his pursuit around, abducts Ramsey's son, and makes this a deadly game of cat & mouse (cliche # 7)? The script is so by-the-numbers, so utterly...stock, that I just have to assume that the often-brilliant Michael Crichton was having a bad day.

Even the technological stuff here -- which should have been a slam dunk given Crichton's participation -- is laughable. One high-tech police device (a hovering camera) is unfortunately termed..."a floater." After it is introduced, we are treated to three minutes or so of embarrassing dialogue between Selleck and a pesky TV reporter discussing getting his "floater" on television. This is a moment tailor-made for the wise crackers at Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I did enjoy the scene in which Kirstie Alley's character -- a bad girl -- is forced to strip one garment at a time as Selleck scans her body for "bugs." A smoking-hot Alley has to take off her blouse and her bra. But even this fun sequence is riddled with utter stupidity. Selleck doesn't check Alley's purse for bugs while making her undress. Nope. He makes her strip down to almost nothing...but lets her pocketbook get away. (I think i know where his mind was.) Anyway, I'll give you exactly one guess where the bug turns out to be during an ensuing chase sequence. (This was the moment, by the way, that Kathryn checked out of the film. "The bug's in the purse," she growled as she headed off to bed.)

Watching Runaway, I felt bad for Tom Selleck, who makes a serviceable lead even when vetting stale material. This is a guy who was nearly Indiana Jones, but instead ending up in movies like High Road to China, Lassiter...and Runaway. This was a guy who almost wore a fedora and carried a bull whip, but ended up chasing his own...floaters.


  1. For all the cliches I still really like this movie, I loved the little robot spiders with acid and I thought Simmons was a pretty cool villain, but then again I still enjoy watching Scooby Doo - so there ya go.

  2. I agree with absinthe on this one. And I too still watch Scooby Doo. Plus Magnum PI is my all time favorite show, so you know... I've got a soft spot for Selleck. Personally, he can just about anything worth watching. Well, maybe not Lassiter, but you get my drift.