Are you interested in a Michael Crichton movie about Technology going wild? No not the one with Dinosaurs on the loose. How about Robots gone wild? No not the one with Yul Bryner that is being adapted for an HBO Mini-series. This one is about robots that are “Runaways”, that is they have gone out of control and threaten people or property in some way. Throw in a plot concerning an evil genius using micro-chip technology to weaponize robots and build a “smart bullet” and you have this next entry on the project, science fiction with Tom Selleck.
For me in 1984, this was a highly anticipated film because one of the co-stars was making his motion picture debut. Gene Simmons the bassist and singer of the rock group Kiss, a band that I have been of fan of since 1976 was signed to be the villain of the story. The idea that he was going to star in a movie with Tom Selleck jacked me up tremendously for the Christmas season in 1984. There were four big science fiction movies coming out in early December, and as a regular reader of Starlog Magazine I anticipated each of them.
Michael Crichton was a medical doctor who took science seriously but wrote about it in entertaining ways. In many ways his career was much like that of Steven King. He wrote books that were wildly popular, they were turned into movies of varying quality, and he ultimately branched out into television production as well. He is responsible for Jurassic Park, the television series E.R, and a dozen other properties that have been landmarks in publishing, film and television. “Runaway” is an original work for film that he wrote and directed. There is much that is “pulpy” about the movie, but as in most of his work, there is scientific prescience. Crichton could envision the world of the future and see many possibilities before other got there.
The field of robotics was not new in 1984, but some of the applications that Crichton saw were pretty new. There are agricultural robots that are designed for pest control, they resemble Wall-e in their design. The home computer that runs the house in the movie is a reality today . He saw this coming way back then. Although he envisioned the computer in this movie as a mobile unit that could also perform certain basic mechanical functions, the other aspects of domestic technology are present as well. Unfortunately the robots in this movie are not much more than a boxes on wheels. They have a human voice to allow interface with the family that it serves, just like Siri.
In the plot of the film, there is a computer chip that can take over control of the device and turn it deadly. The computer chip was the macguffin of a lot of technology based films before the computer virus and hackers took over the role of technological terrorists. From Crichton’s own “Looker” and “Westworld” to the “Terminator ” films and up to “The Matrix” the chip was the key to the plot. Insert a magic program and viola, instant plot development.
In this film, the evil genius Dr. Luther, played by our aspiring rock star thespian, has bribed computer engineers at a defense contractor to manufacture and help design the chips that will allow him to take over robots for whatever purpose he wants. Apparently that purpose is just about money because there are no political points being made in this story at all.
The complications come when the engineers want to back out of their agreement or they try to get more money, it was never very clear what their motivation was. Luther takes retribution on one guys family and straight out kills his partner. Because a robot went crazy and killed the wife and sister of one of the engineers, the product tampering becomes a problem for the “Runaway Squad” of the police department.
Tom Selleck plays Jack Ramsay, the lead officer on the squad. It is a cop film so of course he gets a new partner on the day this case happens to break.
Officer Thompson is played by the 80s flavor of the moment Cynthia Rhodes. This was her biggest role. She was featured in “Flashdance”, co-starred in “Staying Alive” and was reduced to plot complication in “Dirty Dancing. She later married singer Richard Marx and left her acting career to be a full time mom. In this film she is passable and in fact quite believable in her most important scene, the one where her partner had to remove some unexploded ordinance from her arm. Feminists be warned, as forward thinking as the director was, he still has Officer Thompson in a police uniform for half the movie that features a pencil skirt. Ramsay is a widower with an eleven year old son and naturally she becomes a love interest as well.
Sgt. Ramsay has other character quirks as well. He suffers from vertigo when confronted by heights and thus, much like Jimmy Stewart, has some limitations on his effectiveness as a police officer. There is an explanation in the film of how he ended up on robot chasing duty, but part of the reason is tied into this affliction. Selleck is a popular actor with a very winning
personality who has had great success but never took off to the top of the A-list that might have been expected of him. He had previously worked with Crichton on the movie “Coma” and was in the middle of his run as Magnum P.I. on television when this movie came out. Earlier in the year that we are celebrating he also appeared in the film “Lassiter” which does not show up on the project right now because I did not see it that year. Once I finish with the films on the original list, we will double back every once in a while for some other movies of the era, perhaps I will get to “Lassiter” then.
As part of the job, the police use a couple of technology based tools themselves. There is a aroma sniffing robot that looks pretty much like a vacuum cleaner with legs. It clues the cops in on the fact that the the weapon they are seeking is not an ordinary bullet but basically a miniature guided missile. It’s not just gunpowder in the fragments but rocket fuel that tells them what they are up against. The good guys and the bad guys both use flying bots that they call floaters. We would refer to them today as drones or small unmanned aircraft. They look remarkably like some of the toy versions that are in the marketplace today. The cops have one that is equipped with a camera while the bad guy uses his to create a diversion and escape from police capture while conducting a sale with some nasty criminal types.
The “smart bullets” are the most interestingly designed prop in the film. In one sequence a fellow officer bisects the bullet so we can see the detail and engineering that go into the weapon.
The bullet looks great on screen, and the bubble lens tracking shot that is used to show it’s movement on screen is really pretty effective. The idea of a bullet that can turn corners and track down a specific target is a great plot point. The only problem is that in this movie, when Luther shoots the damn thing, unless he is within a couple of feet of the target, he misses four out of five times.
The cops outrun it and duck a couple of times and that seems completely silly for the premise. A much more practical weapon, but one also outsmarted by the cops, are the remote car bombs that look like R.C. vehicles but are tracking a signal and set to explode. There is a long chase where Ramsay, and Luther’s girlfriend played by Kirstie Alley are in the back of a robot driven squad car [Google Autonomous car] and because of the attack, Ramsay finally gets her to give up the templates for the computer chips she is hiding. A minor plot point, how does Luther expect to kill the cops and not destroy the templates in this process?
Plot holes aside, this was an effective technological thriller. The opening half hour builds a world that establishes the characters and their jobs. The criminal activity is slowly introduced after a comic robot encounter and then a very serious encounter that shows the real skills of the robotics team. Simmons over dose the growling voice a bit but that is partly the result of his dialogue. He made several other films in the 80s where he played similar evil characters and was clearly being type cast in those parts. Inevitably, Ramsay’s son is kidnapped and there is a confrontation between our vertigo afflicted hero and the villain, on the eighteenth floor of a building under construction.
The other technology tools used by the bad guy to kill his enemies, in a more stealth like manner, are some spider bots that are equipped with needles that inject acid and that can be detonated as a remote control bomb as well. Those critters figure into the climax of the picture and will ride with Ramsay up and down an open air elevator at the end.
Ramsay’s son will be in jeopardy, the heights will weaken our hero at the least opportune time and all the pieces will fit together somehow when the film is over. The son, by the way, is played by child actor Joey Cramer, who starred in “the Flight of the Navigator” a couple of years after this movie, but who has most recently been in the news for being arrested in Canada in connection to a bank robbery just a couple of months ago.
It is easy to imagine this film being remade with more sophisticated special effects and a faster plot, but there are no reasons that it would be necessary. “Runaway” is a middling example of the technological thrillers that Michael Crichton was known for. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and I was embarrassed by it ten or fifteen years ago. Now, it is a nice nostalgia piece that is very forward thinking in regard to the universe it created. Maybe the characters were a little stiff and the plot a bit derivative, but the concepts help make the movie worth of a couple hours of your time. It’s not essential, but it’s not too bad either.