Runaway (1984)

It would be tempting to call this one Vertigo — with robots.

But that really suggests something rather different from this film.  After all, vertigo shows up, it is used as a convenient plot device, but we do not have a mystery where the hero fails to spot the truth right away because of his fear of heights.

Instead, we get Tom Selleck and his mustache starring in a very Eighties police thriller which just happens to have a lot of robots.

It’s been a long time since I saw this one — literally since it first came out on VHS (it never made it to our local theaters) — and I was amazed to see that it is filled with idiot plot moments and even a few little plot holes.

This bothers me quite a bit as I always thought of Michael Crichton as a reasonably good writer — if a tad sterile.  He was always far more interested in technology than he was in his characters.

However, what makes Runaway stand out is that the technology portrayed was all based on cutting edge technology.  We never quite ended up in that robot-filled future he portrays (and certainly not by 1991 which is the apparent date of the film according to some sharp-eyed viewers).  He seems to have taken the future of robotics fairly seriously, as seriously as Spielberg took his surveillance future in Minority Report.

Although I suspect Michael talked to rather fewer scientists and engineers than Steven did — and read a lot more copies of Popular Science.

A genius terrorist, Dr. Luther (played with relish and a lot of evil staring by Gene Simmons of KISS in his first major feature film role) has developed a computer chip which can transform any standard robot into a killing machine (we’re not supposed to notice that these custom-made chips have a Texas Instruments logo), and Tom is the heroic Police robotics expert on his trail.

Of course, Tom Selleck is playing the same basic slightly inept nice guy action hero he played on Magnum, P.I., and Gene is having a lot of fun chewing the scenery and getting in the occasional evil laugh.

When he isn’t staring.

Cynthia Rhodes is the new girl detective assigned to be Tom’s new partner.  It surprised me a little when I learned that she wasn’t played by Robocop‘s Nancy Allen.  I had some vague impression in the back of my mind that it was the same actress in both films: the two certainly look alike, and they are both playing a fairly similar inexperienced but eager sort of character.  However, Robocop came out three years later, and I doubt if this film had any influence on Verhoeven.

But you never know.

The other familiar face (although I suppose many of you who watched Eighties TV will recognize G. W. Bailey playing yet another police chief) is Kirstie Alley, in her second film appearance, not long after her debut in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  However, this time she is in full bad girl mode, and does liven things up a bit.

And, of course, there is the usual annoying Eighties child actor.  He’s not the most annoying I’ve seen but you do have to wonder how one decade produced so many terrible child performances.

The robots are mostly boxes with claws (just like real life) and tiny camera drones, but Dr. Luther has a lot of cool toys including a pistol which shoots programmable heat seeking missiles, computer controlled rolling missiles capable of locking onto a car racing through traffic and an army of nasty little spider robots (much like the ones profiled in Popular Science a year or so before this film came out).

Now I’m a bit amused by Cynthia’s character, who has drifted from one job that looked interesting at the time to another, so she has had a lot of very strange little bits of experience which keep coming in handy.  Yes, these are all plot contrivances (particularly as we never hear her entire career during the conversation when this is first introduced), but you have to admire Michael for putting them right up front with perhaps a bit of a wink.

But the idiot plot moments do bug me quite a bit, like a moment later on in the proceedings when Tom deliberately makes a very public appearance to draw out Dr. Luther, even though he does not have any other police officers around for back up other than his partner.

Really dumb.

Or the fact that he has the McGuffin Dr. Luther has been after, but just carries it around with him and doesn’t immediately put it in police custody under super-tight security.

After all, it’s only the plans for a deadly weapon.

It is a fun little Eighties thriller despite all that, Gene Simmons makes a great villain and Tom Selleck is charming as always.

But honestly Mr. Crichton, how could you write such silly things?…

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