Runaway

Who would have imagined killer robot spiders could be so lame?
★★
☆☆
Released: 
1984
Director: 
Michael Crichton
Starring: 
Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Gene Simmons, Kirstie Alley
The Setup: 
Tom Selleck is a crack cop on the crazed robot unit!
Discussion: 

So there I am perusing Netflix when I suddenly have that >>WTF??<< moment wherein I discover that not only is there a movie with Tom Selleck as a futuristic cop, but he’s fighting ROBOT SPIDERS! Two great features that go great together. So obviously this sprints ahead of the Godard film that was next in my queue.

Turns out we have a cast of cinematic luminaries: Selleck, who brings the mustache of distinction to nearly every one of his roles, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Cynthia Rhodes, who garnered the Academy Reward for her soulful work in Staying Alive, and Kirstie Alley, who is clearly one of those creatures from V, still walking among us. She discreetly snarfs guinea pigs when just out of frame. And it’s all written and directed by Michael Crichton, author or Jurassic Park and who had proven himself a capable director with Looker. This film will, however, serve as evidence in the “incapable” column.

I forget exactly how we open, but I’m fairly certain that it’s ominous. Then we introduce Selleck as Jack Ramsay, legendary star cop in the Runaway division, that rounds up rogue robots. Yes, we are in the near-future [see the IMDb user comments on this movie to wonder that there are those wasting their brain cells debating whether or not this is set in the future], where robots are in much more common use than today. We then cut to a cornfield, where these little robots that look like vacuums are running around pulling caterpillars off of the stalks and dropping them in their on board caterpillar-mincer. Sprinkle on salads! Then one of the robots goes nuts and takes out a Midwestern family on a picnic. Actually it doesn’t, but I totally wish it had.

So Jack has a new partner, Karen, played by the esteemed Ms. Rhodes, and she spends her first scene hearing gossip about how legendary Ramsay is in the department. Then—rogue robot! They pile into a helicopter and, well, as surely you remember, every single hero in the twenty hears following Raiders of the Lost Ark had to have an irrational fear. In Ramsay’s case, it’s heights. He also constantly gets asked why he’s not on the regular police force, and why he ended up as a robot specialist. The answers lead nowhere. During this time Karen lets us know that she was going to be a dancer, but ended up as a cop.

Mmm-hmmm, yeah. A DANCER. A dance engineer.

Anyway, after a long and fucking boring scene in the cornfield, there’s another rogue robot that has killed a whole family and is holed up in this suburban house with a ten-month-old baby, and killing anyone that tries to come inside. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Outside the house is the neighbor, who is said to know something about how the robot inside, another one of those that looks like a vacuum—but has picked up a GUN!—was illegally altered. This guy is played by Chris Mulkey, Hank of Twin Peaks, who runs screaming from the scene when he sees the news media in one of my favorite scenes: he runs off shouting “No television! No pictures! NO TELEVISION! NO PICTURES!” past a TV camera man who then says “What’s HIS problem?” Well, I’m not sure, but I’m gonna guess television and pictures might fit in to it. This is the first glimmer of the SCATHING critique of the news media that this film repeatedly makes. There’s another one seconds later when an insinuating reporter tries to ask Ramsay all sorts of questions while he’s trying to save that child, dammit! It’s all about how the news media actually get in the way of rescue and other such operations, and although we still have a LOT of harsh media criticism to come, I’m gonna jump ahead here and point out that it’s unlikely anyone is going to be moved by this scathing indictment of the news media when it comes in the form of A SHITTY LOW-BUDGET SCI-FI MOVIE ABOUT ROBOT SPIDERS THAT STARS TOM SELLECK, CYNTHIA RHODES, AND GENE SIMMONS OF KISS. Okay? So that’s probably why you didn’t see any anti-media legislation rolling around Congress after this movie was released. Christ.

So first they send in this triangular robot with a big fan in the middle that operates as a hovercraft and goes in first, as a sort of unmanned probe. Wait a minute—is that actually kind of cool? It is, but unfortunately the movie does it on the cheap by only showing us what the probe supposedly sees, rather than the hovering probe itself. It gets quickly shot down by the raging roomba. Ramsay’s going in! But first he must suit up in his protective gear, the first layer of which is this silver lamé thing I think they’re trying to play off as some space-age bulletproof polymer fabric, covered by this bright blue thing that looks like an umpire’s chest pad, big boots, and a big-ass codpiece [below] to reinforce that Ramsay is a BIG MAN. The overall effect looks like some kind of Halloween costume a kid might put together out of common household materials when they want to look “futuristic” but without being a specific character. You’ll also note that Ramsay, despite being a crack, legendary cop, does not wear any protective headgear when entering a house where he is very likely to be shot at. Of course, then how would we see his handsome face?

So he goes in, soon followed by a news cameraman, who wants to get footage of him bringing down the robot. I think I don’t have to tell you that the cameraman gets shot, although I was surprised that the movie didn’t make a further “statement” by showing us Ramsay going up to the female newscaster who sent him in that because of her lust to get footage of sensitive situations, etc. Anyway, blah, blah, Ramsay saves the baby.

Ramsay brings Karen home, where we meet his house robot, Lois. Earlier Ramsay had received a call from Lois asking him what he’d like for dinner, causing Karen to assume that this fine slice o’ man had already been snarfed up by some other former “dancer,” but now she sees that Lois is only a robot and, unless she’s got a little fleshlight component hidden away somewhere, offers no sexual competition. She also looks like one of those cheapo stereos of the 80s that tried to look like it was a whole set of different components [tape deck, equalizer] but was actually just one big unit, and she speaks in an annoying sing-song and is constantly butting in with useless information meant to show us how very useful she is. I wanted to bash her little square head in within two minutes of meeting her. Karen decides she can’t stay for dinner, and Ramsay goes in to see his ten-year-old son, Bobby, who watches his father’s heroic exploits on TV and obviously worships him. There’s not much to this, except to note that if you’re gay, between Selleck, his police uniform and the kid being tucked into bed, it’s a bit like you’re watching the Handjobs Magazine channel.

Then someone, forget who, gets killed by a robot spider, which leaps on her and sticks a big needle into her neck. We’ll get more into the spiders as they become more prominent. Then Ramsay goes to get Hank from Twin Peaks, who claims that if he even goes outside he’ll get shot, which is soon proven as Gene Simmons shows up and fires these mini-guided-missiles that go around corners and seek out their specific target. Then—well, we need a new paragraph for this one.

Kirstie Alley shows up in all her glory trapped in an office with the by-now standard raging robot. This one also looks like a bargain stereo, painted white, and issues nasty electric shocks to anyone who tries to get near. By the way. Alley is Gene Simmons’ girlfriend. Simmons’ character’s name is Luther, by the way. Anyway, Ramsay receives several painful electric shocks in rescuing Alley, and then he smashes the machine repeatedly in a wild-out-of-control rage, which I think is supposed to be a “powerful moment,” only nothing in the movie has built up to it, so it just seems random. Then, well, Alley’s so busy she’s just got to go, but Ramsay wants her to have dinner with him—an invitation he reinforces by grabbing her arm and yanking her violently back while yelling “Come ON! It’s just DINNER!”—causing her to drop her purse, out of which come about a hundred of the altered microchips that Luther makes and that have been causing robots to go crazy. She immediately starts shrieking how Luther made her help him, and “He’s EVIL!”

Then during some shootout or other Karen gets a bullet in the arm, but not just any bullet—which no one but Ramsay can discern, by the way—but a bullet that is a tiny explosive, and, as one technician says right within Karen’s earshot: “That’ll blow her whole arm off!” That’s some bedside manner, right there. They’re going to have a robot remove it, but Ramsay won’t hear of it—he’s gonna remove it himself! There is further harsh condemnation of the news media as they shove a camera in to broadcast the tense surgery. Then there is much Ramsay-Karen bonding as he forces her to endure excruciating pain as he slowly removes the bullet. Afterward he asks her to dinner [you’re telling me that Tom Selleck really CAN’T get a dinner date?], but he’s only asking her as a partner—not as a potential romance—so she tearfully refuses. This might not seem so out-of-the-blue if these people didn’t have less chemistry than a wad of old newspaper and a pile of gravel.

Then we have another dad-son bedside scene—homos with daddy fetishes, steel yourselves—which is actually quite sweet and in which Selleck is at last in his acting element; he is genuinely relaxed, comfortable and charming for once in the movie. Then, back at the office, someone suggests Ramsay take the magic bullet to a psychic, and while you at home are saying “Wait, did I hear that correctly?” he does, in fact, go to a psychic. She holds the bullet and tries to make it out that Ramsay and Luther have some sort of connection and are sort of each other’s nemesis [“You were brothers in another time!”], only it all falls MEGA-FLAT as the movie has done absolutely nothing to set this up, and does nothing to reinforce it from this point forth. It’s just kind of thrown on the thematic pile because, well, why not? It might provide someone a frisson for a second or two.

Then Ramsay is hangin’ at police headquarters when Luther calls! Ramsay tries to keep him talking, but Luther sneers “You can’t trace me—I’m on a MOBILE PHONE!” which can only come off as hilarious now that mobiles are so ubiquitous. Anyway, he wants Jackie [that’s Kirstie Alley] delivered to him, which Jackie is dead against, as she knows they won’t be able to protect her. Then they have to scan for bugs before entering Luther’s building. First Karen gets scanned, slowly down her body. Then Ramsay steps in and you’re like “We’re not going to have to sit through him getting completely scanned, are we?” But we are, and then Jackie, too, requiring her to strip naked. Then they put her alone in a car with a robot driver! And this is the woman they’re supposed to be PROTECTING. Something told me that car wasn’t going to be safe, and sure enough, here come Luther’s baddies with these sort of mobile mines that they put on the freeway and they speed ahead under the car’s wheels to blow you up. This then involves Karen climbing up top of the car and shooting then all with lasers, during this whole big freeway shootout. During this time their automated car is saying “Conditions are dangerous!” which is funny enough once, but I swear the car says it more than ten times—and this is the rare case in which I am not exaggerating. Anyway, they finally escape.

They then repair to some sort of town festival, then go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Again, isn’t this like an important witness you are supposed to be PROTECTING? So maybe large public places aren’t the greatest idea? And—can’t you grab a snack later? Isn’t there some URGENCY here? Who should show up at dinner but Luther, and by some snafu I can’t even go into he has Karen, gun to her throat. Jackie is going to walk over to him while he sends Karen walking to Ramsay. Jackie makes it over, but while Karen approaches, this sudden gaggle of people get in the way, including two servers wheeling in a SUDDEN DESSERT CART, right in the way. The cart, by the way, is empty. Luther kills Jackie, then escapes. Karen and Ramsay run outside and can’t believe they lost him, but the thing is, they would have caught him had they only looked around a tiny little bit, as he is hiding in the bushes RIGHT THERE.

SPOILERS > > >
So Luther goes into the police station dressed as a cop, and looks up the file on Bobby, Ramsay’s precious son. Next thing you know, the tyke has been kidnapped, and Ramsay refuses to let Karen come with him, but she gets the address anyway. She is, for some reason, clad in a floral-print dress through all this, for reasons that were obscure to me. Wouldn’t you know, Luther’s got the kid at the top of a skyscraper under construction, and you remember who’s afraid of heights. But Ramsay must face his fears as the elevator climbs higher and higher. He gives Luther the lost data or whatever he wants, and sends Bobby down in the elevator—only, Ha! Ha!, the robot spiders at the bottom have been programmed to kill the next person coming off the elevator! That’s a darn-dirty low-down double-cross. Anyway, Ramsay ends up on an elevator that shoots up to the very top of the building [and seemingly beyond, it’s very unclear what is supporting him] but he is WAY high up and freaking out—or he would be, if Selleck weren’t such a timid actor. As it is it looks as though he’s just a little drunk, and there’s no modulation or shape to his performance. He gets to the very top when—drat you, robot spiders! These things look like—you know those wind up toys with four long pegs for legs that jiggle and seem to “walk” when you wind them up? These are their six-legged cousins. They don’t exactly inspire a lot of terror. Ramsay is forced to climb around the outside of the elevator and hang from its underside, but he has a hard time conveying his supposed mental anguish here, it all just seems like a minor inconvenience. Vertigo it ain’t.

Anyway, eventually he gets down, and who has shown up but Karen—I’ll bet you never saw that one coming—and she whisks Bobby away from the menace of the sluggish wind-up toys that seem to pose no threat. Then Luther goes down in the elevator and falls out, falling prey to his OWN robot spiders! Oh, the irony. Then, because we have to see Ramsay himself kill Luther, he goes over to Luther’s corpse, which thoughtfully reanimates just long enough for Ramsay to kill him hand-to-hand. Thanks, corpse!

Then Ramsay tells Karen that he thinks he’s been cured of his fear of heights, and it becomes clear that she’s going to be Bobby’s new mommy. Then they kiss amid these inexplicable showers of sparks [are there invisible iron workers putting in overtime?], and it’s only halfway through that it occurs to you that the sparks are supposed to represent the “sparks” that are supposedly flying between the couple, that unfortunately neither of them are able to convey.
< < < SPOILERS END

If you love cheesy sci-fi of the 80s, stuff like Millennium, this… could be worse. It definitely has lots of fun cheese elements and a ludicrous story with all sorts of mock-seriousness [and scathing media criticism!], but there are just too many strumbling blocks for any of it to really start flying.

One is the lame script—I’m still unclear on what Luther’s nefarious plan was—and the way it strives for effects it can’t manage to earn. Like it wants to have a romance between its two stars, but they’re all-consuming charisma black holes. He wants to have a world with all these daily-use robots, but just isn’t able to convey what use they really are. And then things like we’re suddenly supposed to feel that Ramsay and Luther are each other’s nemesis, and their meeting has the power of fate behind it—WHERE did that come from? And where did it go, as it is inexplicably dropped thereafter.

A big problem is that Selleck, despite looking amazing, just isn’t that sexy. He just conveys this niceness and decency that is at odds with what people expect from someone who looks like that. So there’s a conflict that arises in his performances where he tries to play up being something he seems not to be [like a badass action star here] and is uncomfortable being, which results in timid, uncommitted performances—like when he’s supposed to be terrified in the elevator, but just seems slightly bothered, and can’t vary his performance to convey ever-rising intensity. As noted, the only scene in which he’s comfortable here is the one in which he’s putting his son to bed. He has a job where he’s expected to be tough or be a sex symbol, when it seems all he really wants to do is bake cookies and snuggle up for some Golden Girls reruns.

Nevertheless, I’m quite sure that some of my good lovin’ could cure him. Come on Tom, do it for your career.

The disc also contains three trailers, all of which are some good fun. The first is for this film, which desperately tries to frame it as some intense, non-stop action sci-fi thriller that will leave you breathless, despite the fact that none of these qualities can be conveyed by the footage they have to work with. The second one—well gee, I can’t even remember what the second one was. But the third is for Gattaca, which strives to portray it as a tightly-coiled paranoid thriller, but just as too many ideas than it can comfortably convey, as evidenced by this particularly lugubrious line: “How can you hide when a single cell can betray you—and we all shed 300 million cells a day?” I was amusing myself making up corollary lines, such as “Where can you run when one drop of rain can blow your cover—and the yearly average rainfall in Bolivia is 9.375 feet per year?”

Anyway, pretty cheesy and just all-round not that great, nor anywhere near as fun as it should have been. But you can look at Tom in a snug police uniform and there are killer robots, disappointing as they may be. Ah, so much potential lost.

Should you watch it: 

Take it or leave it.