In the near future robots are everywhere. And not bipedal bots that are out to kill us, but benign little service appliances that make our lives that little bit easier. Yet on occasion these machines malfunction and run amok. A special division of the police is formed to combat those “runaway” robots that act up with violent consequences. They are led by the veteran badass Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck – Quigley Down Under).
In the late 90’s Robot Wars aired on British TV. Hosted by Red Dwarf’s own Dave Lister (Craig Charles), it pitted scratch built battle-bots against each other. Fabricated by tech-heads, bespectacled nerds, Dads living vicariously through their kids, and some blatantly on the autistic spectrum, these “killing machines” didn’t much resemble their science fiction inspirations ED209, the T800 or any other cool-looking ilk.
Instead they were small tin cans, no larger than a shoe box or 4-slice toaster. Roving about on wheels they’d occasionally have some lame articulated arm that would wield an axe or other implement to swipe at their foe ineffectively. There’d be no cool lasers or gatling guns, no creepy robotic voices or super sophisticated AI that would learn from each match, ultimately culminating in the death of their creators and the uprising of the robots in a true robot war. That shit never happened. Looking back at it now and it’s so much less Robot Jox than it is two quadroplegics ramming each other with their wheelchairs.
Cut to “the near future” of Michael Crichton’s “Runaway” and these robot warriors have traded in their weapons for wooden spoons. Pretty much all construction is now robot-lead, and you won’t find a modern home without some kind of domestic unit to help out. Even the police utilize special “sniffer dog” robots in CSI cases. Offices are patrolled by no-nonsense photocopying, memo-taking sentry devices, and you can even order up some juicy California rolls on the sidewalk from one of many vending bots.
Effectively all the menial shit is done by robots. What happened to the uneducated working classes, the immigrant labourers, the minimum wage cleaners or the fresh-out-of-jailers is not explained. Runaway’s future isn’t exactly bleak like the Terminator, but nor is it as squeaky clean as Demolition Man’s San Angeles either. You may have some snazzy robot that can wipe your ass, but your unattractive Honda Civic is still probably going to rape you on gas mileage. It’s that kind of future.
Yeah these robo’s are helping us out a lot. But they also have a tendency to go wrong. And because many of these industrial machines can be pretty dangerous when their circuits get twisted, it isn’t in Joe Public’s interest to lose an arm trying to fix them.
That’s a job for the Runaway Squad; a police unit that specializes in robotics. It’s not as rad as it sounds though. The Runaway squad is the laughing stock of the division. Catching the odd escapee seeding machine is hardly the same as tracking down ruthless cyber murderers. And that’s the kind of badass cop shit that Jack Ramsay used to do. But his fear of heights(!) let one perp get away and kill an entire family. Now he’s in a safe unit where his unlikely phobia can’t get anyone else killed.
To make matters worse his beloved wife is dead too. His little kid Bobby (Joel Cramer – Flight of the Navigator) is over it though, and wants his Dad to settle down with someone else. This is probably because the only female presence in his life now is Lois – a robot that looks after the house, cooks dinner and makes sure Bobby does his homework. Note that Lois doesn’t look as cool as Paulie’s robot maid in ’85s Rocky 4. She looks like a stereo system by comparison, though is voiced by legendary Hanna-Barbera vocal artist Marilyn Schreffler (famously Olive Oil from Pop Eye).
At work Ramsay gets no respect from the Chief (GW Bailey – Short Circuit), but gets on well with pretty much everyone else in the department; they understand why he’s there. No one takes the piss. He may just be a robotics dude who is scared of heights, but Sgt Ramsay still has a dynamite right hook and a damn fine moustache.
He and teammate Sgt Marvin James (Stan Shaw – Snake Eyes) are joined by new recruit Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes – Staying Alive). She’s an enthusiastic young rookie, fresh from the accounting division and looking to turn heads. But Ramsay ensures her that the Runaway Squad is little more than flicking switches. Their first mission together is pursuing a rogue farm bot. It gives them the runaround, but is hardly serious business for a badass cop and his spunky new sidekick.
All that is about to change though when a code 187 comes in over the wire. What’s that everyone wonders. Ramsay knows. It’s robo-murder.
Arriving on the scene Thompson and Ramsay discover that some suburban unit has gone mental and slashed up a housewife. Now it’s in the house with a newborn baby and a handgun. How something like this could cut up a woman is unknown. Sure it could nick the fuck out of her ankles, but butcher her face? Nah, doubt it mate. This thing is so small it couldn’t even be adapted into some weird masturbation device (and I bet some tried).
The regular cop division don’t know what the hell to do. They can’t even stop the husband of the dead woman from running off into the night when he realizes his wife has been killed. He doesn’t even seem concerned about his baby. It’s certainly suspicious.
Not Ramsay though. He goes in alone (the way he likes it). He’s wearing a bullet-proof vest, chainmail (“electro-magnetic shielding”) and gauntlets that look like they’ve come from the canine brigade. He’d be tough for a Rottweiler to take out, that’s for certain. No helmet mind. He doesn’t need any protection for his face or his eyes. Who gives a damn if its’ pitch black inside. He’ll use the fucking force to find his way around.
What’s he going to use to take out the machine? What else other than a laser. And not a portable one either. It’s so potent that he’s gotta carry the batteries on his belt. They attach to his laser gun via one of those curly-wurly cables that ye olde landline phones used to have. All in all he looks like some futuristic space ranger. Or a grown man playing super serious laser tag. Either way this is the only occasion in the film he’ll wear this getup.
Joined by a rogue camera guy from one of the host of reporters outside, he enters the dark house. It’s actually pretty tense until you see the offending robot – a Footlocker box with little toy choo-choo train wheels for locomotion. It wields a small revolver in a barely articulated arm that a toddler could bend in half. It roves around the floor, taking pot shots at Ramsay (it naturally takes out the camera guy – note, no one comes in to check that Ramsay is alive at any point – not even Thompson).
Eventually he manages to outwit the stupid box and shoot it dead with his laser gun. He emerges to the awaiting crowd outside with the baby like a fucking hero. No one even mentions poor dead Bob Cameraman (Andrew Rhodes – The Fly 2). Even in the future no one gives a damn about those story-hungry journalist scum. RIP Bob.
Upon further investigation they find out that the house-bot hadn’t malfunctioned. It had been modified with circuitry that commanded it to kill. Who the hell would do such a crazy thing? To be fair it’s probably that really creepy looking guy lingering around outside. Wait isn’t that Gene Simmons from KISS?
In his first starring role, Simmons plays the pantherish Dr Luther. As a brilliant robotics engineer, he had the great idea of corrupting the every-day robots for criminal needs. When his co-conspirators got cold feed he started killing them off. That guy who ran off earlier? He was one of Luther’s targets for termination. The wife and baby were just going to be collateral damage until Ramsay and the Runaway department got in the way
Dr Luther has no backstory as to why he’s a monumental shit. His madness is only matched by his brilliance, as he’s apparently the first person ever to think about turning all these robots into weapons for the highest bidder. Where the robots in this film lack any kind of flare or menace, Simmons more than makes up for it. Maybe it’s some form of commentary on machines being mere tools – it’s the humans who are the dickheads. Outside of spending all his time cooking up evil schemes, developing killer robot spiders, and cutting deals with big wig executive types, he likes taking out his office assistant Jackie (Kirstie Alley – Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan) for candlelit meals.
He also has a snazzy hand gun that fires heat seeking bullet missiles. Amongst other notable sci-fi movie weaponry it ranks below Robocop’s hand cannon but slightly above the titular golden gun from the Man with the Golden Gun in terms of coolness. Clearly Ramsay took a shine to it as he’s wielding it on the movie poster. He never actually gets to hold it in the film, so he must have taken it as some sinister trophy once the case was closed (SPOILER – Luther dies at the end). I guess it could come in handy for any future Runaways. Or maybe the poster was pre-visuals for a sequel or better yet a TV spin off!
Luther is busy trying to get together all the “templates” to create more circuits that can be used to turn the robots into killers, but these are spread across his remaining living colleagues. It’s basically going to be a race against time as Ramsay and Thompson chase down the various leads left by Luther and the remaining baddies.
Despite all the robot shenanigans, Runaway future is far from a dystopia. It lacks any form of cynicism in regards to its robotic denizens. There are no ethical questions or philosophising in regards to the widespread usage of mechanical labour, even when said labour is subverted for nefarious means. Nor does it serve as a dire warning to us on our own steps into a murky future of automisation. It’s simply a bad guy who is using a toaster to kill people; put a stop to him and we can all go back to making toast to our hearts content.
This stripped backed morality eschews the efforts of Michael Crichton’s directorial debut, Westworld, which posed as many questions as it answered. Its deeper ponderings on our rising dependence on technology, and the possibility of machines able to outwit and destroy us has served as inspiration for countless contemporary films and stories.
Sadly, Runaway adds little to this rich tapestry of technological horror. A host of undeveloped characters (save for Ramsay), an unexplored future and a paper-thin bad guy, serves to make it a mediocre part-science fiction, part-action, part-cop flick, part-80’s All Tom Selleck vehicle.
Beyond Selleck, the rest of the casting is…interesting. Simmons really is pretty cool. He definitely has a presence. He’s not given much room to show anything other than bastardry, however, and you do question whether he’s really a smartass doctor at all. Rhodes equally works well with what she has to play with. She seems super friendly and eager, but her inevitable star-eyed gazing at Ramsay seems way too obvious a move for the character. It’s a shame she didn’t do many more movies after this.
She plays well with Ramsay’s son too. Played as the dumb-but-perfect kid by Cramer, he’s actually pretty annoying and I was 50/50 on whether I wanted him to die when he was inevitably targeted by Luther. I felt worse off for Lois getting deactivated after she was sabotaged than the potential of Bobby, a real human being, dying. That shows the level of characterization we’re dealing with here.
The design of the robots really lets this film down too. They’re just not cool, or even believable. Okay, the little acid squirting, self-destructing robot spiders are pretty creepy, but compare the overall look of this movie to the sophistication of The Terminator released the same year, and you’ll be amazed. Crichton apparently wasn’t interested in special effects, which is crazy when you’re making a sci-fi movie about a cop fighting robots. That’s like Spielberg not wanting to put too much effort into making the dinosaurs look good in Jurassic Park.
Crichton also says this isn’t a cautionary tale about technology. His insistence that this film wasn’t to humanize or satirize the robots may help Runaway stand apart from the likes of Terminator or Robocop. Maybe it really is about some cop overcoming his fear of heights? Perhaps it was more evident in the 80’s, but watching Runaway now and the radical divergence in technology our world has undergone is just so apparent that this movie can’t help but feel outdated and aged.
While atomisation has revolutionized many industries, it’s still primarily led and controlled by people. It’s still cheaper to get hobo kids to stitch up Nike trainers than getting robots involved. Yet Runaway future seems quaint, almost old fashioned purely down to the technology on display. Almost like how the original Star Trek feels silly due to its hilarious technological imagery. All those buttons and basic blinking lights. It’s too far removed from our touch-screens, OLEDs and the internet.
There is some stuff to get excited about though. Some of the camera work is really fun. Shot by John A Alonzo (the DP on classics like Vanishing Point, Blue Thunder, Chinatown and Scarface), you’re treated to the occasional flash of brilliance. I’m talking single-shot, Scorsese/Iñárritu sequences, crazy heat-seeking bullet POVs takes (the camera flying through shit like pipes and other tiny spaces – it must have been a pain in the ass to set up) and an absolutely nail-biting final sequence.
Set atop a high rise building site, Alonzo and Crichton really do key into Ramsay’s fear of heights. Selleck really sells it here too. Also to be noted is that this is famed composer Jerry Goldsmith’s first all-synth score. While it’s no Alien or Star Trek theme, it’s an interesting titbit nonetheless. Sadly there is no real delve into the future culture in Runaway. There’s no period specific music or sport like in Arena, or the phony commercials of Robocop. We don’t get much a sense of what the world is like outside of this story.
Some of the aforementioned contemporaries still retain a prescient, vital energy. You could only carbon date The Terminator via the imperfections in its special effects, formerly invisible in any format other than high def. The message still remains important and relevant (though to be fair, Linda Hamilton’s hair style is very ’80’s). That’s not the case with Runaway. It can’t escape how dated it now feels
Maybe it’s our modern cynical minds that so readily suspect that every piece of technology is somehow being subverted or monitored against our wishes for the benefit of shady rich benefactors. I mean, that IS what’s going on with most technology these days. For Runaway to make it the central angle of the story and to act like it’s a giant surprise damages it more than any lame robot prop every could.
Still, Tom Selleck is good here. He’s Magnum PI fighting robots. What did you expect? Get it watched.