It’s really a shame that, when Michael Crichton brought Runaway to the big screen, he wasn’t graced with a big budget or serious Hollywood support. The lack of both shows in his film about an America filled with automation, including self-driving cars, robot maids, flying drones… and a terrorist dedicated to hacking those things in order to kill people.
Michael Crichton’s only mistake in creating this movie was giving it to us too early. If he had brought this to Hollywood in the 2000s, it could have been his greatest hit.
Runaway was released in 1984, a decade after Crichton had given us Westworld and three years after another low-budget SF thriller, Looker. In Runaway, Tom Selleck plays police officer Jack Ramsay, who specializes in catching and shutting down malfunctioning, “runaway” robots that become a threat to the public. Just as he’s breaking in a new partner, a terrorist named Luther (played by—gulp—Gene Simmons!) has bribed some electronics programmers to obtain robot-controlling chips that can be programmed to kill a target.
When the terrorist kills one of the programmers for going back on the deal, and tries to kill the other using a domestic assistant bot that gets ahold of the family gun, Ramsay gets involved and discovers Luthor’s operation. Then it’s a race to find Luthor and shut him down, before he gets away with the chips and kills anyone else.
This film looks good in a lot of ways; most notably, the practical effects used for many of the robots in the film, like Lois, Ramsay’s maid-bot. Also, most of the actors are fairly easy on the eyes, in that 80s television sort of way. (I mean, Tom Selleck. Cynthia Rhodes. Stan Shaw. And check out a hot-looking Kirstie Alley, right.)
Other robots didn’t look so hot, due to much-less-polished mechanicals… the robotic assassin “spiders,” supposed to be menacing and creepy, are particularly hilarious. (Oh, the rickety wire-work when they would jump at the camera…) Attempts at visual effects were simple and cheap-looking as well. As these were supposed to be the seminal threats of the movie, they brought the entire experience down. Other production values suffered… even the great Jerry Goldsmith was just wasted here by having him create a fully electronic score (something he’d already demonstrated he wasn’t particularly good at two years earlier, with Tron).
And it didn’t seem like the actors were particularly into their roles, either: Only half of the cast, pretty as they were, were ready for prime-time; and Gene Simmons’ (bum-bum-bummmm!) evil terrorist was not much better than a cardboard KISS cutout.
But consider how prescient this flick was! A future of robots assisting us on a daily basis! Robots in the home… robots driving our cars! Terrorist-assassins! Hacking electronics to tap private networks, control drones and design lethal chipsets! Runaway was at least thirty years ahead of its time.
I would love to see someone remake this movie today. Crighton’s story itself needs little improvement, interestingly… just a tweaking here and there to really punch up the depiction and use of modern robotics in the story. The potential of domestic and industrial robots, miniature programmed assassins, rolling and flying bombs, network hacking and other computer-based shenanigans would seem like it was straight out of our modern headlines, and much more of a serious threat than 1984’s critters were at the time.
And with the full capability of modern practical and visual effects at their disposal, a modern production crew could make Runaway seriously creepy, borderline-horror… the kind of thing that would leave you sneaking second glances at every electronic device in your house.
Runaway should have been saved for a post-9-11 America; but it’s not too late. 30 years has passed since it was originally made. That’s plenty of time between a lackluster original and a blockbuster remake.