Empty Balcony: Runaway

Tom Selleck at peak mustache, Gene Simmons, THAT Gene Simmons, playing a mad scientist who has an army of killer robots, in a science fiction film written and directed by Michael Crichton? Yes, I will watch that.

From 1984, Runaway is a look into the near future, where robots are a part of everyday life. They cook our food, wash our clothes, construct our buildings, and guard our businesses. But like all machines, they aren’t perfect. That is where the dedicated men and women of the police department’s runaway squad come in.

Malfunctioning robots, or ‘runaways,’ are a fact of life in the future. Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck), and his new partner, Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes), are busy bees. Robots are going rogue all over an unnamed city (it’s Vancouver). After a particularly egregious incident, where a domestic robot got ahold of a .357 magnum, Ramsay and his squad discover that someone has been making their own computer chips and putting them into robots to turn them into killing machines.

The mysterious bad guy is Dr. Charles Luther (Simmons), a genius roboticist/programmer. As Simmons plays the character, he’s a sociopathic madman with a cruel streak, but his motivations appear to be purely monetary. He created a bad thing and wants to sell it, for substantial profits, to bad people. Besides the computer chips, Luther has also invented a smart bullet, capable of chasing down a target around corners, and robotic spiders that hunt down and inject acid into their victims. The runaway squad has come across a real threat of the future.

After Ramsay arrests Luther’s girlfriend, Jackie (Kirstie Alley), it is discovered that she is in possession of photographic templates that Luther needs to make more chips, setting off a game of cat and mouse between Ramsay and Luther that eventually ropes in his Runawaypersonal life. This leads to climax and resolution atop the ribs of an unfinished skyscraper.

Crichton was something of a futurologist. His most well-known works take the technology of the day and extrapolate what effect they might have in the near future. Runaway is no different. Three-and-a-half decades later, we can now look back and pooh-pooh everything he got wrong.

The robots in the movie look silly. It looks as if Crichton took a walk through the robotics lab at Cal Tech and grabbed whatever he thought he could use off of the shelves. All of the robots look like unfinished prototypes. Even back in 1984, they didn’t look convincing. Real consumer products have a polish that the robots in the film do not. But their biggest failing is that they don’t look like they work at all. They never cross over from being metal boxes on wheels into being something useful. This is a problem, as it makes suspension of disbelief, critical in a science fiction story, hard to achieve.

While the robots are unconvincing, the regular action in the film is good — the standout scene being a car chase where Ramsay’s squad car is being hounded by remote-controlled bombs. It’s not a perfect sequence, but it was gripping.

Simmons, perhaps, wasn’t the best choice to play a bad guy. But, his presence in the film makes it a more interesting relic of film history than it would have been had he not been cast. It was really weird seeing Gene Simmons play anything other than rock star Gene Simmons. It turns out that when one gives the guy a nice suit and an ’80s Wall Street haircut, he is almost completely unrecognizable.

He played Luther with a permanent scowl, and there wasn’t a lot of range in his performance. But, unlike other famous people who go into acting, Simmons could read lines with something approaching naturalism. He manages to inhabit the role enough that it’s easy to forget one is watching Gene Simmons play a mad scientist.

Selleck and Rhodes were decent. As the lead, Selleck did his part, something with which he had grown comfortable as a television star. Rhodes’s character was a bit trying, however. She would alternate between being a competent police officer and a damsel in distress for Ramsay to save, and it made her feel misused.

Runaway is not a memorable film. The divergence between Crichton’s speculation and how the future is turning out dates the film quite badly. Get past that, and there’s an entertaining flick to watch.

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