I can confirm that Tom Selleck’s mustache is great no matter the year, no matter the genre. You can practically feel the machismo oozing off of his upper lip’s grizzled fur baby. If you learn nothing else today, know that your face will never look as cool as his befollicled nasal undercarriage. And for that, we salute him.
It is the near future. Robots are commonplace in our households, serving as boxy pseudo-pets and caregivers. Sgt. Jack Ramsay is not a cop-on-the-edge, mainly because he gets crippling vertigo if he goes anywhere near an edge, but he heads up the Runaway squad, a police unit dedicated to tracking down rogue robots when they go on the fritz. His new partner is Karen Thompson, a rookie straight out of the Traffic department who likes to rock blue eyeshadow because it’s the future in the 1980s. They get called on a job where a rogue robot has murdered a couple of folks with a knife and then picked up a gun, and soon Ramsay and Thompson find they’re tracking down Dr. Charles Luther, a sadistic criminal attempting to sell counterfeit microchips and smart bullet-sized heatseeker missiles. But Luther knows they’re after him, and with an array of handheld rocket launchers and spider robots, he’s keeping one step ahead of the fuzz. Also, he’s played by Gene Simmons of the band Kiss, because why not?
Runaway is one of the handful of films that author Michael Crichton was able to direct in his multi-decade run of tales regarding science, technology, medicine, and the ethical failings of human beings. The vast bulk of his directorial endeavors were in the 1970s and ’80s, though he continued to write and produce for television and film as well as do some uncredited directing through the last decades of his life before passing away of cancer in 2008. While Runaway isn’t his best feature (it’s hard to beat what he did with actor Yul Brynner in Westworld), it’s a highly watchable if not entirely ridiculous look at a near future world predicting such trends as police drones, caregiving robots in the home, the popularization of sushi, and the steady replacement of human beings by robots in the agriculture and construction industries.
That said, it also feels like Crichton read a lot of Philip K. Dick before tackling the screenplay. While we are treated to a much more mundane world of police units hunting rogue robots, there is still the basic underpinnings of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the cinematic equivalent Blade Runner. We also get a scene involving a police psychic like a ridiculous take on Minority Report, though now with an old woman in a sweater giving cheesy readings; Crichton was known for consulting astrologists and psychics, though he doesn’t exactly make them look glamorous. Neither does Tom Selleck, who spends the psychic scene rolling his eyes in the background until she comes up with information that’s useful. Now no, having cops using psychics and hunting robots isn’t automatically Dick’s work, but considering the release of Blade Runner in theaters only a couple of years before, it’s hard to think that it wasn’t at least kicking around somewhere in the back of Crichton’s mind.
Of course, the movie has its laughable moments too where we’ve outpaced the technology. The robots are mainly all boxy affairs that lack any sort of humanoid qualities or sleekness. The tense shootout with Sgt. Ramsay making his way through a home with a knife-wielding robot is made more ridiculous when the robot gets a gun. We’ve already seen the schematics of this sucker in the film, and it’s got a grabber claw; it couldn’t pull a trigger if it tried, and there is no way in hell it’s reloading. This scene comes after an earlier romp through a cornfield for a pest control device which can only be described as comic relief. And we haven’t even considered Dr. Luther’s spider robots. His spider robots are the definition of overkill: they jump on, stick you with a needle, spray acid into your body with the needle, and then explode. That’s right, not content with just acid spraying killer spider robots, Dr. Luther needed them to blow up too. Because when you need someone dead, you absolutely have to make sure, and acid burning through someone’s internal organs just isn’t enough.
There is also the problematic budding relationship between Ramsay and his new partner, Thompson. She’s a young rookie, he’s a decade-older divorcee. He’s supposed to be showing her the ropes and seems intent on trying to ignore her obvious strong feelings. She’s practically begging him for a date in one scene. And then there is the finale where they do become blatant love interests; Ramsay has just had killer spider robots spray acid all over his cheeks, yet he’s content to make out with Thompson all through the credits despite his open wounds. Worse yet, Selleck’s makeup runs all over her face and down her chin during the credits, meaning in the context of the film that his melting flesh is getting all over her face as they make out! And Dr. Luther’s smoldering acid-filled corpse is like two feet away and still giving off smoke from the exploding spider robots, which means they’re probably inhaling the fumes. And all of this is set to the wailing screams of a Yamaha synthesizer. God damn, this movie is the most ’80s thing ever.
And then there is the car chase, in which explosive robot RC cars drive through busy traffic to try and kill the heroes. It’s supposed to be Dr. Luther doing this, but he’s suddenly got henchmen who only appear in this one moment. They launch a bunch of exploding robots, which the police cars can detect and use lasers to shoot. None of this tech returns in any other scene, and the whole thing becomes a pointless throwaway. It’s just padding to try and add more meat to a plot point featuring Kirstie Alley, and it instead makes an unnecessary mess.
Things like this are why the film wasn’t as well received as it could have been, but it was also a tough year to compete in science fiction cinema: The Terminator, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Dune, 2010, Starman, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai all premiered, just to name a few. Looking back, it’s easy to see how Runaway would get lost in the shuffle. But it’s worth a look, if only after the major names on the list have been seen.
And none of those movies can top Selleck’s perfectly sculpted mouth brow.