80’s Trash of the Week: Runaway

It Is The Future… where every home has a robot, Tom Selleck saves us from Gene Simmons, who has made evil microchips that turn projectors and erector sets into deadly killing machines.
All the good parts condensed into a trailer.

I can be pretty forgiving of a movie that makes me nostalgic. I saw Runaway back in ’84 as a 13 year old idiot, and it was the greatest thing ever. Robots, computers, boobs, and Gene Simmons. Now just a few years earlier, the horrible KISS album Unmasked came out and shattered our childhood dreams that KISS were exactly like they were in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, demons from another dimension who bring us Rock and save us from monsters. Before the blessed internet, the movie was the only way we could glimpse what Gene Simmons looked like in human form. If he was truly human… we all knew he had a cow’s tongue grafted on, so perhaps his make-up was really a tattoo, or a birthmark.

According to the wikipedia, Runaway was meant to be “the sci-fi blockbuster of the summer,” but Michael Crichton’s dreams were smashed like a poseur band under KISS’s boots when James Cameron, the one true god of the action film, came out with another little killer robot movie called The Terminator. Crichton would have to shut up about the d-d-dangers of technology until 1993, when he stole Charles Pellegrino’s idea about getting dinosaur DNA from amber. So we have James Cameron to thank for not another retread of Westworld coming out every few years. Crichton’s other bad 80’s film, Looker, which was about making CG “models “of perfect fashion models and then killing them, will be the subject of another week’s review.

This movie starts out bad and gets progressively worse. It has a few interesting ideas that it executes clumsily, and it’s hard to believe that it’s made by the same guy who gave us the pretty damn good 70’s movie Westworld, also about killer robots. Futureworld had come out already, so maybe we were sick of killer robots that looked like Radio Shack leftovers. Either way, watching it now is like getting teeth pulled.

It begins with Tom Selleck and his female partner (see, in the future we won’t be as sexist as Michael Crichton’s novels) show up at a corn field to catch a runaway robot that looks like a Tonka truck.
The wily robot runs all over the field, and the cops, as a robot version of Animal Control, can do nothing better than chase it on foot and tackle it. It of course, explodes. That’s what technology does. Later, they show up at a hostage situation where the home robot has a gun and shot its masters. There’s a baby inside, so Selleck dons chain mail and some oven mitts, grabs his trusty laser, and heads in to kill Rosie the Robot, who looks a lot like an old projector with wheels on it. Sort of like Battlebots would be, years later. So maybe they got that right.

To Selleck’s discredit, he plays the part completely straight.

Our hero is pretty bland and has no personality, except hating robots (despite owning one) and being afraid of heights. This and the spy flop Lassiter pretty much buried any hopes of a Tom Selleck action hero career. Even with the porn ‘stache. Magnum, P.I. always had some humor, and this movie would have benefited from a little. As usual, Crichton takes his nervous-nelly technology-fearmongering incredibly seriously, with such awfully written exchanges as:

Ramsey: Lemme tell ya the way the world is. Nothing works right. Relationships don’t work right, people don’t work right, people make machines so why should machines be perfect?
Karen: Because they’re machines.
Ramsey: Yeah, well thats not the way it is.

Pretty deep, huh?

J-NEE’s got a gun…

Once they check out the killer projector, they find a custom chip in it with a red mark on it, the universal symbol of evil. Once the token black cop inspects it, he declares it can “turn any domestic computer into a killing machine.” Dun dunt DUN! Who would do something so diabolical? Gene Simmons from KISS, that’s who. Just look at how deliciously evil he looks. He’s loving every minute of it.

That little smirk means “I was banging Kirstie Alley in my trailer.”

Yes, Kirstie Alley. Back in the 80’s she was smokin’, now she’s a smoked pork loin. Actually that’s a cruel and easy joke, but she’s a Scientologist and we show them no mercy here. I guess she’s just got a lot of body thetans now, or the cans on her e-meter were filled with gravy. But here, in the magical 80’s, she was hot stuff, with some wild eyeshadow.

If I only knew that thetans lived in pie.

In this scene, they are checking her for bugs. Not coochie-thetans, the electronic kind. It’s a clever excuse for her to get topless. In the 80’s, discerning audiences demanded at least one boob scene.

Gene Simmons’ gun pre-dates the cool RoboCop gun by a few years, but isn’t as cool. Instead of being a machine pistol, it uses Acme Cartoon Technology to sniff out its target, turn corners, and double back. Tom Selleck actually runs away from it, dodges it, and so on. We later learn that it is a mini-rocket that traces your heat signature, when the black scientist cop lights a smoke next to one they captured. Yes, he lights a smoke next to an unexploded rocket cartoon bomb that chases you all around the studio backlot to explode up your ass. The movie is that smart. They also use a fucking psychic to track where the bullet came from, to show that flim-flammery is better than science.

Hey Gene, that’s no Love Gun.

Selleck’s partner gets shot in the arm with the Wile E. Coyote gun and he demands to remove the bullet himself, since those “disarmer bots” (also looking suspiciously like a projector with stuff on it) are always screwing up. He saves her arm and she’s just fine one scene later, that’s the power of the human touch. In the next, most exciting scene, the cops get into their crappy little cars and get chased by little remote-control modems that explode under them.
They get chased because they forgot to scan Kirstie’s purse for bugs, and there’s a great scene where they jump from moving cars, with the doors open so the cars are 10 feet apart, instead of going through the windows. They shoot the bomberbots with a laser mounted on top of the other car, that uses the same sound effect as the Star Wars ship lasers.

Not the best way to swap cars, but the best way to show Selleck’s ass.

Kirstie, shaken by that idiotic chase, finally gives up “the templates” for the Evil Microchips, which look like photo negatives. They meet Simmons to trade the templates at a sushi restaurant with a racist neon logo, where his partner gets captured because Selleck isn’t paying attention.

Hai! You wan’ sushi? Yes, the face is yellow.

Simmons doesn’t just have Acme chase-you bullets, evil microchips, and remote control bombs at his disposal. The film’s probably most famous for the spiders, which look like erector set toys, and can jump on you, inject acid, and explode with a lot of sparks, “leaving no evidence.” Except acid burns and robot shrapnel in your face. My personal favorite scene is when one kills a female cop in the bathroom, because she dies like a cartoon cockroach. Her legs flail and then stick straight up like she got sprayed with Raid. Crichton should be commended for directing this touching death scene.
Dying in a toilet stall is never dignified.

They trade templates for hostages, but only give him half, so Simmons has to sneak into the police station to find out where Selleck lives. Despite looking like pure evil, and being the city’s most wanted terrorist, he just dons a uniform and uses their computers. He doesn’t even hack in on a phone line, even though he hacked the police cameras earlier. He shows up at Selleck’s house and kicks over his housebot, who talks like Cartman’s mom and looks suspiciously like a stereo system on wheels with a phone attached. Then he takes his annoying kid hostage, and to the top of a highrise under construction, because he knows Selleck is afraid of heights. Not that it stops him from going to the top of the building, hanging from underneath the freight elevator, and swinging around like an orangutan. Also, there is a Spark Factory on the top floor. Action films have a lot of spark factories in them, sort of like how every spaceship since Alien has had a Dripping Chain Room.
The intolerably long roof scene.

Simmons unwisely tells him that the spiderbots are programmed to kill the first person down the elevator, so Selleck uses their cold robotic logic against his nemesis, by making him land on the ground first. And we all know what that leads to. Explosive acid-injection! One even gets him in the crotch.

Where’s the KISS Army when I need them?
After the requisite second death scene, they all live happily ever after, and are all killed by Terminators. I wouldn’t recommend seeing this film, unless you want to shatter your nostalgic yearning to see it again. It’s badly paced and feels intolerably long, it has what is probably Jerry Goldsmith’s worst score, and Selleck and his partner are so damn boring that Gene Simmons chewing up the scenery like Ozzy on a bat’s scrotum isn’t enough to keep it interesting. Unlike The Last Starfighter, it lacks the charm necessary for me to overlook its faults. It was deservingly overshadowed by The Terminator, whose effects and pacing make it look like a TV movie in comparison. The spiderbots are kind of neat and they manage to make them look better than little tinkertoys in a few scenes, but this is a relic best avoided.

One thought on “80’s Trash of the Week: Runaway

  1. Like you, this was a bit of a childhood favourite for me, but oh Lordy, not one I should have watched again. Thanks for the great review, made me laugh!

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