Michael Crichton’s Runaway: 1984’s Other Killer Robot Movie

Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons starred in Michael Crichton's 1984 sci-fi thriller, Runaway. Ryan looks back at a flawed yet intriguing film...

Late 1984 saw two killer robot movies make their debut in cinemas. You’ve probably heard of the first one, released in October: The Terminator, the film that launched the career of James Cameron and cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger’s status as a movie star.

The second was Runaway, another sci-fi thriller that, in theory, could have been the bigger hit. It starred Tom Selleck and Kiss member Gene Simmons. It was written and directed by Michael Crichton, the director of the superb Westworld and writer of such best-selling novels as The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, both adapted into great films. Six years after Runaway, Crichton would write Jurassic Park, a book that is still sending ripples through pop culture today.

Runaway ended up making about $7 million in cinemas – less than 10 percent of Cameron’s low-budget Terminator. Critical notices were middling, and even Crichton didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for his film; “I’m bored with special effects,” he told the Washington Post just one month after Runaway‘s release.

Looking back at Runaway from a 30-year vantage point, it isn’t too difficult to see where Runaway went wrong. The Terminator came up with a goofy concept (bodybuilding killer robot from the future hunts waitress) and dared to take it seriously, resulting in a scarily raw chase movie. Runaway takes a plausible concept – that of ordinary household robots going awry – and weighs it down with cliches and moments of 80s excess. This isn’t to say that it’s a terrible film – far from it – but watching it again, there’s often the feeling that there’s a more intelligent thriller trying to get out. 

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In the near future – or an alternate version of 1984 – robots have become ubiquitous. They serve as butlers in our homes, cooking our meals and babysitting our children. They help build our skyscrapers and grow our crops. But having all these robots around comes with its drawbacks: they have a tendency to break down.

Sgt Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is a cop who works on the runaway squad, which specializes in recovering and disabling malfunctioning robots. As the movie begins, we see one of Ramsay’s routine calls: a robot which removes pests from cereal crops has gone berserk in the middle of a field, so Ramsay’s despatched by helicopter to shut the wretched thing off. It’s tedious, unglamorous work, the sci-fi equivalent of bicycle patrol or directing traffic.

The antics of a villain named Luther (Gene Simmons) soon inject a frisson of danger into Ramsay’s geeky job. A robot rampages through its owners’ house, killing several members of the same family with a kitchen knife. Ramsay, along with his new partner Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) link the crime to Luther, a mad computer boffin with a suitcase full of killer microchips and an arsenal of high-tech weaponry – including a gun which fires heat-seeking bullets. 

Crichton introduces convincingly low-key world in Runaway, where its robots aren’t the usual gleaming humanoids more commonly seen in sci-fi, but boxy, utilitarian things that tend to specialize in one task. Ramsay’s housekeeping robot, which takes care of his son Bobby (Joey Cramer, later of Flight Of The Navigator fame), looks like an 80s hi-fi with wheels and mechanical arms. That citizens of the near future would invite these clunky-looking things into their homes makes sense in a roundabout sort of way; the early 80s was, after all, a period of relatively cheap but chunky computers, some more reliable and useful than others.

A few of Crichton’s gadgets are also quite prescient: a remote-controlled drone, which the police use to scope out a house before the cops storm it, looks remarkably like the flying drones you can buy in shops now. Computers have retinal scanners and speech recognition.

The problem with Runaway is that, having introduced such an interesting premise, it’s then wasted on a fairly by-the-numbers thriller. Selleck plays the kind of dogged cop that was a familiar sight in the TV and cinema of the 70s and 80s, and he even has a surly boss who shouts a lot (played by GW Bailey, who starred in Police Academy that same year). It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to guess that Ramsay’s new partner will eventually become his love interest (despite his tendency to call her “Kid”). Ramsay also has a heavily signposted character flaw – his fear of heights – which is predictably brought into play at vital moments in the plot. 

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Runaway‘s enlivened quite a lot by Gene Simmons. Not a natural actor by any stretch, Simmons is nevertheless terrifying and amusing in equal measure as the villain. Bringing some of his Kiss stage persona with him as Dr. Charles Luther, he snarls and glowers his way through the role, discharging his heat-seeking mini missiles and robot spiders with evident glee.

Ah yes, the robot spiders. These, without doubt, are the most disturbing gadgets in the whole film. Luther uses these little critters to remotely assassinate his victims, and they’re like something from a nightmare. Apt to leap on your chest from the ceiling or other unlikely places, they inject some form of deadly acid into your veins before abruptly exploding in a ball of orange flame. The special effects don’t look quite so special these days, but the idea behind them still has a certain potency: they’re the kind of thing Skynet might toy with before moving on to building six-foot-tall Terminators.

The moments where Luther gets to intimidate people or unleash his killer spiders are Runaway‘s most engrossing. At the other end of the spectrum we have just about every scene between Ramsay and Thompson. Many are simply dull and airless; one or two are unintentionally funny. Check out the scene where Ramsay talks about his late wife, and then notice how quickly he changes the subject to his robot, Lois:

Thompson: Do you have a wife?

Ramsay: She died.

Thompson: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

Ramsay: It was a couple of years ago. Car crash. But Lois is a big help. [Takes a nonchalant sip of beer.]

A high-stakes moment where Ramsay has to remove one of Luther’s unexploded, heat-seeking bullets from Thompson’s arm is also quite amusing when you realise that it’s the closest thing Runaway has to a steamy sex scene.

“I want you to sit back and take it real easy,” Ramsay says, smoothly.

“Ooh,” Thompson says.

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“That’s it. Easy,” Ramsay says.

“Aah,” Thompson says. 

It’s in scenes like these that it all snaps into focus: Ramsay is the sci-fi genre’s Ron Burgundy. Obviously, there’s that superbly combed moustache, but he also has his Burgundy-esque eye for the ladies. Just look at his reaction when Kirstie Alley shows up as a computer company executive. “Who’s she? She’s very attractive,” Ramsay purrs. Later, when Ramsay recognises his affection for Thompson, his romantic question is, “Can you cook?”

Compared to The Terminator, which followed a woman’s path from the hunted to battle-hardened defeater of cyborgs, Runaway looks rather quaint to modern eyes, but there’s a certain charm to be found among the 80s cop movie staples and clunky dialogue. A scene where Ramsay, zapped and humiliated by a runaway robot, beats the wretched thing to scrap with an office chair, is quite a good comedy moment. There’s an entertaining shoot-out at an open-air restaurant, all building to a Vertigo-inspired final act where Ramsay is forced to confront his terror of heights. 

But Runaway is neither as lean or as well mounted as Westworld, Crichton’s classic 1973 film which, ironically, predated The Terminator with its battle of wits between a human and an implacable machine. Nor is it quite as interesting as Looker, the 1981 thriller that is just as dated as Runaway but manages to explore its future tech more compellingly.

Nevertheless, Runaway is an intriguing if lesser entry in Crichton’s string of stories about the dark side of technology. The most disturbing scene in the film – more disturbing even than the exploding killer spiders – is one of its more mundane: a shot of the blood-soaked kitchen floor where a robot has slain a family seemingly on a whim.

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In his best stories, Crichton scanned the technological horizon and saw danger looming all over the place: robotics, genetic research, cybernetics. In Runaway, the threat of technology gone awry hits us where we live. The film’s 80s excesses take the edge off the blade, but there are odd moments where Crichton’s ideas still glint with a disturbing power.

Oh, and then there’s Gene Simmons as the Silicon Valley tech genius gone dangerously toxic.