Mean Gene And The Moustache Machine
Remember how amazing robots were during the ‘80s? On TV there was Vicky the robot on Small Wonder, K.I.T.T. the talking car from Knight Rider and Conky from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Toy stores were full of Go-Bots, Transformers, Voltron, Omnibots and Nintendo’s R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy). And they invaded theatres: in the Short Circuit films, the Robocop series and two Terminator movies. It seemed like we were on the verge of either living a Jetsons lifestyle, or getting caught up in a robocalypse.
Well, neither happened, but at least we got Runaway, the 1984 film in which Tom Selleck plays a cop in the near-future who's assigned to policing out-of-control robots. The heavily mustachioed actor was wildly popular at the time due to his starring role in TV’s Magnum P.I. and shot the film in between seasons. What was intended to be a blockbuster, however, was overshadowed by James Cameron’s The Terminator. So instead of tearing up the box office, it played often on Super Channel free movie weekends, which was where I discovered it.
I hadn’t realized it until recently, but the movie was directed by acclaimed sci-fi author Michael Crichton, who, aside from writing Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, and creating the TV show E.R., stepped behind the camera for several features, also including Westworld and Coma. It was the fourth anniversary of Crichton’s death this past Sunday, and I stumbled across the movie on Netflix the same day, so I decided that was just reason enough to see if Runaway held up since the days when Selleck wore a ‘stache that large, in charge and dye-free.
In the film he plays Ramsay, a cop in a future where robots are so much a part of humans' daily lives that we need a special squad on the police force to deal with them when they go haywire. Like most movie cops, he gets a new partner and – wouldn’t ya know it – she’s a beautiful woman (played by Cynthia Rhodes). When his ornery Captain has them fly over to a farmer’s field to disarm and haywire planting machine, she discovers his fear of heights, something that maybe... just maybe... will come into play later in the film. Then, when a household helper robot goes bonkers, Ramsay must act to save a baby from a gun-totin’ automaton, and in the process he uncovers a plot involving dangerous microchips that can turn good ‘bots bad and the ruthless man intent on selling them to terrorists and the mafia. KISS’ Gene Simmons plays the murderous genius Luther with such over-the-top malevolent relish you’d swear he was really was a dickish, greedy egomaniac in real life…
So, Ramsay pursues him, Luther strikes back, wounding his partner and kidnapping his son, leading to an inevitable confrontation on a really tall building. Oh, and Kirstie Alley shows up as a sort of gangster’s moll who has the microchip templates that both cop and criminal are after. And some pretty big hair.
Runaways wears its cop flick clichés like a pair of lead mukluks, which gives it a bit of a cheesy charm, like something The Simpsons would make fun of. But the real reason to watch – doubly so if you're a pre-teen boy – is all the cool robotics and gadgetry. The big selling point of the film is the gaggle of Luther’s mechanical spiders, which crawl and leap on their victims, injecting them with a needle full of acid (because this is the most efficient way to kill someone outside of a James bond movie, right?). That, and he’s got those bad-ass, scary bullets that chase their targets, allowing Crichton to do a neat bullet-cam thing that sees the shot snake through alleys and make 90-degree turns.
In hindsight, ‘80s robo-sci-fi movies like Runaway were just big techno teases. They showed us amazing technology that we wanted (I, for one, craved my own army of mechanical acid-spiders to do my bidding), while simultaneously scaring the hell out of us that the same technology would try to kill us. At the end of day, we failed to achieve a society with robot butlers, but at least we can easily watch the movies that promised us such things. And it's probably a good thing we passed on the whole giant moustache thing, too.