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Ghosts in the Machine: Runaway and the Technological Revolution

runaway poster

A gaudy relic right out of your childhood — VHS Revival recalls a period of dubious speculations

Some movies are best forgotten, but not so easy to forget. For those of you whose formative years happened to coincide with the mid-1980s, chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about. The decade was renown for its huge advancements in practical effects artistry thanks to groundbreaking visuals found in the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sadly, the technological revolution of the 1990s would soon result in the death of practical effects as an aesthetic draw, but back in the 80s the computer revolution couldn’t come quick enough. With the rise of home computers and various other clunky and outmoded inventions (fax machine anyone?), it seemed that we were standing on the precipice of something bold and unprecedented.

The fact was, in terms of movies, we actually were. As overbearing as CGI has become in the minds of many, its burgeoning potential would open up avenues never before imagined. The most obvious example of the changing times was the evolution of Disney/Pixar. Disney were a global brand renown for their distinctive hand-drawn animation style, but CGI would change their approach irrevocably, leading to a huge cull in jobs for conventional artists, many of whom found themselves on the professional scrapheap. They had already dabbled with the technology for 1985‘s live action feature Young Sherlock Holmes, which would attempt to blend CG and live-action seamlessly. Animation wise, Black Cauldron, released that same year, would set a precedent by featuring small instances of CGI to create instances of animation that could not be captured otherwise. A decade later they released their first computer-animated feature-length film in Toy Story. The rest, as they say, is history.

Runaway Selleck

Disney were undoubtedly huge innovators in the field, but others were in on the revolution from the ground up. CGI had been around in small doses since the early 1970s, and author/director Michael Crichton was at the very heart of it. His first mainstream movie, Westworld (1973), was the first to use 2-D computer images, while its lesser known sequel, Futureworld, (1976) would give audiences their first sample of the industry’s first 3-D computer graphics. More than two decades later Crichton would be involved again after Steven Spielberg’s monster film adaptation of Jurassic Park wowed audiences by featuring the first physically textured CGI, a huge landmark in the technology’s rapid evolution.

Luther: You’re standing by the desk punching buttons on the console, trying to trace this call, which won’t do shit! Because I’m calling from a mobile phone.

As a writer, Crichton would think in far more simplistic terms. This is unsurprising. For anyone schooled in the literary form they will know that simplicity is very often key. From the simple overuse of descriptive language to character arcs and plotting, nothing turns off a reader quite like self-indulgence. After the release of 1985’s gaudy, robot-laden spectacle Runaway, Crichton had already admitted to being “bored with special effects”, and it’s easy to see why. By the mid-’80s they were a given for mainstream action and science fiction vehicles thanks to the likes of James Cameron’s The Terminator, which was released in the same year as Runaway with much lower expectations. Of course, things didn’t turn out quite as Crichton had imagined. While Runaway bombed at the box office with a $1,229,413 loss from a budget of approximately $8,000,000, The Terminator smashed all expectation with an incredible cumulative worldwide gross of approximately $40,000,000 from a much leaner budget.

In hindsight, it’s absurd to imagine The Terminator as a financial underdog to any movie, let alone one that has all but vanished from the rich and varied realms of sci-fi filmmaking, but when you take a closer look it makes perfect sense. For one thing, Crichton was an established innovator in the field, a far cry from Cameron’s relative inexperience as a mainstream director. Also, the movie’s cast was more low-key than one might imagine. Arnie, although recognisable since his breakout turn in 1977‘s bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron, was still very much the unproven rookie, a mountain of muscle who was once told that he would never achieve his dream of becoming a mainstream actor. The movie’s protagonist, Linda Hamilton, was also a relative unknown most famous for her appearance in cheapo ’80s horror Children of the Corn, as was the emerging Michael Biehn, who would go on to become a sci-fi icon, starring in Cameron blockbusters Aliens and The Abyss.

Runaway Selleck and Rhodes

Conversely, Runaway had bagged mustachioed 80s hunk Tom Selleck, a low-key silver screen actor who was riding the crest of popular TV detective show Magnum PI. Also on board was Kirstie Alley, who had hit the ground running in popular mainstream sitcom Cheers, and Kiss rock star Gene Simmons as Selleck’s one-dimensional nemesis, Luther. Ironically, casting such flavour of the month personalities would have its drawbacks. Selleck and Alley may have brought experience to the table, but the movie as a whole has a somewhat terrestrial feel, and the plot, although sticking to Crichton’s simple ethos, could belong to an extended episode of Knight Rider. Although high-concept for its time and place, the movie is mired in cliches, something that was apparently purposeful.

Speaking about the movie, Crichton would explain“[Runaway] is not a cautionary tale” about technology but “an updated police story with every police cliche turned a bit… This is a movie, at least in part, about the difference between people and machines. We tried very hard to keep perspective. Machines are so visually interesting that a lot of times they threaten to take over a film. There have been some very technically innovative movies in recent years that are very difficult to relate to as an audience. Sometimes I’ll sit there and think: ‘Boy, this is really knowledgeable. But so what?'”

Runaway may be light on technical nous, but it is also gloriously messy, in spite of its narrative simplicity. Everywhere you look there’s a toaster hybrid looking to zap you with a bolt of electricity, a legion of Dust Buster tracker bombs invading the freeway unnoticed, all of it tied abruptly together with the kind of lightweight exposition that David Hasselhoff would probably turn his nose up at. Selleck plays Sargent Jack Ramsay, a cop who runs the precinct’s Runaway Division, the purpose of which is to track down and eliminate rogue machines, which in the movie’s futuristic landscape are everywhere: in the home, at work, hiding in the crevices of the department’s bathroom with vials full of acid-based weaponry. Quite the social makeover considering Crichton described the movie as being “about a year ahead”.

runaway kirstie alley

Ramsay is your typical 80s cop: brave, determined and living a life of self-imposed solitude following the death of his wife. He also gets ceaseless grief from his Dirty Harry police Captain, though some things come with the territory it seems. He does have Lois, however—a busybody house robot that looks like an office printer wrapped in Christmas decor, a messy contraption who Jack has become disconcertingly attached to, mourning her near-termination as he glibly brushes off any mention of his wife from beau-to-be, detective Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes).

Ramsay does have a son, too, though you wouldn’t know it the amount of time they spend together. The fact that he is played by Flight of the Navigator‘s Joey Cramer is the only reason I’m remembering him asides from the movie’s inevitable hostage-driven showdown. Little Bobby Ramsay is in the constant care of Lois and her inkjet chassis, who must prove highly dexterous in an emergency considering she has no appendages of any apparent worth. Saying that, Ramsay spends the opening scene of the movie rescuing a newly orphaned infant after a limbless vacuum cleaner goes doolally and slaughters his parents with a kitchen knife, before turning the crime scene into a shooting range. Lucky for Ramsay that he packed his crappy laser gun and “electromagnetic scramble suit”. Always better to be prepared.

Chief of Police: You screwed up good, Ramsay. We got two dead officers, do you understand me mister? Two. Dead. Cops! We got two wounded – one of them your own partner – and we got two dead guinea punks! And no one knows why or what the HELL its all about!

The movie’s love interest proves to be another damp squib. Rhodes, who was married to pop star Richard Marx after the two met on the set of 1983‘s Saturday Night Fever follow-up Staying Alive, was barely an actress, appearing in movies Xanadu (1980) and Flashdance (1983) as an honest-to–goodness dancer. In terms of actual acting, the former pop video regular is perhaps best remembered for her turn as dancing instructor Penny Johnson in 1987‘s cult chick flick Dirty Dancing, and Runaway would be her one and only non-dancing silver screen appearance. But their lack of chemistry is more down to weak characterisation than bad acting. Rhodes is vacuous, subservient and instantly smitten — just the ingredients necessary for a career in policing, and the perfect recipe for a non-problematical workplace relationship.

Runaway Lois

Okay, this was the 80s, so such gender belittlement is expected to some degree, and the movie is actually a lot of fun, particularly when revisiting it after all these years. When I was a boy, I was fascinated with Edward Woodward’s The Equaliser. It had a sense of danger, neon aesthetics and the kind of opening credits that still oozes foreboding. It was also on late at night when I really should have been tucked up in bed. This would have been around the same time I saw Runaway, and the two were one and the same. They both seemed dangerous somehow, like a glimpse into the realms of adulthood. In reality, Runaway is nothing of the sort. It’s pure child’s play, oozing the kind of kitsch menace that typified the decade.

Part of my fear came in the form of Simmons’ Luther, a cursory villain straight out of an episode of Magnum PI. Simmons doesn’t act as much as he does brood. His eyes are dark, mean and maniacal. He openly threatens people and stabs folk in the neck in public places. He confesses to all previous crimes while threatening his next victim. He is an all-powerful nincompoop just dying to get caught. Either that or he realises his fate is set to be sealed during the next 90 or so minutes. Luther also has one of the coolest guns in the genre, a self-targeting pistol loaded with missiles which pursue his prey with the POV inevitability of The Evil Dead. Simmons had previously flirted with the idea of acting, but after he met with Crichton he was cast in his first feature without even having to read for the part. “I wasn’t interested in musicals or comedy,” he would claim. “I wanted to start out in something serious. I understand brooding characters more than I do splashy people.” With Runaway, he almost got his wish. Brooding, yes, but serious? You would have to call Runaway comedy before you did serious, in spite of a lack of real self-awareness.

Luther: That wasn’t very nice, Ramsay!

But as with many movies produced in the unashamedly garish ’80s, this is all a part of the fun, and probably didn’t seem half as ridiculous at the time. Yes it’s ludicrous, positively farcical in hindsight, but it reminds me of simpler times, and there is something sweetly naive about its various speculations in an era when bigger meant more powerful. Just watch the scene when Selleck’s colleague Marvin (Stan Shaw) opens up a rogue contraption. It looks like a battery sale at the local hardware store. By this point, the boys in blue are onto something. Someone is tampering with the malfunctioning machines by inserting the kind of malevolent microchip that the organised crime world are falling over each other to get a piece of — that’s according to perennial confessor Luther, who can’t wait to inform all and sundry about his latest dastardly plan.

Runaway Simmons and spiders

Luther’s greatest creation, and the one you are most likely to recall from your childhood, are his malevolent batch of mechanical spiders — a patient, yet wildly frenetic bunch with the ability to creep up on you like the real thing. These micro predators scared the living crap out of me as a kid, and they’re still pretty freaky. They can leap, swarm, grab, and are surprisingly mobile. They act like human sleeper cells with a pocket full of cyanide, jabbing a metal syringe into your veins and pumping you full of acid, before exploding into a ball of flames and taking down anyone within ten feet of them. Watching it back, scenes in which Ramsey struggles with a batch of twitching Meccano is next level ridiculous, but those of you with an aversion to spiders will probably be checking the darkest corners of your room before lights-out.

Runaway has been a fading part of my consciousness for many years, and I was startled by how harmless it is. Was I really ever young enough to be frightened by murderous toaster hybrids or mechanical arachnids that look like Meccano construction toys? Clearly I was. Even more startling was the fact that this movie, already bordering on speculative obsolescence, was the brainchild of one of cinema’s most influential in technological terms, and a damn fine author too. Runaway fails both as a speculative vision and an original narrative, but Crichton’s intentions were clear, and as a cliched chase flick stripped of technological insight, this one is a real charmer, harking back to a time when audiences were far more readily impressed, and far more open to dubious speculations.

Runaway logo

Director: Michael Crichton
Screenplay: Michael Crichton
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Editing: Glenn Farr &
James Coblentz

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