Ghosts in the Machine: Runaway & the Digital Revolution

Rediscovering a kitsch 80s classic with technological fancies that prove impressive and otherwise

Some movies are best forgotten, but not so easy to forget. For those of you who were around during the latter part of the 20th century, chances are you know precisely what I’m getting at. The 80s, in particular, was a decade renown for its huge advancements in practical effects thanks to visual treats like John Carpenter’s The Thing, movies which began to rival the imagination with their eyewatering feats of lifelike imagery. It was also known for its far-fetched speculations as mankind raced towards the precipice of a digital revolution. Some of those effects may have wowed too, but in no time at all, clunky robots and giant, impractical gadgets, once lauded as cutting edge tech that would one day wind up in every home, became gaudy relics fit for the museum of creative obsolescence. Similarly, evolving technology would soon put an end to practical effects, which had been around since the late 19th century, as cinema’s aesthetic draw, and central to that, at least during those less encompassing formative years, was author Michael Crichton, the writer/director of kitsch 80s classic Runaway.

While practical effects and animatronics still had a part to play beyond the 1980s, CGI’s burgeoning potential would open up avenues never before imagined. Even the world of animation was affected irrevocably, the most obvious example being the evolution of Disney/Pixar. Disney was a global brand renown for its distinctive hand-drawn style, but CGI would change all that, leading to a huge cull of jobs for conventional artists, many of whom finding themselves on the professional scrapheap almost overnight. Disney had dabbled with the technology as early as 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 details that could not have been captured otherwise. A decade later Disney released their first computer-animated feature-length film in Toy Story. The rest, as they say, is history.

Disney were undoubtedly huge innovators in the field, but others were in on the revolution from the ground floor up. CGI had been around in small doses since the early 1970s, and 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.

The early days of CGI, at least in hindsight, are shoddy at best, even those instances featured in timeless blockbuster movies such as James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which in 1992 was the most expensive film ever made with a budget of somewhere between $94 and $102 million — an eyewatering sum at the time. Many weaned on practical effects would grow tired of CGI even as it continued to grow to levels that were almost indistinguishable from reality, partly because the evolution was so rapid that movies, much like the gaudy speculations of old, quickly felt dated, and partly because films resembled videogames as much as they did traditional cinema, the rise of CGI-heavy superhero films irking the likes of Martin Scorsese in recent years. Also, films became shallow and in many cases lazier, particularly in a reboot-obsessed era where many innovative properties were given a new coat of paint in an attempt to pass them off as superior products and slash marketing and advertising costs.

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.


Of course, this is mostly a generational thing, traditional practical effects just as off-putting to those raised on movies of a more suggestive nature. Even Crichton himself, whose most famous stories were technology-driven, would already admit to being “bored of special effects” as early as 1984 following the release of his gaudy, robot-laden spectacle Runaway, which proved a spectacular commercial failure. While James Cameron’s sci-fi sleeper hit and future franchise colossus The Terminator, released the same year, smashed all expectation with an incredible cumulative worldwide gross of approximately $40,000,000 from a much leaner budget, Runaway, touted as a potential innovator and commercial monster, bombed at the box office, suffering a miserable $1,229,413 in losses on a budget of approximately $8,000,000.

In hindsight, it’s absurd to imagine The Terminator as an 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 a recognised star following his breakout turn in 1977‘s bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron and subsequent roles as Conan, was still very much a flavour-of-the-month rookie, a mountain of muscle who was once told 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, later starring in Cameron blockbusters Aliens and The Abyss.

Conversely, Runaway would star a peak of his powers Tom Selleck, who though hardly a Hollywood legend, was slap-bang in the middle of an 8-year run as the hugely popular Magnum, P.I. 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 those stars 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, though sticking to Crichton’s simple ethos in the face of so much 80s cod-science, could belong to an extended episode of Knight Rider.

Though its distinctly 80s imaginings, at least from a visual perspective, places Runaway firmly in the realms of the outmoded, it does prove something of a speculative innovator in terms of predicting modern technology, more so than The Terminator, even if it does pale in comparison on just about every other conceivable level. 80s movies were well aware that we were standing on the edge of something bold and unprecedented as we raced towards the millennium, though their design suppositions were typically clunky at best, and Runaway is no exception. Following the relatively primitive technological advancements of the 70s and 80s, it was only natural that bigger would equate to better in the minds of a generation who for the most part were still resistant to technology, and, creatively speaking, you could get away with an awful lot of cod-theorising without being met with knowing derision. Today, understanding technology is less a choice, more a necessity that’s vital to every facet of modern life. Put succinctly, if you’re going to speculate and get away with it, you best know your shit then some.

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 it’s all about!

Chief of Police

Runaway embraces machines as an advantageous function of everyday human existence, but also as potential pratfalls that are prone to manipulation, something we now experience daily — albeit it in a less obvious and literal fashion — through various social media platforms, but despite its technophobe leanings, Crichton was adamant that the film is not an exclusively admonitory tale. In an interview addressing the movie’s themes, Crichton would explain, “[Runaway] is not a cautionary tale” about technology but “an updated police story with every police cliché 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?'”

Despite such a concerted effort for stripped-back narrative simplicity, Runaway is gloriously messy. Everywhere you look there’s a toaster hybrid looking to zap you with a bolt of electricity, a legion of Dust Buster ‘lock-on’ bomb devices invading the freeway unnoticed, all of it tied abruptly together with the kind of rampant exposition that Baywatch‘s David Hasselhoff would probably have turned his nose up at. Selleck plays Sergeant Jack Ramsay, a clichéd city cop with a troubled past 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 suddenly everywhere: in the home, at work, hiding in the crevices of the department’s bathroom, creeping around in cumbrous spider form with vials full of acid-based weaponry. Quite the societal makeover given Crichton’s claim that the movie is “about a year ahead”.

Ramsay is your typical 80s cop: brave, determined and living a life of self-imposed solitude following the death of his wife. He also suffers ceaseless grief from his Dirty Harry-esque Captain. He does have Lois to fall back on — a busybody house robot that looks like an office printer wrapped in Christmas décor, a bulky contraption who Jack has become disconcertingly attached to, mourning her near-termination as he glibly brushes off any mention of his late wife from beau-to-be, detective Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes). He also has a son, played by Flight of the Navigator‘s Joey Cramer, Lois becoming a kind of surrogate mother in Jack’s profession-induced absence.

Little Bobby Ramsay, whose only real function is to become the subject of the movie’s inevitable, hostage-driven showdown, is in the constant care of Lois and her inkjet printer-come-slot machine chassis, though it’s easy to doubt the machine’s suitability for the role given the fact that she has no appendages of any apparent worth and must be absolutely useless given even the smallest emergency. That said, some of the robots on display are impossibly dextrous, particularly during the film’s opening scene in which Ramsay spends his time rescuing a newly orphaned infant from a similarly limbless vacuum cleaner that goes doolally and slaughter’s the kid’s parents with a kitchen knife. It’s just lucky that Ramsay remembered his crappy laser gun and “electromagnetic scramble suit”. In the frenetic, tech-laden world of Runaway, it’s always better to come prepared.

Elsewhere, the film’s technological speculations are uncannily on the money. In a world where cops are reduced to repairmen, ceaselessly playing catch-up while the machine population grow rebellious Skynet style, humans are being replaced in the workplace, automated machines tackling intensive farming, overnight construction duties and general communications, giving them, or anyone using machines for their nefarious needs, a wide net with ample opportunities for supervillainy. Even more astounding are specific instances of technology that would one day exist, albeit in a more commercially pleasing form. ‘Floater cameras’ and ‘lock-on’ machines, the latter an explosive device that locks onto targeted vehicles, are essentially drones; smart bullets, self-driving cars, Alexa style communication robots and eye scan password replacements all making an appearance at one time or another. For a movie that often appears laughably dated, Runaway is an astonishing speculative achievement at times.

Some of Runaway‘s more traditional elements are far less impressive. The movie’s love interest proves to be yet another damp squib. Rhodes, who was married to pop star Richard Marx after the two met on the set of 1983’s underwhelming Saturday Night Fever follow-up Staying Alive, was barely an actress prior to her casting, appearing in Xanadu (1980) and Flashdance (1983) as an honest-to-goodness dancer. In terms of 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, Runaway proving to be her one and only non-dancing related silver screen appearance. It shows, but her lack of chemistry with moustachioed hunk Selleck is as much to do with weak characterisation than bad acting, a product of the film’s time and place. Rhodes is vacuous, subservient and instantly smitten — just the ingredients for a career in serious policing, and the perfect recipe for a non-problematical workplace relationship.

That wasn’t very nice, Ramsay!


Okay, so this was the 80s, and such gender belittlement is expected to a degree, even if it does go down like a flaming Hindenburg in today’s hyper-sensitive climate, but philistine-level discrepancies aside, the movie is actually a lot of fun. Drenched in grainy, neon aesthetics, it has the muted, exaggerated aura of an episode of Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer, with a pricelessly immoderate baddie to match. Simmons is surprisingly passable and typically magnetic as the maniacal Luther, a cursory villain who has one mode: playing it to the absolute hilt. 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. In classic James Bond fashion, he confesses to previous crimes while threatening his next victim. As you might expect, he’s all tongue, an all-powerful big mouth who’s just begging to get caught.

In an era obsessed with cultural marketing gimmicks, 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 Sam Raimi’s DIY horror classic The Evil Dead. Some of those shots look the business too. They were certainly enough to scare the bejesus out of me as a watching kid, along with Luther himself. 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, a rarity when it comes to unskilled actors in major motion pictures. “I wasn’t interested in musicals or comedy,” Simmons 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 label Runaway comedy before you did serious, despite a real lack of self-awareness, particularly almost half a century on.

Simmons plays a distinctly 80s upgrade of your classic, wild-eyed scientist, a robotics whizz beset on chaos, control and destruction, using specially designed integrated circuits that not only override the safety features built into everyday robots, but can also direct them to attack humans, which Simmons, in all of his megalomaniacal glory, isn’t afraid to exploit if his plans are jeopardised, which is where Selleck’s Ramsay comes in. Those circuits have been created from a series of master templates, which allows for mass production and ultimately world domination. With an eye for profiteering, Luther murders his fellow researchers and attempts to find a buyer for his new technology, but an obstacle rears itself in former lover Jackie Rogers (Alley), who, understandably concerned (or bitterly scorned), steals his templates and goes AWOL, potentially jeopardising his whole out-there operation.

Luther’s greatest creation, and the one you are most likely to recall from your childhood, are a malevolent batch of mechanical spider assassins — a patient, wildly frenetic bunch with the ability to creep up on you like the real thing. These micro predators sent me to bed with nightmares as a kid, and they’re still pretty freaky. They can leap, swarm, grab, and are surprisingly and convincingly 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 in a ball of flames and taking down anyone within a ten-feet radius. Watching it back, scenes in which Ramsey struggles with a batch of twitching Meccano are 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.

Despite its speculative flexing, Runaway is laugh-out-loud funny at times, sleeping soundly in the recesses of VHS era obsolescence, but as with many movies produced in the unashamedly garish ’80s, it’s all a part of the fun, and it probably didn’t seem half as ridiculous at a time when uneducated, pre-digital audiences were willing to swallow even the most unlikely pseudo-tech. Yes it’s ludicrous, positively farcical in hindsight, but it reminds me of simpler times, and there is something sweetly naïve about an era of bigger is better. Just watch the scene in which Selleck’s colleague Marvin (Stan Shaw) opens up a rogue contraption touted as the height of technological advancement. It looks like a battery sale at an 80s hardware store. Crichton is a brilliant, influential storyteller/filmmaker, and though we get dashes of his genius, this one is best enjoyed as a cliched cop thriller with some colourfully absurd characters, both human and otherwise. In that vein, it is a must see for fans of 80s excess.

Runaway logo

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

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