Runaway (1984) – A Review

Tom Selleck Cynthia Rhodes Runaway 1984
Tom Selleck and Cynthia Rhodes in Runaway

It’s the not-so-distant future and robots have become part of our daily lives. Along with taking care of the most sophisticated tasks they have also become servants in our homes. They clean for us, wake us up and cook us dinner. These domestic robots are bit clunky and slow, but if we can get them to sweep our kitchen floors they’re worth having around!

However, at times these technological wonders can malfunction. That’s where Jack Ramsey (Tom Selleck) comes in. He’s an acrophobic police officer in a very unique department that specializes in ‘runaway’ robots. When a robot starts acting all goofy or becomes potentially threatening Ramsey is called in, along with his rookie partner Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) to pull the plug on the malfunctioning nuisance.

The technological stakes get raised when the first murder committed by a robot happens. Ramsey and Thompson stumble onto a plot involving a homicidal maniac named Luthor (Gene Simmons), who’s preparing to unleash a wave of mass produced microchip terror on the population. He’s been creating the most advanced computer chips ever made and isn’t going to use it for the good of mankind – or robotkind.

Now the duo are up against heat-seeking bullets able to target individuals and a mass produced plan to program robots to kill any human Luthor wants dead.

Gene Simmons Runaway 1984 sci-fi movie

Runaway has always been a strange film for me. I never really thought it was very good, but somehow I find it more passable than it actually is. I certainly don’t love it, but I don’t hate it. It’s a very middle of the road kind of movie that leaves me shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Yeah, ok.”

Written and directed by Michael Crichton, the premise is pretty cool sounding, but the script is messy, the characters very blah, the special effects are subpar and the action scenes are not thrilling. I think it just comes down to the cast and a few spider-robots that save it for me.

Selleck and Simmons as hero and villain both work and do exactly what you would want them to do in a movie of this type. You root for Selleck and hate Simmons. Selleck is an extremely likable actor. It’s no wonder he had such a long successful run with Magnum P.I. (which he shot Runaway while on hiatus from). He makes an effective hero and effortlessly plays Ramsey.

Simmons meanwhile gets the juicier stuff as the quintessential bad guy who gives off evil looks, a sinister smile and spouts out clichéd bad guy dialogue like, “I can’t afford to have any witnesses it’s too messy.”

If you’re hoping for anything more than the standard ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, trading barbs, hum drum standoffs and chasing after each other you’d be better off watching a different flick. It would have been much been nicer if these two actors were given some exciting confrontations to play out and a more unique and thrilling cat and mouse struggle they engage in. Sadly their battle is pretty stagnant.

Thompson and Kirstie Alley add some girl power as the hero and villains’ gals. Both once again do a fine job, but their characters are pretty flat and they aren’t given much to do. Thompson is the rookie who admires Selleck (at times it seems her admiration for him and her naiveté is way overdone) and Alley is the scared gal of Luthor’s who Selleck has to protect.

Stepfanie Kramer Cynthia Rhodes sexy 1980s cops policewoman
I’d be hanging out all day in that 1980’s police station –
even if I had to get arrested!

There’s not a lot of shadings to them other than that. They both look great though. I recall back when I first saw this I became enamored with Thompson. At the time I thought if Thompson had ever teamed with Stefanie Kramer’s Dee Dee McCall from Hunter in a police tv show it would have been great! If I was an 80’s tv cop that’s who I would have wanted my partners to be!

The 1984 window into the future the movie envisions looks awfully quaint. It’s nothing like 1950’s predictions that proclaimed in thirty years we’d have kitchens that would serve us fully cooked meals with the press of a button, furniture would roll out of walls, pneumatic tube roadways would dot the landscape and everyone would strap on jetpacks to fly to work. The imagination doesn’t run that high in Runaway and the futuristic sights are set much lower.

Kirstie Alley Runaway sexy young

Some of the servant robots look like boxy versions of Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. It’s like they took a Commodore computer, a boombox, a Speak & Spell and a slot machine glued them together and strapped a skateboard to the bottom of it. A lot of the high-tech malicious robots look about as useful and threatening as a remote control Tonka truck.

An introductory sequence involving Selleck and Thompson trying to stop a malfunctioning agricultural robot is more humorous than suspenseful. It certainly doesn’t look like it needs any kind of special runaway cops to deal with it. One good kick to knock it off its wheels looks like it would do the trick

For a movie built around the idea that robots are being programmed to kill humans it doesn’t look like they spent much time on the designs of these things. They’re not given much in the way of personalities or anything like that.

I get maybe they didn’t have much money or perhaps they purposely decided to try to make them look like bland household appliances, but I think it was a big mistake. They’re just big toasters rolling around. So there’s not much to see with any of the robot co-stars here.

Runaway spider robots 1984 sci-fi

Meanwhile with the story, things never amp up and build into a tension-filled race against the clock with Selleck and Thompson trying to stop Luthor and his army of robots.

There are a few fun and effective sequences. Luthor’s heat-signature bullets that will follow it’s victims around corners and never miss their mark are really cool. Their ‘bullet cam’ seems like something they could have really exploited much more.

Selleck trying to put a gun-toting robot that’s endangering a baby out of commission is also a pretty good scene. And the poisonous spider-robots will always be the stars of this movie. They’re not exactly the Terminator, but they are cheesily fun. Unfortunately, all that good stuff is too few and far between.

All the human drama shorts out like one of these broken robots. Selleck’s relationship with his son, the convenient budding romance between Ramsey and Thompson, the ‘you-guessed-it’ angry Chief of Police Ramsey has to answer to, the guilt that Ramsey feels for a family’s death – forget it all. It’s all poorly handled and doesn’t add anything to the movie.

Ironically, the one human moment I always remember most from Runaway is Selleck attempting to pull one of Luthor’s unexploded bullets out of Thompson’s arm. That one quiet scene between the two actors manages to create more genuine suspense than most of the robots running around.

The climax is one I always felt was a bit of letdown too. It would have been fine for an action scene in the middle of the movie with Selleck fighting off a bunch of spider-robots in a construction elevator, but it’s not that spectacular of a showdown between hero and villain.

Those spider-robots were probably admiring Rhodes’ gams
as much as I was!

Runaway is not anywhere close to being a ‘sci-fi classic’. I’ll be generous and say it’s an ‘ok’ flick to pass the time. You’re not going to be dazzled by it though, and if you’re waiting for things to start to pick up along the way you’ll be frustrated. If you decide not to see it, you won’t be missing out on much of anything. It should have been a much better movie.

After writing such a negative sounding review I can’t really explain why I’m being so kind saying Runaway is ‘ok’. I guess I’m just a sucker for those spider-robots, heat-seeking bullets and Rhodes’ legs.


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3 Responses

  1. CKulik says:

    This is the quintessential example of a rainy-afternoon flick. I have a copy of the out-of-print DVD myself, and it will probably never be released in any capacity, so I might as well hold on to it. Like you said, it's a fun-cheesy movie that has Selleck in good form and I think Simmons is hilarious as the baddie: the final scene with them in the elevator before Simmons meets his death is pretty damn funny just for their facial reactions to one another. You're exactly, right, an okay relic from the 1980s that should have more imagination and cleverness than it really has. Those spider-robots still look damn cool, though 🙂

  2. Nick_H says:

    I have a soft spot for this movie…there's enough appeal and an interesting premise to it and the cast are all good. I pair this movie of Crichton's along with "Looker", which I think is a better movie, as one of his of "the world as we know it but with one technological twist" movies and which feature cool weapons. His other great pairing back in the mid-70s was "Westworld" and "Coma". Like a lot of teenage guys, I went through a phase of really enjoying Michael Crichton novels and his ideas of postulating advances in technology either backfiring or else being manipulated by baddies. His movies have that same teenage appeal of their times. Looking back, only "The Andromeda Strain", "Coma and "Westworld" will stand the test of time as thoughtful and intelligent works that deserve revisiting. "Jurassic Park" will be the entertaining adventure lark of his work and it will last more as Steven Spielberg's last, decent "fun" movie than as a serious bit of sci-fi.

    Now that you mention it, in an alternate dimension, Cynthia Rhodes and Stefanie Kramer would have been cast as "Cagney & Lacey". I would have been absolutely fixated on the show if it had them in the leads; as it stands it was always my Mum's kind of show that I would occasionally watch. Rhodes was a big, big teenage crush of mine, along with Wendy Kilbourne from "North & South" and "Midnight Caller". Ahhhh, happy memories.

  3. I have to own up to having a soft spot for this movie too. Although I think this is in direct proportion to the my experience of watching as a kid. I'm not sure if the movie played in UK theatres but the first I knew about it was when I saw the cardboard display stand in the local video store. It somehow blew my mind – To me it was Magnum appearing in a Sci-Fi film…and with robots too. What young boy wouldn't have jumped at the chance to see that movie? Luckily (or not) I was able to see it despite my age and for many years I even owned the cardboard display stand (donated by my local video store). I did eventually get rid of it after I tired of Tom Selleck's moustache (kidding).

    Having watched the movie again recently I can see its cheesy and not greater than the sum of its parts but it has enough solid ideas and performances (Selleck, Simmons, Spider Robots etc) to keep it 'just about' interesting. Like a lot of 'so-so' sci-fi movies they're really a short episode of the Twilight Zone at heart and would have benefitted from editing down or bulking up. Despite that I still think its a decent entry into the hall of 80's guilty pleasures – Well at least my hall anyway.

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