When Michael Crichton’s film Runaway was released in 1984, it invited us to imagine a near future where smart devices were commonplace in our everyday lives to carry out all those menial tasks. It then posed the intriguing premise of what might happen if those everyday gadgets malfunctioned, suddenly presenting a risk to all those around them. Furthermore, what if these seemingly harmless lumps of hardware were maliciously tampered with in order to turn against us?
Most of the technology in Crichton’s vision is not particularly elaborate, often resembling just simple boxes that trundle along the ground with arms that can grab hold of objects. Nothing as sophisticated as those very human looking androids from his earlier chiller Westworld. By keeping it plausible – for the most part anyway, he eerily prophesies what’s just around the corner. In this brave new world, talking gadgets exist in the home ready to assist, along with tablet devices, video messaging, driverless cars and drones – referred to here as “floaters” – fortunately that name didn’t catch on.
In this undefined City – that looks suspiciously like Canada in the mid-eighties – the police have formed a special unit to deal with “runaways”. In other words, those bots that have gone dangerously out of control and now require shutting down before somebody gets hurt. As stoic Sgt Ramsay (Tom Selleck) tells his eager new partner Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes), “People make the machines, so we shouldn’t expect them to be perfect”. When Ramsay also confides that he’s scared of heights in an early scene, it’s such a blatant piece of foreshadowing in the script that you just know this will have much greater significance later in the story.
Runaway takes its time to really grab hold, as we initially follow Ramsey and Thompson on some routine daily assignments. An early sequence finds them chasing defective agricultural robots around a field of crops, trying to stop the machines before they grind up everything in sight. It’s hard to imagine even audiences in 1984 being particularly enthralled by these pedestrian early scenes, especially since a few months beforehand they were being terrified by Schwarzenegger’s seemingly unstoppable cyborg from the future in The Terminator. Be patient though, as it does get considerably better when the pair stumble upon a sinister plot involving an evil genius – which always helps in this kind of film. He’s well played here too by Gene Simmons (from KISS – but without the make-up).
Simmons reportedly got cast because Crichton thought he looked menacing - and he does a sterling job in that respect, often without uttering a word. He even pulled off the same trick in a number of subsequent B-movies. When his character Dr. Luther is on screen, things certainly do perk up - and grow increasingly silly. It’s emerges that he’s been deviously turning robots into killers and is behind some highly advanced weaponry. There's no escape from his smart heat-seeking bullets capable of pursuing their target round corners and other obstacles – as demonstrated by some wild POV shots. If that wasn’t enough, he’s protected by smoke emitting drones and a small army of scuttling spider-like robots that can pounce on their victim and administer a lethal injection – brought to life in the film by some rather quaint special effects.
Runaway couldn’t sound any more eighties, thanks to a synth score by the late Jerry Goldsmith, in a rare move away from his usual orchestral style. It was one of several films from that period that provided Selleck with an early opportunity to take the lead, which he hoped would propel him to big screen stardom, having missed out on the coveted role of Indiana Jones due to his Magnum TV show commitments. Sadly, Runaway wasn’t to be that breakthrough part, though he and co-star Rhodes do make a likeable duo, even if they are saddled with some insipid dialogue. More humour in this case would have gone a long way. Some ropey supporting turns don't help either, particularly a mildly annoying Joey "Flight of the Navigator" Cramer as Ramsay's young son Those who enjoy spotting stars before they were famous should also watch for a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley, in a thankless role as Luther’s girlfriend.
The film is competently shot by renowned DoP John A. Alonso, whose credits include the classic Chinatown. He brings much needed energy to the later action sequences – an inspired freeway chase involving a fleet of small fast-moving explosive devices weaving underneath the traffic is excitingly staged, with the film building towards a suspenseful climax. You’re just left with a feeling that, despite some entertaining moments, with such a great concept it could have been so much more.
This new release from 101 Films marks Runaway's UK debut on Blu-ray. It has never been released on DVD in this Country, so the only previous editions would have been the Encore laserdisc during the late nineties and a much earlier 1980s VHS from Columbia.
Runaway has recently been downgraded from its original "15" rating to a "12" by the BBFC.
The HD image, retaining the OAR of 2.35:1, is free from specks or any other signs of damage. It's slightly soft in places, retaining some light filmic grain. The increased clarity does draw attention to the somewhat dated visuals at times - sit well back and that dodgy back projection work might not seem quite so obvious.
The audio options are LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-MA 2.0, which both do justice to Goldsmith's energetic eighties synth score and the variety of atmospheric sound FX. Dialogue is distinct throughout.
English SDH have been included.
Runaway forms part of 101 Films "Red Label" collection, as opposed to their premium "Black Label" releases which tend to include more extras. This disc comes with a commentary by film critic Kevin Lyons, which provides plenty of trivia about the film and is an enjoyable addition.