The Terminator wasn’t the only killer robot in theaters back in 1984 thanks to Runaway, written and directed by the late Michael Crichton. The mustachioed Tom Selleck stars as a cop who specializes in neutralizing bots gone bad in a near-future where they’ve infiltrated nearly every aspect of life. These aren’t the replicants of Blade Runner, but plausible machines that are fun to compare with what exists today. This was another late-night Netflix pick, and to be honest I feel a little dirty for mentioning such sci-fi classics in my review of this film (it turns out Crichton was better behind a writing desk than a film camera).
What we’re really interested in are the robots of course, and the film doesn’t disappoint. There’s an irritating nanny robot called Lois, a security robot that tasers anything that moves, a small monocopter used for reconnaissance, as well as farming and construction robots. An autonomous cop car has a mannequin in the driver’s seat and projects a map directly onto the windshield. Among the highlights is a small household robot that looks something like a Roomba with an arm, which ends up killing several people when it picks up and shoots a gun. Best of all are the killer hexapods that can jump and crawl on walls like a mixture between this locust-inspired hopper and Stanford’s gecko-inspired StickyBot.
It’s comedy gold.
The hexapods are supposed to be threatening, but they look like hobby kits you can buy today, which really cracked me up. There is some attempt to depict non-robotic technology of the future as well, such as the iPad-like devices that people are shown using, but otherwise everything looks pretty ordinary for the ’80s.
It all looks very silly, and it doesn’t help that Gene Simmons is the central villain. He’s armed with a gun that shoots smart missiles that can turn corners. It’s hard to believe such a celebrated author penned this film, what with the immediate and cliched romance between Selleck and his cute new partner, not to mention his son’s creepy enthusiasm for it. As for the technological side of things, the ideas actually aren’t all that far-fetched. There’s genuinely something to a PR2-like robot picking up a gun and shooting people if tampered with by a hacker, for instance.
Unfortunately, even if some bits can be considered ahead of their time, it’s hard to take seriously with the ham-fisted acting and cringe-worthy plot. Runaway wasn’t intended to be a comedy, but like many films that try to predict the near future it’s now entertaining for all the wrong reasons. It’s the details the film gets right and horribly wrong, at the same time, that make it fun to watch. I watched it on Netflix, and I’d recommend it if you are in the mood for a robot-themed movie that’s so bad its good.
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