Thursday, 10 February 2011

Runaway (1984)

‘It is the future. He fought the horror of robots programmed to kill...’ Eh?

Runaway (1984, Michael Crichton)

Starring: Tom Selleck, Gene Simmons, Cynthia Rhodes, Kirstie Alley, Babs Chulla, Natino Bellantoni

Tagline: A tense mangling, ‘It is the future. He fought the horror of robots programmed to kill.’

Trailers: Johnny Rehab, Return of the Dalesman, Muleskinner Maude

Cherrypick: “Is that a… mechanical bull..?”

In proving - with all the conviction of a maternally enraged concrete gorilla - the truism behind Asimov’s Fourth Law of Robotics - ‘Dusting off even the most lumpen and mundane script in your bottom draw multiplied by some robots equals immediate ERH green light’ - tin-pot Renaissance man Michael Crichton unashamedly prick-teased an ‘84 audience still semi-erect from Alien and Blade Runner with this amateur hour-and-a-half of broadly performed, ultimately unsatisfying techno reacharound. That he wasn’t hounded out of Tinseltown and back to his tawdry airport doorstops provides us with a chilling milestone to look back on and gauge the extent to which the VHS virus had infiltrated the tiny, atrophied brain of the ailing Hollywood leviathan.
Sure, Tom. Sure.
Making Sandra Bullock howler The Net look like Fermat's Last Theorem, the usually admirable Crichton would have us believe he has imagineered a cogent futurescape in which advancements in robotics have led to the automaton being considered nothing more than another household appliance or workplace gizmo. That this has led to no appreciable increase in the quality of life is - we are invited to infer - either an ironic comment on the greed-is-good proliferation of emergent Eighties technological ephemera, or an indication of how late into pre-production the script of this overripe procedural was cynically and frantically retooled as a ‘scienced-fiction’.

Either way, the upshot remains that Robot Squad Sergeant Jack Ramsay’s (Tom Selleck) beat consists of doing forward rolls through the modest suburban homes and empty-box factories of an unnamed American city (Des Moines), and shutting down (blowing up) the errant number of these motorised breadbins, ambulatory overhead projectors and various other sins against ergonomics that that have lost their electro-marbles and gone on the mecha-rampage.
Run away! Quite quickly!
Shorn of the ‘Raptor Factor’ and his ‘Any Brinner’s a Winner’ fallback standbys, Jurassic Park and Westworld script-minstrel Crichton’s acid-fried idea of hiring litigious lolly-gagger and erstwhile KISS frontman Gene Simmons to play the films lugubrious villain, Dr Luther, was allegedly inspired by a dream he experienced in which he discovered the true quantum nature of the universe coiled within one of the rocker’s bass strings (A, most Crichton biographers now agree). It was a casting choice made that much easier by Simmons’ jocular threat to stuff Crichton into a flight case and set it on fire if he lost the role to some heavy last minute lobbying from the David Lee Roth camp.

In some nebulous way behind the sudden escalation of citywide mechanical mayhem, Luther (and much is made of the name) nails the first of many protests to the door of plot development by spending an inordinate amount of screentime amassing an army of robot spiders to no apparent story furtherance. It is this idle hobbyism that nonetheless provides the cue for what the blurb on the video box would have us believe is ‘a game of cat and mouse’ as Ramsay tries to stop this evil but rudderless toolshed genius from whatever lo-fi goal it is that he is hoping to achieve with naught but a phalanx of scuttling staplers to carry out his dark(ish) bidding.
'Y'know, I think I DID leave the gas on...'
Simmons is revelatory, but the smouldering performance he delivers from beneath beetling brows was allegedly at least in part due to a serendipitous accident sustained at a Fussball party held at his Laurel Canyon home shortly before filming. Hands full with plates of gefilte fish sandwiches and Chivas Regal miniatures for his guests, he attempted to switch the kitchen light off with his forehead, causing a massive muscle spasm that would have finished those of a less road-tested constitution. The old rocker, however, would seem to have doughtily incorporated the resultant spinal damage into his already idiosyncratic acting style to great success, wiping the floor with Magnum and knocking even leather skirted business doyen and all round shoulder-pad powerhouse Kirstie Alley off her fuck-me-heeled perch.
A cool rockin' daddy - in the USA
Unfortunately, all Gene’s manful efforts cannot rescue these Hill Street Electric Blues from his character’s underwhelming motivations. Tom fries the circuits of a few more R2-D2s, there’s a bit of business with a gender-bending electronic monkey, and we get some indication of the direction future-humour will be taking (‘Dystopia?’, ‘No, dat topia!’) along with a reassuring dollop of sexism, but there’s nothing of any real consequence until the script eventually manhandles us into an automated shopping mall where Simmons, a rictus of boredom now laying claim to his features, is set upon and violated by a rogue Frogger machine. Alley - ever the camp follower - readily shacks up with an jury-rigged android cocktail waiter, while Tom is absently running through the lyrics of the self-penned end-titles song, ‘Run away from me (But leave the lights on)’ that would go on to make him an enduring pop sensation in parts of South East Asia.

Twenty years later, Pedro Almodovar’s refitted but equally flawed I, Robot, was to sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, stumble into the same hubristic honeytraps that so sidetracked Crichton’s already listing effort.

The future, it seems, will teach us nothing.

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