Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Should Machines Be Perfect

It seemed only fitting that after a day of dealing with extremely annoying computer issues, I then sat down with some Chinese food to watch another tale of man versus machine. The film in question was RUNAWAY, the Michael Crichton movie starring Tom Selleck from 1984 which for some reason I had never seen. Why this is, I cannot explain. I was the right age to go see it. You’d think I would have rented it somewhere along the way. But no, it wasn’t until Saturday night that this finally happened. Are there any essential Tom Selleck movies that I have left to see now? Has anyone taken a look at LASSITER anytime recently? Anyway, I was watching RUNAWAY while eating some Szechwan Beef and it was maybe about twenty minutes in that I began to wonder if maybe I should pop in a DVD of a better version of this sort of thing like ROBOCOP or THE TERMINATOR instead.

During an unspecified time in the future where many jobs ranging from farming to construction to household chores are performed by robots, Sgt. Jack Ramsey (Selleck) works as part of a police unit which deals with “Runaways”, the term for malfunctioning. As the film begins, Ramsey is partnered up with Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) and one the first assignments they go on takes them to a household where a robot has murdered several members of the family. After Ramsey single-handedly disables the unit, chips are discovered inside which override its safety features (“This isn’t a Runaway,” says supporting cop Stan Shaw. “This is murder.”). Soon enough their investigation leads them to the brilliant Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons) who plans to get wealthy over whoever might want such chips (“the mafia, terrorist organizations, foreign agents…”) so they can use them for their own nefarious purposes. And he’s not about to let anyone get in his way.

One of the first things that comes to mind about RUNAWAY after seeing it is that it’s of the few science fiction films I can think of where the future presented turns out to be less appealing than the one we actually got. The robots used in this world are pretty boxy and uninteresting looking, the sort of thing that it’s hard to imagine people would actually want in their homes. Even if they are “realistic” looking, it still makes for a dull overall design and it’s not always clear how some of these things are able to perform every task they’re allegedly designed for. Written and directed by Michael Crichton, RUNAWAY has an OK premise but lousy execution and not even a fully convincing world it’s all set in. Society has been altered by robotic technology yet it’s apparently so potentially unstable that a special police unit exists to deal with it? Don’t the companies in charge of this stuff have Quality Control divisions? Crichton is also so interested in the technical aspects of all the tasks that can be performed by robotics that there’s never the slightest nod towards the societal changes that may have occurred with presumably millions of jobs rendered obsolete. Selleck’s character at one point expresses his belief that “People don’t work right. People make machines, so why should machines be perfect,” which certainly sounds like Crichton and is just about the most interesting idea expressed here but it’s glossed over too quickly in favor of dull action.

Other futuristic devices appear throughout and the movie seems to making the point that they’re not always reliable but I kept imagining a movie where these points would be made in an entertaining way, like in a BRAZIL-type scenario or a Joe Dante movie along the lines of INNERSPACE. Characters are thinly drawn; Selleck is consumed with guilt over a suspect who got away because of his fear of heights (so just a lame swipe from VERTIGO? And because of this, what do you think the chances are that the climax takes place at ground level?) and that’s mostly what we ever learn about him. I can’t even think of anything to say about Rhodes’ character beyond that she’s blandly pretty and has no aspirations beyond wanting her partner to ask her out. The film’s idea of character dialogue seems to be to try to give us casual conversation about futuristic things where we have no idea what anyone’s talking about (“What is it a 5590?” “Yeah, it’s a 5590 processor, but with a Z-77 phonetic ROM.” That’s just one example). To give the movie some credit the robot spiders utilized by Simmons’ Luther are kind of cool as are the heat seeking bullets (something I remember seeing clips of when I was a kid), but I did wonder how the bullets know which specific person to target. Maybe this was explained in exposition and I just missed it. One of the features of this future is apparently the police use of psychics to help with the crimes they’re investigating. To be honest when this turned up I was already starting to zone out a little and I wondered if Crichton had stuck this in there to see if people were still paying attention. The psychic character spouts off some nonsense about the “karmic bond” that the hero and villain share but none of this leads anywhere and we never hear from her again. There’s not much at all that’s good about the movie but ultimately it’s just plain dull as opposed to outright lousy. The Scope cinematography is by John Alonzo and the music is by Jerry Goldsmith—just like CHINATOWN! Goldsmith’s score, appropriately coming during the phase when he was heavy into electronics, isn’t one of his best and is unfortunately absent too much of the time, but the composer didn’t really have very much to work with. At the very least, it’s not the worst film Michael Crichton ever directed and since I’ve seen PHYSICAL EVIDENCE I know what I’m talking about.

Not that I’m the biggest fan of Tom Selleck or anything but it does feel like the actor never quite got the film role he deserved. This one certainly wasn’t it and since he’s apparently directed to play things extremely low-key there’s very little he can do to liven things up. More successful at that is villain Gene Simmons who doesn’t play much more than one-note but at least it’s an enjoyable note on a purely comic book level. As Simmons’ girlfriend, Kirstie Alley looks gorgeous (“She’s very attractive,” Selleck says upon seeing her for no reason) but is pretty lousy especially during her big dramatic scenes. The actress always was best when playing characters with a cool exterior, like Lt. Saavik, or playing comedy on CHEERS. Here, it just feels like miscasting. Anne-Marie Martin, who would marry Crichton a few years after this as well as starring on SLEDGE HAMMER!, sticks out in her small role, certainly making more of an impression than Rhodes does in her much bigger part. Also enjoyable to watch is familiar face G.W. Bailey, who as Selleck’s superior manages to convincingly play someone able to intimidate him even while being nearly a full head shorter. At least his scenes have an energy to them. Chris Mulkey plays an electronics engineer who figures into the plot making this the second straight film I’ve written about that he appears in. How do these things happen?

RUNAWAY feels like a series of dull action and suspense scenes with extremely little flavor leading to a hackneyed climax that feels like Crichton couldn’t think of anything better and certainly doesn’t take much advantage of the potential of his own idea. I doubt I would have been all the excited about the film even if I had seen it when I was a kid. It feels like the writer-director spent way too much time establishing the world these robotics could exist in—and even that’s got plenty of holes—and not nearly enough time working out an interesting story for them. Maybe he needed to try it as a novel first. It worked a few other times. I don’t know what the general consensus is on RUNAWAY—Harlan Ellison, of all people, gave it a good review when it came out—but I guess I just find it so uninteresting that I can barely come up with much to say about it. I certainly was curious enough to want to check it out after all these years, so I can’t blame anyone else who might feel the same. Still, I would just recommend that anyone interested should just watch THE TERMINATOR, a much better film about robotics from the same year, again. Or maybe check out I, ROBOT. And when I say I, ROBOT, I’m referring to the book, not the movie. But you probably knew that.


J.D. said...

Yeah, I would certainly agree with your assessment of this film. I remember seeing it on video as a kid and not being all that impressed except for the heat-seeking bullets which I always thought was a cool idea and the presence of Gene Simmons who was effectively menacing. But other than that, pretty bland stuff.

Joe Valdez said...

I was 11 when my grandma took me and my brother to see Runaway. I haven't felt the need to revisit it for any reason whatsoever, so thanks for this fantastic write-up, Peter.

It's wild how throughout the 20th century, the Michael Crichtons all thought machines were going to help us out by growing arms and legs and doing chores like Rosie in The Jetsons. No one seemed to have considered the microchip. Doh!

This is one stupid movie, but Kirstie Alley circa 1983 makes it all better.

Mr. Peel said...

Thanks, guys. There's very little else to say about this film.

J.D.--what you said pretty much sums it up. A few of those things are kind of cool and so is Gene Simmons but why is the whole thing as bland as possible?

Joe--your memory makes me think that I wouldn't have any attachment to it even if I had seen it in the theater. If only the robots in this movie were as fun as the ones on The Jetsons! Kirstie Alley is definitely nice to look at, but that's about it.

J.D. said...

"...but why is the whole thing as bland as possible?"

Good question. I think that the script lacks pizazz and the direction is a tad pedestrian. I'd love to have seen what someone like Paul Verhoeven would've done with it.

Mr. Peel said...

I'd like to see what Paul Verhoeven would do with a lot of movies! And bring in the guys who wrote ROBOCOP as well. Hell, I should just watch ROBOCOP again. Why don't I watch that film more?

Anonymous said...


Sci fi films usually show us a future better than the world we live in? And you post about _Dune_ on the same day? :)

Also, whatever you have against I, Robot (admittedly a horrendous botching up of the book) has to be outweighed by Bridget Moynihan screen time...doesn't it?

That Lockwood Guy Again