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Film / Runaway

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Runaway is a 1984 sci-fi film starring Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons (yes, that Gene Simmons), directed by Michael Crichton (yes, that Michael Crichton).

20 Minutes into the Future, robots are as much a part of everyday life as any other electrical appliance—and are just as prone to malfunctions. But when a robot malfunctions, it can pose a threat to people or property. Such robots are colloquially known as "Runaways". As runaway robots can be somewhat more dangerous than a broken printer, they are not handled by company tech support personnel but by the Runaway division of metropolitan police departments.

Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Selleck), an experienced member of the Runaway squad, is breaking in a new partner; officer Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes). Though she is enthusiastic, Ramsay assures her that there is little excitement involved, saying that all he usually has to do is flip a switch; most people know less about their robots than they do their desktop computers, and rarely take any better care of them than they do their cars. Basically, she's signed up to chase broken machines while lazy mouth-breathers laugh at her.

...And less than twenty-four hours later, Ramsay and Thompson find themselves The Only Ones capable of facing a completely unforeseen threat; the first robot-facilitated homicides.

The brilliant and amoral Dr. Charles Luther (Simmons) has made the breakthrough to turn household appliances into killing machines, and it's up to a couple of desk jockeys to engage the evil genius in a cat-and-mouse game of acid-spitting robotic spider assassins, smart bullets, and freeway-running guided bombs.

Luther thinks he's unstoppable, but Ramsay is a determined cop who knows what every IT professional knows: any system can fail.

This film contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Robots and other forms of tech are used with 80's vehicles, buildings and helicopters. Apart from the Technology Marches On aspects, this reflects real life where everything isn't upgraded at once. In addition, there were were bomb defusing robots, just not as advanced. Crichton himself would state that this was a purposeful design choice in order to make the set time of the movie more vague.
  • Abnormal Ammo: The movie features a gun which fired small heat-seeking missiles at a speed slightly slower than an athletic man can run. Presumably its designer believed in giving targets a sporting chance.
  • Acme Products: Luther implants the killchip in the Johnson house's robot by claiming to be from "Acme Robot Repairs".
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
    • Averted - there is no AI, just machines doing what they are programmed to do (even if it is to kill people), or malfunctioning because somebody didn't do what they were supposed to do.
      Ramsey: Let me tell you the way the world is. Nothing works right. Relationships don’t work right, people don’t work right, people make machines so why should machines be perfect?
      Karen: Because they’re machines.
      Ramsey: Yeah, well that's not the way it is.
    • As a result, there are many bugs and the occasional Loophole Abuse that triggers runaways... and one of these loopholes is what allows Thompson to save Ramsay's son at the climax: the spider-bots are programmed to kill anybody who steps off the elevator (such as the kid)... but they don't attack anybody who is already at the ground level and picks the passenger into her arms.
  • Almighty Janitor: The "runaway" squad is considered worse than desk work; at least when you're driving a desk, you don't have to chase broken machines while people laugh at you. Ramsay only does it because he feels his fear of heights makes him unsuitable for regular police work, and after years on the job he's become one of the profession's few real experts. Which puts him front-and-center when Luther introduces the world to robot-facilitated homicide.
  • Artistic License – Biology: The "smart bullets" allegedly home in on the uniquely-recognizable body heat patterns of a designated target. Body heat distribution in a given person varies enormously, depending on their level of excitement, what outfit or cosmetics they're wearing, and whether they're chilly, exercising, have eaten recently or even have the sniffles. By rights, just becoming scared of Luther should've changed his targets' heat-signatures enough to baffle a bullet that was initially aimed at them before they realized the danger.
  • The Bait: Ramsay takes Jackie on a Live-Action Escort Mission to a 'secure location' to draw out Luther, and to force Jackie to reveal where the templates are.
  • Big Bad: Dr. Charles Luther, the Mad Scientist responsible for all the robot murders.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Ramsay and Thompson share a kiss that takes up half the credits, while showered with sparks from the building site.
  • Bottomless Magazines:
    • The robot that commits the Johnson family massacre is armed with a .357 magnum revolver. It fires more than six rounds despite not having a second claw hand with which to reload. Several blasts are accompanied by a pump-action Dramatic Gun Cock at one stage, with shotgun-size holes blown in the wall. Yet when we see the robot, it's still clutching the revolver.
    • Averted when Luther is shown reloading his missile handgun after blazing away at Ramsay during their final confrontation.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Luther uses the "real bills on top of stacks of cut newspaper" trick when paying off Johnson — he's cursing Luther for this double cross when a spiderbot attacks him.
  • Building Is Welding: The skyscraper construction robots. They do come in handy for misguiding missiles though.
  • Camping a Crapper: Luther finds the Tracking Device Ramsay planted on the templates and leaves it on the toilet roll of a hospital bathroom. He also leaves one of his spiderbots which kills forensic officer Sally and a SWAT guard.
  • Captain Obvious: When a kill chip self-destructs inside the police station, the security system helpfully tells the coughing policemen: "There is a high level of smoke in the room."
  • Chase Scene: A fairly memorable one - Luther attacks a police convoy with roving smart bombs by dropping them from a trapdoor in cars both in front and behind them, so the heroes can't even see where he's attacking them from. Fortunately their Weaponized Car has a laser system defence, but even then they have to abandon the vehicle while it's still moving when Luther starts spamming them.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Jackie when she discovers the police have stuffed up and let Luther escape.
  • Climactic Elevator Ride
  • Combat Stilettos: Officer Thompson runs around in pumps.
  • Come Alone: Ramsay obeys due to Luther's extensive use of electronic surveillance — he'd know if someone came with him. Thompson decides to come anyway, arriving just in time to save Bobbie from the spiderbots.
  • Computer Voice: Lois the Robot Maid speaks with a female voice, while a male voice is used for the building computer at a robot research centre, and there's a brief discussion among the protagonists about the high quality of its voice synthesizer.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Luther's ability to invent the chips and killbots would've gotten him top bidders from governments around the world legally.
  • Da Chief: Played by G. W. Bailey, known for playing the equally acerbic Captain Harris in Police Academy. Not that the Chief of the Runaway Squad doesn't have cause for tearing strips off Sgt. Ramsay, as Luther keeps getting away and police officers keep getting killed. Amusingly, it's also inverted at one point with Ramsay chewing the chief out about a botched stakeout.
  • Deadline News: During the first "runaway" incident where a house robot commits murder and holds an infant hostage, a local news crew keep bugging Sgt. Ramsay for live coverage from inside the house. The cameraman actually follows Ramsay inside to document it despite Ramsay's warning signs to get out of there for his own safety, and the guy is shot and killed by the robot.
  • Deadly Hug: Luther killing Jackie; he kisses her and then stabs a knife into the back of her skull.
  • Deadly Remote Control Toy: A variant. Small cars with bombs attached are used to attack a police car carrying a witness on the freeway but they are autonomous rather than remote controlled, homing in on a bug in the witness's bag.
  • Death by Genre Savviness: Luther - he knows all the angles except the one Ramsay makes a living on; any system can fail. Ramsay thus kills him by feeding him to his own killbots.
  • Defeat Equals Explosion:
  • Dramatic Thunder: As Sally scans the hospital bathroom, thunder is heard outside as a spiderbot skitters up the wall and across the ceiling towards her.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: After noting how attractive she is, Ramsay charges in to save Jackie from being zapped by a malfunctioning security robot, instead of returning to his car to suit up in protective gear. He gets zapped repeatedly, snarked at by both Jackie and Thompson, and ends up smashing the expensive robot with a chair. And getting pretty pissed off when Jackie drops her purse, revealing it's full of killbot microprocessors - she's working with Luther.
  • Endangering News Broadcast: The cameraman who follows Ramsay inside the house.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Ramsay and Thompson scan Jackie for bugs (turns out her psycho boyfriend has loaded her with them) but fail to scan her handbag where both the templates and another bug are hidden, even though it's the first place they should have looked.
  • Fair Cop: Cynthia Rhodes looks pretty hot in uniform. Unfortunately she changes to a dress for the latter half of the movie.
  • Fanservice Extra: Ramsay startles a topless prostitute during the raid on the Ritz hotel.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: By the end Ramsay and Thompson are falling in love, and how does he ask her to have a relationship with him? He says "Can you cook?", causing the woman to melt adoringly into his arms as the sparks fly. This caused reviewer Harlan Ellison to do a slow burn. He said Ramsay's robot maid/cook Lois was featured prominently in the film (including a scene where it cooks pasta) so Ramsay's partner should have replied, "I don't have to; Lois can do it. I can fuck; Lois can't do that!"
    • This happens after Lois has been trashed (a "dying" scene included - Thompson flat out says "she's losing a lot of hydraulic fluid", which is oddly humanising, compared how the other robots are treated) and really seems like a Quip to Black joke. Unfunny, perhaps cringeworthy, but a joke. After all, he's not asking for relationship, just inviting her to dinner - then remembering he has no cook anymore.
  • Foil: Invoked by the psychic, who not only says that Ramsey and Luther were destined to face off, but that they were reincarnated from brothers.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: A detective lifts a sheet so Ramsay can get a look at what a runaway robot did to two women with a kitchen knife.
  • Hand Cannon: As well as the huge handgun that fires Luther's heat-seeking projectiles, there's Ramsay and Thompson using the Detonics ServiceMaster, or the smaller (but still .45 calibre) CombatMaster as a plainclothes weapon.
  • Hard-Work Montage: The Title Sequence shows Ramsay working at the Runaway Squad.
  • Hey, That's My Line!: Robots with voice synthesizers tend to do this, as they're programmed to respond to what people are saying regardless of whether they're the ones being spoken to.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Luther's killbots allow Ramsay in to the exchange, but will kill the first person to come out. That starts off being Ramsay's son — it ends up being Luther.
    • Luther puts one of the kill chips in the household robot of the engineer who helped design it.
  • Homicide Machines: Luther's breakthrough and the only flaw in Crichton's normally spooky prescience; in the film, Luther is the first person to develop a reliable way of re-tasking robots to kill specific people on command, after years of robots being limited to industrial and commercial work. As of 2015, industrial and commercial robots are still years away from being viable, let alone as common as they are in the film.
  • Homing Projectile: Luther's handgun fires tiny rockets which can home in on a person's unique infrared signature.
    Sgt. Marvin James: Jack, this is a police nightmare. We used to worry about terrorists getting A-bombs? The real problem is this microelectronics stuff like this. I mean, a smart bullet?
  • Hostage for MacGuffin: First Luther grabs Thompson in exchange for his girlfriend and the templates, then when that fails he abducts Ramsay's son.
  • Human Shield: Luther holds a gun to a prostitute's head to get out of the Ritz hotel.
  • I Can See You: Luther does this twice to Ramsay.
    • First by hacking into the security cameras inside the police station.
    Dr. Charles Luther: You're standing by the desk in the middle of the room punching buttons on the console trying to trace this call—which won't do shitbecause I'm calling from a mobile phone.
    (Until Thompson puts her cap over the camera. Luther is not happy.)
    Dr. Charles Luther: That wasn't very nice Ramsey!
    • Luther contacts Ramsey by radio while he and Jackie are at a restaurant, eventually revealing himself to be sitting next to his partner holding a pistol on her.
  • I Have Your Wife: I Have Your Son.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Luther dresses as a policeman to enter the department and hack into their database for information on Ramsay. Strangely, everybody on the force is on the lookout for this maniac, but no one in the station recognizes his face.
  • In the Future, We Still Have Roombas: Averted — design follows function.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Taken to such extremes that it seems like the news media has the right to barge onto crime scenes and actively impede police operations. A local reporter keeps demanding that she be allowed firstline coverage of every incident involving a Killer Robot, and her cameraman follows Sgt. Ramsay inside a house where a robot is keeping a baby captive. None of the other police officers make an effort to stop them.
  • Kick the Dog: Charles Luther killing his girlfriend after she's returned to him in a hostage exchange. Later, he abducts Ramsay's son, makes the acrophobic Ramsay confront him on a high-rise, and lets the kid go before taunting him that he's programmed his robots to kill the first person who leaves the area.
  • Killer Robot: Luther and his co-conspirators at Vectrocon designed and built an integrated chip which can turn any household robot into an assassination tool. Luther lists The Mafia, terrorists and foreign agents as possible interested buyers. He also has spider-bots that jump on people and inject them with poison, then explode.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Laser weapons are used but only against robots, implying they're less effective against flesh and blood targets.
  • Kubrick Stare: Luther's default expression.
  • Large Ham: To be expected from Gene Simmons.
  • The Mafia: Luther's rap sheet shows he has "mob connections". The Runaway Squad burst in on him selling his missile handgun to a pair of hoods. They turn out to be an electronic engineer and a solid-state physicist with conspicuously Italian names. It appears the mob has gone high-tech.
  • Mechanical Monster: One of the more realistic versions in the bug-bots.
  • Misguided Missile: Ramsay uses the heat generated by the welding robots, and a steam pipe he opens, to throw off Luther's missiles. One of the missiles is also seen hitting a candle on a table during the restaurant scene.
  • My Greatest Failure: Ramsay no longer works the regular force because he feels guilty over how his vertigo led to a criminal escaping, who later that night murdered a whole family.
  • Nerd Glasses: Ramsay wears glasses for close-up work; he forgets them when trying to remove the unexploded microshell in Thompson's arm, and asks dryly if she wants to wait while he goes down to the car to get them.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The skyscraper construction site. Justified because only robots are meant to be there. Taken to ridiculous levels though when the button to reset the elevator turns out to be underneath it, so Ramsay has to climb under while over a dozen stories up.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Averted — the MacGuffin of the film are photo-templates enabling Luther's clients to build more killchips.
  • Not Quite Dead: Ramsay leans down to check Luther's pulse, only for him to snarl and grasp at Ramsay's throat...then he dies for real.
  • One-Word Title
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Subverted when the 'minor' wound in Thompson's arm is only because the bullet didn't explode. Thompson is in great pain when Ramsay has to fish around to remove it.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future
  • Painfully Slow Projectile: The homing bullets of Luther's gun. From the bullets' point-of-view they travel only slightly faster than their running targets.
  • Pistol Pose: Used on the posters and video covers — Tom Selleck holds the missile handgun, even though he doesn't use it.
  • Pocket Rocket Launcher: The Big Bad Luther is armed with a large pistol that fires heat-seeking mini missiles.
  • Police Psychic: Ramsay is ordered to consult a police psychic for information on Luther — he's not very impressed when told that he and Luther were brothers in another life, but pays attention when she tells him that Luther will be in touch because he has something Luther wants. This is actually a good example of Crichton's opinion of psychics; they're mostly bogus second-rate stage magicians, but their skill sets would actually make some of them skilled detectives - this is after Luther contacted the station, so she's simply thinking about everything very carefully to reach a conclusion.
  • Rescue Romance: Thompson is a lot more willing to have dinner with Ramsay after he risks his life to remove the bullet, only for Ramsay to mess things up trying to emphasize how natural it is for him to have his female partner for dinner.
  • Robo Speak: Averted; robot voices are synthesized. At one point Ramsay casually chats with a security guard about the excellent voice of the Vectrocon computer system.
  • Robot Maid: A robot maid called Lois looks after Ramsay's son, giving him a rundown on his eating habits and whether he's watching videos after bedtime.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Or cheering in this case. Ramsay's difficulty with dealing with a runaway construction bot makes the other workers snark they could have destroy the bot like Ramsay, and they sarcastically cheer when Rhodes subdues the bot.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: The killchip burns up when the Runaway Squad try to examine it; described as an 'arson special' (presumably because such chemicals have been used in computers to start fires or destroy evidence) its use tells the police that the Johnson family massacre was a premeditated murder.
  • Sexy Secretary: Jackie Rodgers, a secretary at Vetrocon and Luther's girlfriend. Played by Kirstie Alley in a tight leather skirt.
  • Sensor Suspense: During the car chase scene, a large part of the tension is derived from a map screen showing Luther's smart bombs zoning in on the car.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Except when in disguise as a repairman or a police officer, Dr. Luther always dresses in a suit and tie.
  • Shipper on Deck: Bobbie immediately realizes the potential of Dad's attractive new partner.
  • Shoot the Builder: The first thing Luther did when he cracked robotic weapons was kill the rest of his design team. All the better to sell it himself.
  • Shout-Out: The killer spider-bots that attack specific targets is one to the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps.
  • Signature Style: Infodumps, Technology Porn, Rock Beats Laser (when wielded by a Guile Hero)... This is quality Crichton work.
  • Smoke Out: A floater robot drops from the ceiling to spray smoke everywhere after the police burst on Luther's meeting with The Mafia.
  • So Much for Stealth: An annoying news crew gets in Ramsay's face as he's suiting up to go into the Johnson house; he points out they're broadcasting on an EM frequency that the robot can read. The cameraman then follows him into the house (why didn't the police stop him?) and gives away his position by coughing and refusing to switch off his camera light.
  • Super Identikit: Thompson and Sally are shown reconstructing Luther's face on a clunky-looking Eighties version of an iPad.
  • Tempting Fate: Ramsay says "I know what I'm doing" just before being zapped by a malfunctioning security robot.
  • Time Marches On: The hotel raid is executed (rather ineptly) by regular uniformed cops, a reflection of how law enforcement wasn't as militarized in 1984 as it is now. Today, the first thing Luther would've noticed would've been the door getting kicked in, followed by the flashbang going off, and quite possibly would've gotten killed right there...
  • Too Dumb to Live: A news cameraman follows Ramsay into a house where a robot is armed and dangerous. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Jackie stripping off as the police find one bug after another hidden in her clothes. Becomes Fan Disservice when she turns to reveal the angry red bruises Luther has left on her back.
  • Video Phone: The Johnson family house's doorcam — anyone turning up at the door just leaves a message if no-one's home. Dr Luther erases his own message after turning up as a fake repairman, but enough of the tape survives to get a good view of his face. Video intercoms are used on a couple of other occasions too.
  • We Have to Get the Bullet Out!: Thompson takes one of Luther's heat-seeking microshells in her arm, which fails to detonate as it hadn't traveled far enough to arm. They can't risk moving her to the hospital because it could explode at any moment, so Ramsay has to yank it out then and there - he flings it across the room the instant he succeeds in removing it, and it goes off with enough force to take out a wall.
  • Witless Protection Program: The police catch Jackie red-handed with the templates and, after she confesses, decide to use her as The Bait to flush out her boyfriend. Unfortunately her boyfriend is a supreme expert in Hollywood Hacking and Crazy-Prepared (having concealed multiple bugs in her clothes) and she doesn't survive the night.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Ramsay is scared of heights. Knowing this, Luther sets the exchange in the climax to happen in an unfinished skyscraper.
  • Wild Goose Chase: Ramsay plants one of Luther's own Tracking Devices on the templates before he hands them over, but Luther leaves it in a hospital bathroom along with one of his spiderbots.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The two electronic engineers who built the chips, and Luther's girlfriend.
  • You're Insane!: Used by Jackie re our heroes oddly enough, rather than her psycho boyfriend.
    (while robot bombs are closing in on their car) "You're crazy! You're both crazy!
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go: Luther lets Bobbie go, but as he's going down in the elevator reveals that he's programmed the spiderbots to kill the first person to leave.