Friday, April 1, 2011

71 Tweets (Runaway, 1984, Michael Crichton)

(Written for the 5th Annual White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Paul Clark at Silly Hats Only.)

1. How many best-selling authors are also pretty good directors? That's what always kills me about Crichton. I will assume he also had a 10 inch cock and his piss was literally a stream of gold.

I mean, studio suits let Norman Mailer and Stephen King direct films too. What the fuck was that about?

Did they really think sitting in a room all day with a typewriter is the same skill as managing a squadron of people and making a thousand decisions every minute?

(See also: Miller, Frank, THE SPIRIT. But no, don't.)

And yet, Crichton could do both. WESTWORLD, aside from an appalling media prologue, is a cold, controlled classic.

He may never have been a maestro (and maybe he knew that and that's why he went back to novels), but he knew where to put a camera.

He never, to my knowledge, embarrassed himself, though he may have come close with RUNAWAY, his feature from 1984.

The problem starts with the premise. Which is weird, because that's where Crichton shines, right?

An amusement park -- with real dinosaurs! An amusement park -- with super-realistic robots! An amusement park -- where Demi Moore sexually harasses you!

10. [But I kid. He really could find a good nut of a story and build something readable and marketable around it. No easy feat.]

But RUNAWAY: So it's just like our 1984. Except industrial robots are everywhere, building our skyscrapers, farming our food, making our dinners.

With the twist... that there is no twist. That's pretty much it.

When a robot goes haywire -- and regardless if it's a danger or not -- a special police division is brought in to put it down. Because that makes sense, right?

[Presumably, there are no unions in this world. That's the only thing I can think of. The robots done broke 'em up.]

Sure, when a robot somehow grabs a handgun with his claw and goes on a rampage, you're gonna need cop/robot specialist Tom Selleck.

But that's when we hit the next speed bump in this idea. Crichton doesn't want to repeat the simulacrums of WESTWORLD.

That's great, but the solution -- big clunky boxes that looked jury-rigged from Radio Shack parts -- doesn't inspire fear. Or interest. Or anything, really.

Seriously, they're never plausible as threats. Does a dry vac with a knife scare you?

[I'm reminded of the pool sweeper crawling out of the pool in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, a silly moment in an otherwise good film.]

20. [Maybe they needed to compete with the crawling and self-immolating Ouija board in PA 1.]

And the robots that are actually trying to kill people have been fucked with by villain Gene Simmons. So Crichton's usual theme -- TECHNOLOGY GONE AMOK -- is hamstringed.

Crichton's LOOKER had a gun that blacked you out for a couple seconds, and that shit was actually terrifying (see: the car chase).

This one has a gun with heat-seeking bullets, which means either a) the non-Selleck target is killed or b) Selleck jumps behind a lot of walls and tables. It's self-defeating.

[Also, the bullet POV shots just look like a guy running around with a camera at less than bullet speed.]

On the face of it, Simmons is a good villain. Simmons is creepier here than with his KISS makeup, and he reins in the performance, letting the stillness and the glower do the heavy lifting.

But it turns out there's no character there. Just a basic motivation (greed, I *think*). No connection to Selleck, no surprising human qualities, nothin'.

Crichton tries to make up for this with a brief, ridiculous scene where a psychic (a *psychic*!) says that Selleck and Simmons are "like brothers".

That are hardcore rationalist like Crichton brings in a motherfucking psychic says it all, really.

And while another of Crichton's strengths is his use of technical or jargon-studded dialogue (here, the cop-speak), good God help us when he's tackling "the media".

30. He never met an arrogant, ethically-challenged new reporter he didn't like to hit us over the head with.

[I used to fervently believe the WESTWORLD prologue, with its painfully broad "man on the street" reporter segment, was studio-mandated. I'm no longer sure.]

But the biggest mis-step, and what probably accounts for its box office failure (and what also makes the film kinda interesting) is Crichton's visual conception of his world.

Let me put it this way: the director that came to mind while watching RUNAWAY was Damon Packard.

Packard makes very low-budget films, usually horror or SF in nature, transforming banal, everyday materials into something transcendent. It's rinky dink, but that's the point.

[In REFLECTIONS OF EVIL, he turns the ride queues at Universal Studios into a haunted, CARNIVAL OF SOULS-esque limbo through sheer gusto.]

Crichton, probably unintentionally, ends up doing something similar, on a Hollywood budget. (So I guess the joke's on him.)

As I said before, the robots are pure Radio Shack. They really deflate interest in why you're presumably watching this (robots go crazy!).

Crichton wants a "The Future Is Now" setting, but the flat lighting and Vancouver locations kill any visual excitement.

[Filming in Vancouver is the Hollywood equivalent of going through your mom's old dresses to put on a show in the backyard.]

40. There are very few fiery explosions, but a lot -- a *lot* -- of cheapy-looking exploding sparks. Crichton turns it into a motif: the final shot has Selleck kissing the Love Interest under a shower of 'em.

I submit that the real RUNAWAY and a theoretical version made by talented, film-obsessed preteens would be virtually identical.

But it's not a complete wash. Crichton, ultimately, is too talented to let it be.

The most successful scene is when Selleck has to remove an unexploded bullet from his Partner/Love Interest's arm.

Crichton nails the combo of tension & humor here, and the way the drama deepens the characters' relationship.

[Basically, this is the sex scene, only with Selleck de-penetrating his Love Interest.]

Of course, is it any wonder that the most successful scene dovetails with the director's past as a med student? [Realizing: Crichton created the show ER as well.]

Then there's Selleck's fear of heights, which, because of Simmons' flimsiness, is the real antagonist.

More time is spent with Selleck, up in an elevator on top of an unfinished skyscraper, fighting off robot bugs, then the final confrontation with Simmons.

I love how Crichton holds the camera on Selleck's ascent for, by modern standards, a long time. Current hack directors would fuck this moment up.

50. He really lets the fear sink in as the elevator goes up, and Selleck gets the room to play this scene quietly, through his body.

There's also a nice camera move as Selleck crawls across the roof of the elevator to peer down. It's the little things.

You know, say what you want about his writing or his ideas, but the man truly understood was dramatic tension, and how to wring it.

The baby's alone in the house -- with a killer robot! There's a bullet in her -- that could explode any second! Your son's heading down the elevator -- where acid-spewing bugbots are waiting for him!

It's silly, of course. And it works every time, damn him.

Finally, let's take a moment to praise, yes praise, Mr. Tom Selleck. What a completely unearned bad rap this man gets.

I feel like he's treated like a Hasselhofian joke, and basically because he dared to sport a moustache.

Every time he appeared on Friends, Entertainment Weekly had to make some snark-ass comment. And he was probably the best of the regular guest stars.

Truth is, had Selleck's career happened in the 50s, we'd be talking about one of the classic matinee idols.

60. He splits the difference between Wayne-style machismo and Grant-style affinity for verbal comedy.

If you want to see a guy singlehandedly raise a film from "meh" to "worth a look", watch RUNAWAY.

Only a few scenes have Selleck dealing with talking robots, but each one is a small gem of conversational frustration. See: Verbal Comedy.

There's a real subtlety to his performance; rather than emote MY WIFE DIED I'M DEPRESSED, he wears the tragedy like a comfortable coat.

He engages every actor, from hysterical Kirstie Alley to glowering Simmons, with, for lack of a better word, aliveness. Presence. Thereness.

Best Selleck scene: putting his son to sleep, and how both break spontaneously into chuckles when talking about the Love Interest.

It probably started as a blooper, but Selleck's so in the moment he transforms it into something truthful and real. Even moreso than the robots and the real locations, he grounds the film in reality.

[Also, let's enjoy the irony of the man starring in a TECHNOLOGY RUNS AMOK film becoming the spokesperson for TECHNOLOGY CAN DO ANYTHING.]

Yet, while I enjoyed the film, what kills it for me is that, really, there is no big idea or theme here.

No real subtext, that I could find; this film is pure WYSIWYG.

70. Not unlike that unfinished skyscraper or those bony little bugbots, it's just an skeleton that never got fleshed out.

Oh boo hoo, JURASSIC PARK dollarz.


Paul C. said...

I can always count on you for an entertaining review, and this one is no exception. Thanks for participating again this year.

Caroline said...

I'm the one who assigned this film. Thank you for giving such a serious analysis about a movie where the 'Stache and the Tongue duke it out over tiny LEGO robots.

Kza said...

Thanks, bud!

Thank you for assigning it! It was the most pleasurable, easiest-to-watch W.E. movie I've had so far.

"tiny LEGO robots"
YES. Wish I'd thought of that. And too bad we didn't get to actually see the tongue.

Paul C. said...

As someone with a soft spot for Ishtar, I'm a little surprised this one was easier to watch and more entertaining. Was it the Selleck factor?

Kza said...

Oh, ISHTAR was fun, but it's also intentionally a bit more "resistant", what with the satire and idiot heroes. RUNAWAY is more in my wheelhouse -- SF, action, robots, and Crichton, who knows how to keep the pace from flagging.

Also, it should be noted that I had absolutely no intention of writing a Paean To Selleck before seeing this film.

Stacia said...

In my misspent youth, I was the high school science club president (stop judging me!), and "Runaway" was one of the go-to movies we had running in our little break lounge. I must have seen it 3-4 times, and then I rented it again when I was an allegedly smarter adult. While I will always have a nostalgic soft spot for it, it is not a good film. You're spot on when you note that Luther just isn't a character, he's not even caricature.