Film critic Leonard Maltin called the Crichton-directed RUNAWAY, “Futuristic comic book nonsense which actually takes itself seriously”. And while not intended as a compliment at the time, in retrospect the comment emerges as such, for RUNAWAY does have the deliberate tone, feel (and even cinematic framing) of what years later would come to be called “the adult oriented graphic novel”. Watch RUNAWAY today comparatively with current sci fi fare such as the 2009 Bruce Willis actioner SURROGATES (based on the 2005 - 2006 comic book series), 2010’s REPO MEN, and even 1988’s seminal animation icon AKIRA, and Crichton’s film seems remarkably of a kind - cut from the same tonal, thematic and stylistic cloth though it preceded the other titles by many years.
In the not-too-distant future world of RUNAWAY, “super chips” have allowed appliances to become energy-saving “smart” appliances capable of making remedial decisions - such as your vacuum cleaner automatically going into action itself when it determines the floor needs attention, your “smart oven” beginning dinner when you phone telling it you’ll be home an hour or two late; or an automatic office building trolly “janitor” only attending to suites which have been used that business day.
As the technology behind the appliances is of such an advanced nature, when one breaks down or goes haywire (“runaway“), a police “Runaway Unit Officer” is called in to deactivate it - essentially come in and “flip the ‘Off’ switch” so consumers won’t invalidate the product’s warranty or insurance. As such the “Runaway Unit” is essentially the “animal control” branch and looked down upon by the rest of the force. Things take a decidedly more serious tone when the murder of two synthetic intelligence designers are linked to a strange outbreak of “fatal accidents” caused by appliances. Officer Ramsay (Tom Selleck) - a former street detective who’s vertigo confined him to Runaway detail, uncovers a black market operation run by “former MIT / Cal-Tech poster boy gone bad” Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS).
Luther commissioned the syn-intel designers to create protoype chips capable of turning harmless appliances into killing machines by simple over the air or keyboard commands. He then killed off his former partners as a security precaution. Having also created “smart bullets” capable of remembering an individual’s heat signature, killer “spider robots” able to traverse any kind of terrain, and “Lockons” - small GPS guided explosive mobile devices which lock onto a moving vehicle, weaves in and out of moving traffic to find the target, then detonates beneath it, Luther wants to sell his tech to organized crime or terrorists factions … whomever offers the most money at international auctions. Before Luther could claim his shipment of new “killer chips” from his late partners, Ramsay took them into police custody in order to draw the criminal genius into the open. Now after a series of cat & mouse encounters (both men striking into the personal lives of the other) they meet face to face in a hair raising “high rise” climax.
Goldsmith had been using electronics in his scores for years, but unlike the popular work of Vangelis (CHARIOTS OF FIRE - ‘81, BLADE RUNNER - ‘82, ANTARCTICA - ‘83) only to create and bend musical effects sonically which could not be achieved organically. He also used them as “part” of the orchestra, on par with (and never more or less important than) the woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings or other section. RUNAWAY was his first, and one of only three scores (the others being Graham Baker's ALIEN NATION - 1988, the score of which was replaced; and Martin Campbell's 1989 thriller CRIMINAL LAW) realized entirely electronically. This was years before the era of the Synclavier and other direct-to-disc digital recording systems, so each layer of RUNAWAY’s complex musical palate was performed on keyboards (programmed by Goldsmith's composer son Joel), recorded analog, then laid down one atop the other by frequent Goldsmith collaborator - producer/editor/mixer Bruce Botnick. All of this was done at The Record Plant LA, assisted by Tim Boyle.
When RUNAWAY made it’s theatrical debut in December 1984, it’s sci fi thunder had already earlier been stolen by James Cameron’s much less expensive to produce (and more seriously toned) THE TERMINATOR less than two months prior. In the now new context of “serious sci fi” critics of the day weren’t originally kind to RUNAWAY's “ahead of it’s time” graphic novel sensibilities, though the film has seen it’s cred (and financially profitability) increase over the years.
Goldsmith: 1980's ad for Yamaha Keyboards
As had almost become the norm by this time, Goldsmith’s score had taken everyone (critics, filmmakers, fans and even the music industry) by complete surprise. Rather than bang out a series of tuneful, atmospheric synth pad drone-like rifts (as John Carpenter & Alan Howarth had done effectively with scores such as HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), Goldsmith chose to compose what was essentially an intricate orchestral score simply too complex and fast for an orchestra to perform … hence it was realized electronically. Even aspiring rap musicians of the day would brainstorm how they might sample Goldsmith's wild RUNAWAY rhythms into their songs. In this regard pay attention to “Alley Flight” - as the scene is played out in straight-up graphic novel fashion, which is to say - from the POV of a smart bullet in flight honing in on it’s target; and especially the nifty “Lockons” - a nocturnal chase sequence wherein waves of the mobile GPS explosive devices stalk Ramsay and a decoy police vehicle across highway lanes.
At the fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital, a close friend of surgical resident Susan Wheeler goes into an unexplained coma after what is by all accounts a routine out-patient procedure. Obsessed by her friend's case, Susan launches a personal investigation ... and stumbles upon a macabre multi-million dollar conspiracy. Other healthy patients (who were tissue typed beforehand) also went into unexplained "brain death" after routine procedures - all of them carried out in O.R.#8 (Operating Room 8). Later moved to the experimental chronic care facility “The Jefferson Institute”, they would become valuable product in a "high tech slaughterhouse" - their healthy organs harvested for wealthy clients around the world unable or unwilling to be put on waiting lists.
Based on Robin Cook’s 1977 novel of the same name, this box office hit for Crichton (serving as screenwriter and director) and MGM was in some respects the novel Crichton had perhaps wished he’d written himself. He and Robin Cook were “birds of a feather” in that both began as Harvard medical students who’s first published works (under their own names that is) were based on their early years as interns - Robin Cook’s non-fiction YEAR OF THE INTERN (1972) and Crichton’s FIVE PATIENTS (1970). At the time COMA was snatched up for theatrical purposes, Crichton was the one with years of cinematic experience under his belt, so Cook was elated when it was he who acquired the rights in conjunction with producer Martin Erlichmann.
Crichton chose to film COMA in stylized Hitchcock thriller mode. And as such it’s visuals would propel the story “sans dialog” for long stretches of time. As a result music would have to anchor the audience’s emotions as well as propel those emotions from one “silent movie suspense set piece” to the next. As did Hitchcock’s favorite composer of choice Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO, VERTIGO) frequently “build a new customized orchestra” for the individual dramatic needs of a film, so did Goldsmith for COMA, eschewing a standard design in favor of a large string section, four grand pianos, a minimum of percussion … and THE JETTISONING OF THE ENTIRE BRASS SECTION!!!, feeling this would provide a sonically more intimate and clinical sound. He’d use the echoplexed plucking of piano strings as the film's “conspiracy” motif; then, finally and interestingly, choose that the absence of music would propel the narrative as well.
During the first half of COMA the audience isn't aware whether Susan’s suspicions are true or the product of a stressed and overworked imagination. Even her boyfriend, fellow resident Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas), isn't convinced of the validity of her convictions; and there is no music to clue us in one way or the other. At film’s half-way point the score makes it's quietly eerie debut with the “conspiracy” motif when Susan is followed home one night by the “Stranger On The Street" who turns out to be a hired assassin. From this point on there's no doubt. This isn’t all in her head. And Goldsmith proceeds to pull out all stops with nary a sequence UNscored for the film’s remaining 53 suspense-laden minutes. A study in contrast, the larger than life, banshee-wailing-like (and very Hitchcock-ian) motif for "The Institute" emerges as one of the film's two primary themes. It gets an intriguingly macabre Herrmann-esque treatment in "Toys In The Attic" - where Susan makes her way through the duct-work maze of the hospital's electrical and ventilation system to discover the mechanism used by the conspirators: the device designed to switch healthy patients' oxygen feeds in O.R. # 8 with carbon monoxide, thus inducing brain death in order to steal their valued organs. The other motif is the "Love Theme" for Susan and Mark - which gets a comforting summation in the climactic "A Nice Case" after Mark later races against time to find the same "duct-work" mechanism in order to save Susan from a similar "comatose fate" engineered by the villainous Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark).
Notwithstanding, it is again interestingly, the absence of score, during what would seem the most obvious choice as a musical blank canvas, which makes the film's signature sequence it's most powerful - the famous scene in the Jefferson Institute‘s “hanging body” room. Feeling the purple hued visual was disturbingly powerful in and of itself, Goldsmith chose to let the scene play in near dead silence.
In the tenth century the Caliph of Baghdad sends his emissary, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), on a task to the king of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. In actuality the “assignment” is to spare Fadlan’s life as he was caught dallying with the wife of another man. Fadlan never arrives, but is rather taken in by a group of Viking warriors, who are then sent on a mission “to the north” to defend one of their settlements from what seems to be Lovecraft-ian creatures materializing from the mist to feed upon the flesh of captured men. Thus begins Michael Crichton’s THE 13TH WARRIOR, based on his second historical adventure novel EATERS OF THE DEAD (1976).
The genesis of EATERS occurred after the publication of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1975) when a friend of Crichton mentioned how the classic long form poem/narrative BEOWULF was one of the most boring classics of all time - a statement to which Crichton disagreed. The author felt the “boring-ness” or excitement was all in HOW the story was told, and he set about proving it. EATERS is surely one of the most unusual (and unusually clever) works of fiction ever published … precisely because of HOW it’s written.
The first three chapters are taken from actual Arabic historical writings ( a “Risala”) detailing encounters with the Norsemen.
The remainderis a reworking of BEOWULF, with bits of H.P. Lovecraft’s
“Necronomicon”, Jean M. Auel's "EARTH'S CHILDREN" novels (particularly THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR), and the classic French poem “THE SONG OF ROLAND”,
all tossed in; then told from the POV of a modern scientific / anthropological examination of
an authenticated historical text - replete with footnotes and even an
introductory provenance “verifying” that text. For those who haven’t
read the book or seen the film version there will be no spoilers here,
suffice to say by story’s climax event’s have evolved into something of a Conan
Doyle / Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “lost civilization” saga. All in all a
difficult work to adapt to the slim confines of a two hour film, and as
such THE 13TH WARRIOR proved to be the working definition of a difficult and troubled
Originally directed by John McTiernan (PREDATOR, DIE HARD, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER), he was “let go” by Disney/Touchstone (or by producer Crichton depending on accounts) after his first cut went over budget yet still necessitated reshoots. At this time teaser trailers were already running in theaters under the film's original title - EATERS OF THE DEAD. But upon feedback from friends who cringed at the almost “slasher movie”-like moniker, Crichton changed it to THE 13TH WARRIOR. The "13th Warrior" is Ibn Fadlan himself, “chosen by fate” to accompany the twelve Viking soldiers on their warrior quest, not unlike Roland and his twelve “Paladin” warriors of the epic French poem.
Reshoots, re-edits and a now slimmer running time necessitated rescoring. And at this juncture Crichton’s good friend and trusted composer of choice, Jerry Goldsmith, stepped in (once again at the eleventh hour) to create a new musical palate, replacing the previous effort by New Zealander Graeme Revell (THE CROW, THE SAINT, STRANGE DAYS, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK). Once again stepping into epic widescreen mode, Goldsmith created two powerful main themes: one Arabic in nature and tonally reminiscent of his THE WIND AND THE LION and THE MUMMY; and the other a pounding horn statement for the Vikings - first heard at the tail end of “Exiled” when the prow of the Norse longboat is seen by Fadlan for the first time as the vessel rounds a river bend.
The other two “secondary” motifs are one giving voice to the Berserker-like “creatures of the mist” - the Wendol (heard in “The Horns of Hell”), and a quietly introspective melody (“A Useful Servant”) representative of the “spiritual awakening” which the adventure causes within the hearts of both Fadlan and his Viking compatriots. It’s of interest to note how, over the course of the story, Fadlan's "Useful Servant" motif is eventually absorbed into the "Viking" theme itself. It becomes his own as he also becomes one of their group; by film's end both his heroic deeds and theirs represented by the same musical calling card - the proud "Viking horn" statement. Over the course of their adventure, the wall of cultural differences between them has dissolved, helping forge them into one single 10th century “Band Of Brothers”. THE 13TH WARRIOR is a smashing, muscular, old school adventure epic of the highest order; it's effect in no small part fueled by one of the most percussive, violent and colorful scores in Jerry Goldsmith's long and impressive career.