Friday, July 12, 2013
Giant Robot Month: Robot Jox (1990)
Gordon, originally a theatre director, first started directing for Charles Band's Empire Pictures in 1985 with the much loved adaptation of HP Lovecraft's Re-Animator. He followed it up with two more low budget horror films, From Beyond and Dolls. Filming on the sci-fi flick Robot Jox started in 1987 in Rome. From the outset Band knew that the project was a risk. He'd assigned it a budget of $7 million which sounds small but was actually 7 times the usual amount he spent on his films. Though the live action shoot went fine, the filming of the miniatures, by David Allen's production company, were plagued with difficulties such as sandstorms and floods which forced the film to go over budget. In the end, it took three years before the film was released in cinemas where it sank without a trace.
Robot Jox is set in the distant future. Following World War III all nations have agreed to ban fighting wars with armies. Any disputes that come up between nations are instead sorted out by one-on-one battles between giant robots. Each robot is piloted by a single man known as a robot jockey or 'robot jox' for short. The evil Confederation (a stand in for Russia) is currently trying to win control of Alaska so a match is set up between the sadistic Alexander and the heroic Achilles (Gary Graham). The first match is forcefully abandoned though when Achilles accidentally crushes a huge stand full of spectators. Will Achilles be able to step back into his robot for the rematch? Or will he be replaced by the genetically bred Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson)?
Despite the film's gaudy exterior and flimsy sets Robot Jox is actually pretty well-written. If you take a look at the credits this shouldn't be much of a surprise because the film was co-written by Joe Haldeman who wrote the seminal sci-fi novel The Forever War back in the 1970s. The film is actually really well paced. There's only really three bits of fighting in the whole film - at the beginning, middle and end - but Gordon and Haldeman make good use of the space in between, using it to racket up the tension. There's some cool subplots about traitors trading information and Achilles trying to overcome his doubts of being a good fighter. You can tell that Gordon and Haldeman obviously put a lot of thought into how and why these robot battles exist.
Graham is pretty good as Achilles. Like any good boxing film Achilles has to lose his first match to make his win at the end that much more triumphant. It's an interesting development that the writers chose to make him responsibly for a loads of deaths when he falls on the spectator's gallery. I think that part was almost certainly Haldemann's contribution. Apparently, he and Gordon could never agree on the tone of the film. Gordon wanted it more cartoonish and Haldemann wanted more realism and consequences. As a result the film feels a little uneven in tone. Too thoughtful for kids, too silly for adults. The rest of the cast are decent but nothing to write home about. If you've got a sharp eye you might spot Re-Animator himself Jeffrey Combs in a brief scene as one of the spectators.
The major draw of the film is the stop motion effects though which are awesome. I don't think you could ever call them photorealistic but they are hugely fun to watch. The robots fly, shoot lasers, fire missiles, punch each other, rip off appendages. You won't be disappointed by the fighting scenes if that's what you're here for. I'd easily put them on par with anything Ray Harryhausen did. I like that Gordon did some shots inside the robot cabin too, looking out from Achilles' perspective. He does a really good job of giving the audience a sense of scale and space. I think if Robot Jox had come out earlier in the 80s, closer to when Transformers was on TV it could have done gangbusters (of course, they would have to have ditched the lousy title too)!
One thing I did feel watching the film is that the female characters really get the short end of the stick. Athena, the genetically bred rival to Achilles, is the only major female character in the film. She gets her shot at piloting a robot when Achilles retires halfway through. But then when Achilles finds out she's taking over from him he comes out retirement. I know the idea is meant to be that Achilles doesn't feel that genetically engineered fighters are better than him but it feels kind of sexist too. Like, there's no way a woman could possibly drive a robot. Still this isn't film that's concerned with gender disparity. You're here to watch robots punch each other in the face and that's what you get. Enjoy the carnage.