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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1989)

5. Robot Jox

Stuart Gordon and Charles Band clearly had a solid working relationship. The director had given Empire Pictures two of their best films, after all. However, when Gordon brought Band an idea about giant fighting robots, the producer was uncertain. Band thought the idea might be beyond the scope of the low budget studio. After seeing some test footage, Band changed his mind and “Robot Jox” rolled into production. Maybe the producer should've stuck to his guns. Empire would declare bankruptcy before “Robot Jox” could be released. It would eventually be picked up by a different company, given a very limited release, and not be seen by many people. However, some have suggested that “Robot Jox” is a hidden gem. We'll see about that.

In the distant future, nuclear war has devastated the planet. In the aftermath, countries have found other ways to solve conflicts. Now, global debates are settled by gladiatorial combat between massive robotic suits, piloted by men from opposing countries. Achilles is a robot jock for the Market, a country composed of the remains of America. His greatest rival is Alexander, of the Soviet-style Confederation. During their latest battle, an attack from Alexander caused Achilles' robot to crash onto a bleacher full of innocent people. Both pilots are cleared of all wrongdoing. Achilles, however, is haunted by guilt. He decides to retire from robot fighting. However, as another fight with Alexander looms, Achilles feels himself called back to the cockpit.

Stuart Gordon has been opened about “Robot Jox's” inspiration. The film was inspired by “Transformers” which, in turn, was inspired by anime featuring giant robots. The concept of giant robots piloted by humans is common in Japanese sci-fi but – especially in the late eighties – was very unusual in Western pop culture. (Interestingly, a few years after “Robot Jox” came out, an anime with a similar premise would emerge. “G Gundam” is also about countries deciding global conflicts with giant robot gladiatorial combat.) As in those shows, the robots transform, fly, and even have rocket punches. The film's ideas wasn't the only thing pulled from Saturday morning cartoon shows. Gordon intentionally sought a comic book-y, cartoonish tone for “Robot Jox.” Whether or not the film succeeded in that goal is debatable. However, the director attempting to bring these ideas into live action was an idea worth pursuing.

Gordon believed that special effects had advanced enough that it was possible to pull off such ideas in live action. The director might have overestimated late eighties SFX, especially on an Empire Pictures budget, but the effects in “Robot Jox” are pretty cool. The patriotic color scheme of Achilles' suit is cool, as are the blocky shoulders. Alexander's robot features more rounded hands and some neat weapons. His updated machine features a nifty, four-legged design. The special attacks – flying fists, missiles, lasers – are neat too. The stop motion effects are convincing and effective. Ron Cobb apparently had a hand in designing the suits. It's easy to see Cobb's precise, symmetrical, realistic aesthetic in the machine designs.

It's obvious that the giant robots were where most of the film's budget went. That's especially obvious because the rest of the movie looks very cheap. The costumes are heavy on brightly colored but somehow still bland spandex uniforms. The sets look very fake. I doubt they were actually made out of paper and cardboard but that's certainly the impression one gets. The stop motion effects are good but the digital effects leave something to be desired. A brief flying sequence involving the robots look badly photographed. Achilles drives a flying car in a few scenes and that looks even worst. Clearly, all the money was spent on the robots, leaving few funds for every else.

Sadly, Stuart Gordon's attempts to emulate Saturday morning cartoons results in a derivative story. The giant robot tournament are referred to as “the games.” This can't help but bring “Rollerball” and many other death sports films to mind, which “Robot Jox” resembles somewhat. Being made in the eighties, “Robot Jox” is about honorable Americans fighting evil Soviets. By the time the film actually came out, the Cold War was over, an unforeseeable circumstance that made the future-set movie look immediately dated. Worst yet, “Robot Jox” is just badly paced. There's only two giant robot fights in the film. The rest of the story is essentially spinning its wheel until we can get back to the mecha battles, with boring subplots about genetically engineered super pilots and a spy within the American government.

Further contributing to the film's slow pacing is an uninvolving main hero. Achilles' character arc should be dramatically juicy. He feels guilty for indirectly leading to hundreds of deaths. This makes him reluctant to get back in the fucking robot. Unfortunately, as with all giant robot-themed entertainment, the robots are the only thing we want to see. As understandable as the hero's conflict might be, it runs counter to what the audience wants. Also complicating matter is Gary Graham's lead performance. Graham plays Achilles as a bland, somewhat jock-y guy. He's a little too overconfident at first, making his later depression hard to believe.

As I said, there's a subplot concerning genetically engineered super-pilots. This introduces Athena, played by Anne-Marie Johnson, a rival and potential love interest to Achilles. Athena lacks some social cues, the character being a somewhat inhuman character. (This, unintentionally, recalls later anime characters like Rei Ayanami.) Unfortunately, this chains any acting ability Johnson might have. Her performance is stiff and non-emotive. The romance with Achilles is especially annoying. It mostly comes out of nowhere and, one of their romantic scenes, evolves out of a fight scene... Which has some gross implications.

“Robot Jox's” script was written by Joe Haldeman, a science-fiction novelist of some note. Halderman continually pushed for a more realistic, darker tone. Gordon, meanwhile, insisted on a broader, more cartoon-y tone. That is evident in the supporting characters. Paul Koslo's Alexander is a stereotypical evil Ruskie. He's always belligerent and aggressive, nearly every line of dialogue relating to crushing his enemies. Koslo's performance is broad, to say the least. Even goofier is Michael Alldedge as Tex Conway. As the name indicates, Tex wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a ridiculous Texan accent. Alldedge goes way over-the-top, creating a completely goofy character that sticks out badly.

The conflict in tone between Haldeman and Gordon is obvious in other ways too. “Robot Jox” features some surprisingly grim violence, considering its PG rating. This is most evident in the scene where Achilles' robot is pushed over by a rocket punch, fired by Alexander's machine, and lands on a bleacher full of people. Among these victims are little children. Dead kids definitely jive badly with the film's otherwise silly, light-hearted tone. (Further distracting from the seriousness of this situation is Gordon throwing in a reference to “Bleacher Bums” here.) Later, a character is murdered, his brains blown out at point-blank range, which is then framed as a suicide. I doubt Haldeman's vision of a super-serious, grim giant robot fighting movie would've worked. Yet maybe if Gordon had stuck with his ideas a little more, the darker elements of “Robot Jox” wouldn't stick out so badly.

Then again, this movie is so goofy in spots. When Tex's treachery is discovered, he dives out a window. That's not especially funny but the jovial way he shouts “Geronimo!” as he falls made me chuckle. Probably the most ridiculous, and inexplicable scene in the film, occurs when Athena is training with other potential pilots. This involves the group climbing up a large steel jungle jim. The bars glow hot or shake while lights strobe in the room. When combined with the silly spandex outfits, the odd sequence graduates to unintentionally funny.

It's clear that Gordon didn't intend “Robot Jox” to include any serious political satire. The U.S./Soviet conflict is as simple as can be. However, after eighty-odd minutes of good Americans and evil Soviets, the film takes a hard turn in its final minutes. After destroying each other's robots, Achilles attempts to reach out to Alexander. This works, the two enemies' clutching hands in friendship before the film smashes to credits. The message of global peace and connection is a nice sentiment and all. It's also totally at odds with the rest of the movie.

Despite contributing to Empire's collapse and flopping at the box office, “Robot Jox” was clearly a favorite of Charlie Band. His later company, Full Moon Entertainment, would produce two quasi-sequels to the film. 1990's “Crash and Burn” is named after a reoccurring line in the film and reuses stock footage from it, in service of an otherwise unrelated story. 1993's “Robot Wars” was apparently meant to be a direct follow-up but also ended up having no direct connection to this film. I wasn't much of a fan of the film – I do like its score – but “Robot Jox” has its defenders. Nine Inch Nails sampled the movie in one song. Detailed models based on the film have been released. Kim Newman's a fan and some have suggested that “Robot Jox” influenced “Pacific Rim.” I have no doubt that the film's cult following is nothing but sincere but its giant robot novelty has limited appeal to me. [Grade: C]

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