Title: Robot Jox (1990)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Gary Graham, Ann Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo
Robot Jox is one of Stuart Gordon’s most expensive films, but don’t go thinking Robot Jox is a “big budget” movie, in fact it’s quite the opposite, for a movie about giant robots, Robot Jox’s budget is actually quite small. But that didn’t bother director Stuart Gordon, a director who’s always been accustomed to working with really low budgets. I mean here’s a director who’s used to making movies below the 1 million dollar mark. The amazing thing is that for working with shoestring budgets, he’s always made pretty cool movies, movies that have gone on to become cult favorites. For example, he did Re-Animator (1985) with a mere 900,000 and to this day Re-Animator is still considered one of the best zombie splatter fests ever. The ultra gory masterpiece called From Beyond (1986) only cost 4.5 million. Fortress (1992) a science fiction film about a futuristic underground penal colony that cost 8 million dollars to make, yet somehow managed to look better than Robot Jox which was made with 10 million! His budgets always went a little higher with each feature he made until he made the most expensive film in Gordon’s career; a science fiction film called Space Truckers (1996), a film about these space truckers who unbeknownst to them carry a deadly cargo on their space ship. Space Truckers was a pretty cool little sci-fi movie that hardly anybody saw. That one cost 25 million, the highest budget that Gordon ever worked with, yet strangely enough, it’s one of his lesser known films! So anyhow, with all the excitement surrounding Guillermo del Toro’s excellent giant robot movie PacificRim (2013), I thought it would be a good idea to revisit Gordon’s Robot Jox, a film that plays with many of the same ideas that Pacifi Rim plays with, but with a far, far smaller budget.
Robot Jox is all about a future in which war has been abolished and countries now settle their disputes by having giant robots kick the living shit out of each other. You’d think they go for a bigger budget when thinking about making a film about giant robots, but nope, they decided to do it anyway with just 10 million. As a basis for comparison, Michael Bay made Transformers (2007) for 150 million and Guillermo del Toro made Pacific Rim with 180 million! Yet here’s Gordon, the miracle worker, making this big on ideas sci-fi movie with a mere 10 million. The problem with Robot Jox for me is that its low budget shows. Sets look half assed, miniatures look unconvincing, and the futuristic wardrobe looks like motorcycle driving gear. Why do they always do this in cheap sci-fi films? Got no money for some decent wardrobe? Hey, it’s okay! We can use football shoulder pads! We’ll make it look futuristic! Problem with that is that I always notice! Who wouldn't right? Are all those cables on their suits RCA cables they ripped out of some television set? Sure they are! All this adds an unexpected level of comedy to the whole film which some of you might enjoy.
Then again, ten million dollars is about the average budget of a Godzilla movie and Robot Jox definitely plays in the same ball park as a Godzilla movie. I mean, were talking about giant robots fighting each other here! And truth be told, the scenes with the giant robots fighting each other in the middle of an arena in the dessert are the best part of this film. The effects were achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and traditional miniatures which gives the robots a tangible feel, your brain instantly recognizes these aren’t computer animated images, these guys made these miniatures and these puppets for real, which is something I always admire. The stop motion animation and the miniatures were done by Dave Allen, a guy who did a lot of stop motion animation work in z-level movies like all those Full Moon Pictures that were so popular during the 90’s. I’m talking about films like Doctor Mordrid (1992) and Subspecies (1991). Full Moon pictures we’re popular amongst genre fans during the 90’s because they were cheesy fun. They might’ve looked cheap, but they were also unabashedly geeky, these films displayed a genuine love for genre films. David Allen brought all his low budget know how to Robot Jox, his stop motion animation is a highlight of the film.
One of the big problems with this movie is the uneven tone. When studios think of a film about giant robots, their target audience is immediately children, this is the reason why Godzilla films always have ‘Godzuki’, which is like a baby Godzilla, a character deliberately placed in Godzilla films so the kiddies will have something to identify with. Well, at first glance Robot Jox feels like a kid’s film, but then it has many double entendre jokes, harsh language and even some nudity and sex. I hear the writer behind the film, Joe Haldeman, wanted a more serious, dramatic picture while Stuart Gordon was more interested in making it a cheesy, b-movie, akin to a Saturday morning cartoon, so I guess in the end this is why the movie ended up being uneven in nature. The cheesiest thing about the movie though is the dialog which always feels unnatural, in the end, the lines spoken in this picture will more than likely make you laugh all the way through the picture. I know I did! It’s one of those movies that’s funny because it’s bad. But basically, if you enjoy low budget cheesy films, then you are more than likely going to enjoy Robot Jox. I enjoy it because I have high tolerance for cheese, in fact, I love it!
A behind the scenes look at the crew working on the "giant robots"
Production wise this movie has a sad story because it’s the film that put an end to Empire Pictures which went bankrupt while making this movie. To give you an idea of the troubled path that Robot Jox had to go through to get released, the film was completed in 1987, but the whole thing with the bankruptcy held its release in theaters all the way back to 1990! At the time, this had been Empire Pictures most expensive movie yet! This film was certainly a risk for them, but I’m willing to bet it’s one they were willing to take because of the whole popularity with the Transformers cartoons. They thought they had a potential hit in their hands because of this! Unfortunately fate had other plans for it and so the film ended up being released in 1990, when the Transformers cartoon show had faded away. Empire Pictures was the company behind such low budget sci-fi/horror fare as Spellcaster (1988), Creepozoids (1987), Mutant Hunt (1987), Terrorvision (1986), Zone Troopers (1985), Trancers (1985), Ghoulies (1985), Troll (1986), Rawhead Rex (1986), and many of Gordon’s previous horror films like Dolls (1987), From Beyond (1986) and Re-Animator (1985). Basically, if it was the mid eighties and it was low budget direct to video horror/science fiction, these guys were behind it. Sadly, Robot Jox brought all that to an end; I guess they bit more than they could chew. Too bad because I actually liked all those cheesy low budget movies they helped produce and distribute during the 80’s, they were cheap low brow fun, I still find myself revisiting many of their films.
One giant step for humanity!
Personally, I enjoy Robot Jox because it’s a film I’ve been watching since it was first made, and at the time, these kinds of films were a rarity. True, there were cartoons about giant robots, but nobody was making motion pictures about giant robot like this one. There were no films like Transformers (2007) or Pacific Rim (2013), so I guess in its own small way, Robot Jox was a pioneer in American science fiction cinema. Strangely enough, it was the Transformers cartoon show which inspired Stuart Gordon to make this film, Gordon’s intention was to capitalize on the success of the cartoon show, unfortunately, by the time Robot Jox was released in theaters the popularity of the cartoon show had faded and so, the film tanked. It did poorly in theaters and received bad reviews, but it later garnered cult following and found its audience on home video, I know that’s where I discovered it. It was followed by a series of films that were sometimes marketed as sequels to Robot Jox, but in reality weren’t. These films were Crash and Burn (1990), which actually borrowed its title from a line from Robot Jox and then there was Robot Wars (1993). I never saw either of these, but I’ll see if I can my hands on them for review. Bottom line with Robot Jox is that it’s not a terrible film, it has its entertaining moments, especially those robot fights that while dated when compared to films like Pacific Rim, are still fun to watch in my book.
Crash and Burn!