Director: Stuart Gordon

USA - 1990

I have fond memories of Robot Jox in the theater, back in 1990.  I was in college at the time, and taking a course on writing science fiction, taught by a local English professor who did SF on the side.  It happened that this professor was friends with Joe Haldeman, the esteemed SF writer responsible for The Forever War and many other novels, and Joe had written the script to this movie, and our professor suggested we go and see the movie on our own time, and then we could all meet in the faculty offices and conduct a conference call with Mr. Haldeman.  This seemed a fine idea at the time.  Then we got to see the movie.

We open with a brief explanation of the situation in the time-honored tradition of the screen crawl.  In the brave new world, post WWIII, war has been outlawed; instead, conflicts are resolved through mechanized gladiatorial combat.  While they’re not called by the same names, the remaining superpowers are the United States and the Soviet Union (this was written pre-Berlin Wall, after all).  The environment is so polluted that the population wears SARS-like face masks.  And everyone lives in a slum and can’t read, which is why they spell “jocks” J-O-X, and somebody scrawls “cowerd” on a wall about halfway through the movie.  And population is so low (and the quality of kids so poor) that they have to breed in test tubes for combat skills, fearlessness, and ‘80s hair with little padawan braids, and they have these billboards all over the place encouraging reproduction, not the way fun way but by showing pregnant women with the tagline PRE.  NA.  TAL.  And armed, helmeted stormtrooper-like guards exist everywhere, making future faux-USA seem worse than the modern USSR (a development that must have seemed ludicrous in 1990, but seems all too plausible 14 years later).  And there are giant robots.

Technically, the machines in Robot Jox are not really robots as much as they are anthropomorphic vehicles.  An onboard human is in control of all the mech’s functions, with very little automation or independent computer control; therefore, while the term “giant robot” is popular and summons up quite the vivid imagery, it is not strictly accurate.  But who cares?  Let’s see a couple of them duke it out!

As you can tell, there’s a lot of little details, like the general poverty and the illiteracy, that’s thrown in there as dressing.  Unfortunately, it’s not really touched upon, beyond an unnecessary scene where the main character visits his brother and has the “how’s the reading business going?” conversation.  The major plot revolves around Achilles (Gary Graham, best known for playing Matt Sikes on the “Alien Nation” TV series), the last surviving active jock of the faux-USA gladiatorial team.  His buddy, Tex Conway (the late Michael Alldredge, who was in “V” and Iron Eagle, among many others), also survived, but he’s finished his contract and retired to a desk job.  Why are there only two left?  It seems the top jock on the faux-Soviet side, Alexander (Paul Koslo, a fine German actor who has made a career out of sci-fi B-movies like Project: Shadowchaser) has a tendency to kill his defeated opponents.  Nothing like being smooshed to death by a giant robot foot to really produce a closed casket funeral (unless it’s being smooshed to death by a giant anthropomorphic vehicle foot… okay, I’ll stop and bow to convention for the rest of the review).  There’s also a whole plot element about espionage, as the faux-Soviets have a tendency to find out about the faux-USA’s new weapons, allowing them to come up with defenses.

Anyway, Achilles and Alexander fight, and there’s some poorly-thought-out heroics, and the match ends in a draw.  Achilles, his contract having been for twenty fights, claims he’s done, while everyone else claims the fight’s not over until someone wins.  Two go in, one comes out, unless there’s a contract dispute.  The next generation of pilots are all specially bred from test tubes—“tubies,” as they are unkindly called.  They don’t get why Achilles is having the emotions he’s having.  Alexander, trained his whole life in the true faux-Soviet way, also doesn’t get it.  It’s not until Achilles falls for one of the tubies, a girl called Athena, and tries to protect her (only to be betrayed by her competitiveness) that he ends up getting back in the saddle.

Let’s be honest here: this is probably the best live-action “giant fightin’ robot” movie in existence.  That said, it’s not all that great.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; the mechs are okay.  They’re obviously stop-motion models, but that often works with false machinery.  By and large, I found the mecha weaponry to be quite amusing; I’m not sure how effective some of them would be (the flying fist, or the pneumatic auto-punching fist), but many of them (lasers, flash-bang blinders, chainsaw, missiles) are inherently effective.  Providing they’re used right: if you’ve got a device that will blind your opponent for up to 90 seconds, you don’t want to waste those 90 seconds just standing around, like they did here.  Yeah, a minute and a half isn’t all that much time, but you could have walked up and punched him in that space, surely!

Anyway, the mechs show some interesting qualities.  They apparently can launch from Death Valley into orbit, with no stages or boosters, and they can land safely… back on the Death Valley playing field, which I don’t really get, but I guess they just had the one set.  When Achilles’s mech is damaged (you don’t get points for guessing where), he can morph into a more compact, tread-driven vehicle.  Which, naturally, means that the faux-Soviets represent the Decepticons, by technological default AND by narrative structure.

I do, however, wonder “why giant fightin’ robots?”  I mean, in a resources-starved future, wouldn’t it be more sensible and economical to pit two men against each other?  Even in person-sized battle armor (a la Lost in Space), you’d be hard-pressed to reach one thousandth of the cost of those battle-mechs, particularly when you factor in the support systems, the giant elevators, the huge spaces necessary to create a battlefield, etc.  And the risk to the spectators would be greatly reduced.  Cost and risk aside, we’re shown that jocks are so well-trained in martial arts, they can take on half a dozen or so opponents, using moves their robots wouldn’t have a dream of pulling off.  Even if you still wanted to make it machines, instead of just men, why do they have to be giant robots?  Again, much more economical to make a tank, or a fighter jet.  Better yet, since the technology obviously exists to reach space, just have the combats in orbit.  That way, you can build more effective machines that don’t have to worry about gravity or spectators or anything like that.

If nothing else, why can’t they build a robot that has some sort of emergency remote off-switch?  At different points in the final battle, both sides could have used such a device.

Perhaps they would have created person-sized battle armor if the technology had been up to it.  It seems WWIII blew everything back so far that the TRS-80 is the state of the art in computing, and your hovercraft’s remote control is about the size of your head.  On the other hand, they have hovercraft, which are not only light enough to carry passengers, but are also strong and dense enough to punch through a building’s walls and remain operational.  So the technology is all over the place, yet it appears simple enough that the rampant illiteracy doesn’t keep people from knowing how to hotwire what little advanced tech there is, even that belonging to the other side.  Mind you, all that native ingenuity doesn’t explain how they can build the giant robots in the first place.  And, in the end, the robots don’t matter so much, as it goes from giant fightin’ robots to two men beating each other with sticks.  So, I guess the tech is not all it’s cracked up to be.

There’s a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism throughout the movie, even with the romantic subplot between Achilles and Athena.  I mean, it’s one thing to mount a concealed chainsaw in your mech, it’s quite another to have it fold out of your mech’s crotch.  And there’s also a number of kicks and punches to the… um… junk.  If robots had junk.  But that would be presupposing that robots had sex.  With each other, not with humans (as we all know, a sex robot for humans has been on the drawing boards for quite some time).  Even the romantic subplot is rather undercut by the fact that Athena is made to look like a shapely young Obi-Wan Kenobi with an MC Hammer perm.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with all that; even in the population-starved future, you have to have all kinds to make a world, and your sexual preference shouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not you can drive a robot.  However, in this case, it’s either accidental, or, put in the context of sports, is making a satire of the “manly man” sports fan or player.  Actually, it might help explain the ending if Alexander’s aggressiveness could be attributed to shame over his own latent homosexuality, and Achilles, as an “out and proud” jock, would have finally gotten through to him for the touching dénouement.  Because otherwise, that ending just comes out of nowhere.  The last couple of minutes completely ruined the whole rest of the movie for one of my friends, in fact, almost to the point where she refuses to discuss the movie.

On the other hand, in that interview with Joe Haldeman, he asked which of the several endings he wrote was actually used.  When they told him, his response was along the lines of, “I was afraid of that.”  Which goes to show you how much pull writers have in even low-budget cinema.

The movie wasn’t all that bad, but it wasn’t all that good, either.  The leads do a decent job, more or less, but nobody set a new benchmark for performance, and there are cringe-worthy moments aplenty for everyone.  When you consider the budget director Stuart Gordon (director of Re-Animator, From Beyond, Space Truckers, and many others) had to work with, you can be a bit more forgiving.  It would almost be better if Gordon had written the screenplay; not to knock Mr. Haldeman’s talents at all, but a director working with his or her own ideas is better able to turn a limitation into an advantage, Robert Rodriguez-style.  However, the interference and difference of opinion and taste between director and writer might explain why the plot, as filmed, was relatively predictable; who knows how much it would have changed if Haldeman had done the whole thing?

The film earns all four Hoffs, despite my personal appreciation of it.  I mean, even in 1990, you could have imagined a better future than this, and there’s no lack of blame to go around.  But it’s lots of fun for those like us, and you just can’t knock the giant fightin’ robot action (much).



It’s hard to believe one of the actors billed in the credits, Jeffrey Combs, has only this much screen-time.  I guess he and Gordon are old buddies still, as they’re still cranking out Lovecraft movies, but this is taking favoritism a bit far.

It really is a dark, bleak future when a famous jock with the fate of nations depending on him can only score that tiny apartment.  You know, they go to lengths to make it seem like it’s space-saving, but there are so many implausibilities to that, it’s like watching The 5th Element again.

When you use a one-shot surprise weapon, make sure it’s to your advantage, doofus.

During the climax, when Achilles’s robot gets shot up, that’s when those of you with a classical education groan and shake their heads.

Was anyone else waiting for a “The End… Or Is It?” after the award-winning finale?



-- Copyright 2005, E. M. S. Mitchell(!)