Review: Robot Jox (1989)
Robot Jox is the movie that killed Empire Pictures. With a reported budget of $10 million dollars, this is by far the most ambitious, expensive, and risky undertaking in the company's history. The movie ended up sitting unfinished for a couple of years before being picked up by another company, completed, and eventually released. How does it stand up to that legacy? Pretty well, actually.
Robot Jox is the culmination of the 80s giant robot craze that kids like me were lapping up through franchises like Transformers, Robotech and Voltron--huge robots, duking it out in massive battlefields, with honor and pride on the line. I suppose comparisons to Japanese shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider are in order, but really, the classic 80s toy and cartoon properties I grew up with felt a million miles from the Toku shows of the 1960s and 1970s. Back before the geeks inherited the earth and comic book and genre movies became blockbuster mainstays, Robot Jox was about as close as any 80s kid was likely to get to a live action feature film centered around such a high concept idea, and it was (and still is) glorious.
Here's the honest truth from yours truly: I'd take Robot Jox over Pacific Rim or the modern Transformers flicks, with their huge budgets and ridiculously-polished VFX. Is that the nostalgia talking? Hardly. Every dollar that went into Robot Jox is on the screen. Because computers weren't yet doing a huge amount of heavy lifting, pretty much everything we see in the movie was constructed by hand, be it a model or a robot or even a matte painting. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears in Robot Jox, which feels like the labor of love that it is. There's no time for 30 minute fight scenes or tech demonstrations. Everything in this movie is here to advance the story. No fat, nothing wasted. Every shot was achieved by a 35mm camera on a set, operated by a human being who was making decisions about what was best for the film. The rendering didn't come from a computer running 24 hours a day, it came from a team of people hunkered over a workbench as they constructed models and animatronics, or conducted the painstaking work of stop-motion animation. This connection to humans is what we subconsciously respond to when we watch movies like Robot Jox (or Clash of the Titans, or a thousand other 80s classics that will never be topped or replicated).
I even like the ideas behind the movie. In a post-apocalyptic future, the earth has been ravaged by global warfare. The air is toxic and masks are required to breathe outdoors. Now war has been abolished and in its place is one-on-one combat between two participants in their giant mecha suits. In Robot Jox, the good guys are a future version of Americans and the bad guys are pretty much the Russians. Are you thinking Rocky IV? You should be, because it was apparently a big influence on this story, which sees our hero facing off against an unscrupulous commie who routinely flaunts the rules of combat and throws honor to the poison wind. Hey, it was the Cold War! Behind the Us (U.S?) Vs Them conflict are some larger ideas about how people are more important than their nations and how the future could look a lot brighter if we could quit fighting and work together. Sure, it's idealistic, but isn't that what science fiction is for? There's even a subplot element about "tubies", or people that have been born in test tubes, not the old fashioned way. This movie has lots of ideas behind it, many of which we are still discussing today.
When mentioning the larger goals of the story, it's worth pointing out that it's loosely adapted from the work of sci-fi author Joe Haldeman (The Forever War), who contributed to the screenplay. He and director Stuart Gordon clashed over the tone of the script: Gordon wanted a kid-friendly movie (albeit one with a big body count and even some nudity) while Haldeman wanted something more intellectually mature. In the end, Stuart Gordon won. Had the proposed sequel happened, it would have seen our heroes fighting against invading aliens. As much as the grown-up me wants smart science fiction about real issues, I gotta be honest, the kid me would love to have seen these mecha suits fight aliens.
I have no idea if Robot Jox holds any appeal for someone who has grown up in the modern Transformers era or if it's permanently rooted in the video era. I guess it really doesn't matter, since there are enough of us Gen-Xers and early Millennials who will always prefer the handmade qualities of a movie like Robot Jox to the seemingly-anonymous spectacles created in the digital realm. In Robot Jox, explosions are real. You can feel the heat and see the sweat on the faces of the actors. You can see the love and care that went into crafting the robots themselves, many of which still survive decades later in a private collection. For me and my generation, Robot Jox is the closest we'll ever come to seeing the cartoons we love brought to life on celluloid. As the final entry in the oeuvre of Empire Pictures, you couldn't ask for more.
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