Robot Jox (1989)

Editor’s Note: We’re going tech crazy these two weeks, with another “Post-Apoc Week” blowout this week, along with an “Ancient Future Week” to follow, next week.

Robot Jox — and its two pseudo-“sequels,” Crash and Burn and Robot Wars — has that “. . . years after the war . . . the catastrophe” expostional preamble trope we know and love, but unlike the ’70 post-apoc classics Ravagers and No Blade of Grass (from our last apoc blowout), Charles Band’s VHS-loved trio are front-loaded with tech. So consider Band’s robotic-computer baloney as a silicone slice of metal-tasting appetizers for the more present day, “Ancient Future Week” of films running from April 11 to the 17.

Let’s robo-tech this mother!

Before Michael Bay turned Hasbro’s Transformers into a film franchise, there was Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox, itself inspired by that toyline-cum-cartoon series and the mid-’80s imported Japanese amine series Robotech. Yeah, in the ’80s it was all about combat mech, with giant robots kicking their mech-on-mech carbon-alloy carcasses across the terra firma. All of us ex-Dungeon & Dragons geeks enamored with all thing Lucasian wanted a live-action version of our tabletop BattleTech game brought to life. Gordon inspired us to head into our cobwebby attics and dank basements to pull out our old Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game.

Like this . . . only bigger. Make it happen, Mr. Allen.

The man that Charles Band hired to flesh out Stuart Gordon’s live-action mech concept for Empire International Pictures was Nebula and Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer Joe Haldeman. If you grew up loving sci-fi in the pre-Lucasian epoch, you read Haldeman’s best-seller The Forever War (1974). If you were a Trekkie, you read his novel-continuations of the Starship Enterprise’s missions with Planet of Judgement (1977) and World Without End (1979). (Gordon previously worked with Haldeman in producing a failed, four-part TV miniseries based on The Forever War.) To say we were stoked when the news hit the pages of Starlog that Joe Haldeman was bringing, somewhat, our beloved Battletech and Robotech to the big screen, is an understatement. After what George Lucas and his main effects man, John Dykstra, accomplished with Star Wars — and the AT-ATs in Empire — we knew this would be epic.

Oh, how naive we wee lads were: welcome to the not-so-epic, Buck Rogers-inspired plastic-verse fail of . . .

Let’s face it: Empire Pictures’ “low budget” of $7 million was no match for Lucas’s self-bankrolled $20 million for the adventures of Luke Skywalker. And the man creatively hamstrung to bring our dreams of Japanese-styled anime mecha to the big screen was the offspring of model animator gods Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth: David Allen.

Allen was a name QWERTY’d often in our pages of Famous Monsters and Starlog, courtesy of his stop-motion work in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead inspiration, Equinox (1970), and the Galaxina-precursor-porn-comedy Flesh Gordon (1974). (Of course, we wee lads watched Equinox on UHF-TV; Flesh Gordon had to wait until the midnight movie and home video ’80s arrived.) Together, Allen and Jim Danforth also provided the models for The Crater Lake Monster (1977), while Allen worked on the animated aliens (the best part of the movie) for Laserblast (1978). Also working on the film was Ron Cobb, whose work we knew from Dark Star (1974), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979).

So, out on a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert, Allen and Cobb set off to create an “ancient future” world set fifty years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth. Out of the ashes, a new world emerged with two, new world superpowers: the Common Market, composed of the old U.S.A. and Japan, and the Confederation, composed of Russia and Europe. (Hey, I thought the EURACS fused Asia, Europe, and Africa into a “super continent” in 2019? Parsifal, save us!)

To save what’s left of the Earth, the two nations forged a treaty banning warfare. But, as in the now ancient future of the year 2018 in Rollerball, the peaceful-want not citizens and government officials are restless: they need action and entertainment. And since the same old territorial pissings between the governments still rages and, since no lessons were learned from our past, nuclear faux pas and man still fails at diplomatic unity over land and resources, they do what the Romans do: toss two men into the Colosseum for gladiatorial combat. May the best country win. (Somewhere, in the frames, is a reported adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad. Okay.) Only the men (and women) representing their countries in the ring are “RoboJox,” mech-pilots encased in 120-foot weaponized robots. And just like in Rollerball: these jocks are futuristic football stars. Sadly, while man has grown to the point of the ability to construct eleven-story robots, society is still as sexist and racist as it ever was. Yeah, women are harassed for being mech-pilots . . . how dare females invade our he-man world.

Unlike its two sequels-but-they’re-not-sequels, Crash and Burn, aka Robot Jox 2: Crash and Burn (1990), and Robot Wars, aka Robot Jox 2: Robot Wars (1993) (don’t worry: we’re going to sort that all out in those coming reviews), we laid down our $3.25 to see Robot Jox in our town’s empty duplex cinema. The film barely made over a million dollars against its seven million budget. Curiosity got the best of us, however, and we rented the two direct-to-video-not-sequels, full well knowing we were getting a Corman stock footage rehash of the Battle Beyond the Stars-into-Forbidden World-into-Space Raiders variety: for when you spent seven million bucks on effects, it pays to recycle.

Now, you know that musicians who were kids-teens like us that grew up to form successful bands and came to sample dialog from our mutually-favorite films, is kind of our jam at B&S About Movies. So, as with Rob Zombie utilizing dialog from The Undertaker and his Pals (1966) and My Life with the Thrill Kill Cult creating a new audience for The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Trent Reznor sampled bits from Robot Jox in “The Becoming” on the Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral (1994).

You know how it is down at the ol’ road house, Dalton: opinions vary. You can still give me Robot Jox over the mechanized Godzilla-hornswoggle that is Pacific Rim (and Transformers) any day of the week, and twice on Sundays, because, well, a bigger studio and bigger budget doesn’t always mean better. There’s a reason why cult film retrospectives honor and distributors like Shout! Factory digitally preserve Robot Jox: its “ancient future” is by far, the more enjoyable film.

You can get in on the fun with a free-with-ads stream of Robot Jox on Tubi.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.