Before Pacific Rim there was Robot Jox. The former dealt with mankind’s battle to defend the earth from huge monsters. In Robot Jox, the battle was between mankind itself.
As a young sci-fi nerd I distinctly remember the film Robot Jox sitting on the shelf of the local VHS video store (This was pre-Netflix kids!). The cover depicted a battle between two huge bipedal robots. The back cover revealed that these huge war machines were controlled by single pilots, each one a champion fighter representing their country.
The only thing I remember from that film is the image of robots battling it out in desert arenas. So as part of my Retro Review series I decided to sit down and watch this film again.
Robot Jox is set in future fifty years after the world has been ravaged by a nuclear war. In the aftermath, world leaders have decided that conventional war as we know it is outlawed. If a nation wants to take land from another, a robot fight challenge is issued and the two nations must compete in this unique one on one battle.
So for example, the opening battle that introduces the main protagonists is between America and The Confederation (Russia but under a different name). The Confederation wants to take Alaska and this is why this particular tournament is taking place.
In the American combat machine is the pilot Jim, better known by his call sign, Achilles. He is the current US champion and this position makes him a superstar and his face adorns posters around the country.
The rules for these conflicts are fairly simple. Once the robots are activated they are allowed long range weapons to use against each other. As the distance between them becomes smaller, referees can disable certain weapons and the pilots are reduced to fighting hand to hand style.
Despite the obvious dangers this form of battle can have, there are still huge bleachers around the arena. The bleachers are full of people who come and love watch the fights up close.
It is during this first fight where the Confederations pilot, Alexander, fights dirty. In trying to protect the innocent, Achilles plan unfortunately goes wrong. His robot ends up crashing into the bleachers killing three hundred spectators.
The battle is declared a draw and a rematch is set for a week’s time. Achilles want’s out as this was his tenth and final battle as set out in the robot jox’s contract.
The American’s already have replacement jockeys lined up in the form of test tube humans who have been trained since birth to become the ultimate robot pilots. Achilles isn’t too pleased and doesn’t believe they’ll be any better than normal jockeys.
Achilles quits as a Robot jockey and tries to come to terms with the death of the innocent spectators (apparently all spectators sign waiver forms in case of such an accident). Meanwhile the new Robot Jockeys train and try to outperform each other to find out who will take Achilles place in the rematch against the Confederation.
Robot Jox was a film that I remember being disappointed with at the time and unfortunately that’s exactly what I got this time around when I watched it again.
The film has an incredibly cheap look but I attributed that to the fact that the film was released in the early 1980’s and went straight to video. So you can imagine my surprise when doing research for this film that I discovered that in was actually made in 1987 with a budget of $10 million. You can honestly say that the money definitely isn’t up there on the screen.
The studio behind the film unfortunately became bankrupt as it was their most expensive film to date. The film wasn’t release theatrically until 1990 where it only made just over $1 million at the box office. The film has gone on to receive a small cult following since and Shout Factory even released the film on Blu-ray this year.
For a $10 million film it’s a shame there’s no real design to the sets. Assumedly because this is the future, nearly everything is white with that plastic look. Even Achilles bedroom is cheap with the design choice being that of a traditional Asian rice paper framed walls. However in this case there fabric instead of paper and it’s nice to see the back wall of the studio when a fight occurs in Achilles bedroom and some of these panels are broken through.
Usually in these reviews I’ll start to convey my thoughts about various actors but with Robot Jox I don’t think this is going to be necessary. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a low budget film from the 1980’s. I think you know what kind of acting will be up there on the screen, okay but nothing outstanding.
That is except for the late Michael Alldredge who plays Tex Conway. He’s an ex robot jockey who won his last fight with an extremely lucky shot and now in his later years is acting as a fight advisor from the control room. If the name didn’t give it away, he’s from Texas and just to make sure you don’t forget that, he always wears a cowboy hat too. Very stereotypical and sometimes grating, however this does make him stand out amongst the other bland characters.
So that just leaves the main selling point of the film, huge mechanical fighting machines. I’m going to let you down and reveal that there are only two fights in the whole of the film, or two and a bit if you include the opening credits sequence.
The first fight I have described earlier allows you to get accustomed to the basic rules and witness what these huge walking behemoths are capable of. The last fight is the rematch and in all honestly it goes on far too long. They have built up the entire film to this point but it drags. That’s not too say there’s so much action it becomes mind numbing, like the end fight from the recent Superman film, ‘Man of Steel’.
The main problem with the fight and to some extant the rest of the film is pacing. Robot Jox needs a good going over with an editor to make snips here and there. Some sequences, I believe, need to be rethought or removed altogether.
In a sequence from the final battle, both pilots take their robots into space. One robot jockey manages to destroy the foot of the other with a missile attack. The damaged robot then falls back to Earth. Did we really need to see the robots fly into space for this? It adds nothing to the fight and as already said makes it last unnecessarily longer.
To make matters worse, once both robots are almost completely destroyed, the fight continues with both robot jockeys fighting each other in hand to hand combat amongst the wreckage of their machines.
Considering the technology of the late 80’s the robots look pretty good. A mixture of techniques has bought these robots to life. Full shots of the robots use the age old stop motion technique where as anything else has used miniature model work. A Google search will reveal, they weren’t exactly small miniatures either.
All the battles were shot with these large miniatures out in San Bernardino County, California. The real life mountain vista was used as backdrops. They even enhanced these shots with real actors using forced perspective and it helps bring the scene to life and enhance the sense of scale.
But unfortunately these classic 80’s special effects can’t save the Robot Jox. A film that’s I can only describe as average. Pacific Rim this certainly isn’t but you can see why the comparisons have been made.