+Cool, though dated, special effects
+One of the few live-action mech films
-Simple and typical plot
Other films by Stuart Gordon: Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, Dolls
Director: Stuart Gordon
Stars: Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Michael Alldredge
Genre: Science Fiction, Mecha
This is one of the odder entries in Stuart Gordon's filmography, who is known mostly for directing Lovecraftian horror films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon. Robot Jox doesn't have any elder gods, giant tentacle monsters, or decapitation though. Robot Jox is a movie about giant robots, or more accurately mechs, fighting each other.
The plot, in essence, involves a futuristic post-apocalyptic world where, instead of having wars, countries settle their disputes by fighting giant mechs, operated by a single pilot inside, in an arena. The film takes place during a "settlement" over which nation should control Alaska, and focuses on "robot jox" Achilles.
The plot is straight-forward and nothing really special. There's some predictable espionage going on and a love story that never goes anywhere, but those are all just things happening in-between giant robots fighting. At one point the robots go into outer space, which is the one part that shattered my suspension of disbelief. I guess they just really wanted to show some robots in space (which is pretty much always a good idea in my book) and it was pretty cool to see I guess but there was definitely some potential missed when it comes to giant robots fighting in space.
The film seems like it's confused between being a movie for kids or for adults. Some scenes seem like they were written to be very family-friendly, and some as if they wanted to be edgy and mature. This hurts the film severely because it doesn't end up achieving either of them very well. It's not really a movie that very young kids should watch (there's cursing and some light nudity, on top of some violence though most of the violence is comic). At the same time it's a bit cartoony and light-hearted for many adults to enjoy. This demographic conflict is likely due to the creative differences between director Stuart Gordon and co-writer Joe Haldeman (who is a popular sci-fi author who has written classics of the genre like The Forever War). Haldeman wanted a more serious and dramatic science-fiction film with deep characters, whereas Gordon wanted an audience-friendly film with character stereotypes and a plot driven by the special-effects. On the conflict between the two Haldeman said: "I would try to change the science into something reasonable; Stuart would change it back to Saturday morning cartoon stuff. I tried to make believable, reasonable characters, and Stuart would insist on throwing in clichés and caricatures. It was especially annoying because it was a story about soldiers, and I was the only person around who'd ever been one." He makes a fair point.
So the plot is simple and missed a lot of potential. Granted. But it's not awful and it does serve its purpose of driving the story to the next special-effects sequence. Plus, there are some other redeemable qualities to the film, among them being the effects. Let me first take a step back and say that this is one of the first live-action mecha films ever made. Which is a pretty big deal to any anime fan. Mecha had really only existed in animation, and the only other live-action film I can think of that came out before Robot Jox and can be called a "Mech film" would be Gunhed, a cyberpunk Japanese film from the year before. Not surprisingly Robot Jox took much inspiration from the Transformers franchise, specifically the toy line, which, at the time, was as popular in the West as Gundam was in the East. But even in the time since Robot Jox we have seen very few live-action mech films. Robt Jox itself spawned a few official and unofficial sequels throughout the 90s (Robot Wars, Robo Warriors, Crash and Burn) and perhaps the most notable example of a live-action mech film was the all too recent Pacific Rim, which is easily the greatest and most proper live-action mech film to date, but the genre of live-action mech films certainly remains small.
Now the special effects in Robot Jox aren't quite as impressive as those seen in Pacific Rim (the latter has a time, technological, and budget advantage after all), but they're still pretty awesome. The effects are done with stop-motion animation, and while they're not exactly impressive by 90s standards (keep in mind this film was actually made in the late 80s) they are still very interesting effects and actually look pretty convincing for the most part. And who doesn't love the charm of stop-motion?
The two main leads are Gary Graham (Alien Nation, Star Trek) and Anne-Marie Johnson. Both give an alright performance, but in my opinion the real stars here are in the supporting roles. Paul Koslo's performance as the German antagonist is interesting to say the least. It's quite silly in a way, but then so is the rest of the film. It's an enjoyable performance though and it gives a little extra life to the film. Michael Alldredge as Tex also does a charming job. Jeffrey Combs is in here too, a frequent collaborator with Stuart Gordon, but if you blink you'll miss him because he's not in here for long (despite the opening credits saying "starring Jeffrey Combs").
Robot Jox is a nice little cheesy sci-fi flick for fans of the genre and certainly a must see for mecha fans looking for a live-action fix. It has plenty of flaws but at the end of the day remains highly enjoyable. Crash and burn!