In case you are wondering, the answer is “yes”:
I did decide to re-watch this one (after many, many years) because I had just watched the other giant-robots-battling-each-other movie from 1989, Ganheddo [Gunhed].
Now back to our regularly scheduled review.
This was Empire Films’ greatest effort.
Not that they were actually the ones who released it.
It was also perhaps the finest moment for stop motion animator David Allen, who created all the giant robots. Although I’ll admit that ED 209 in Robocop throwing a little child’s temper tantrum after it ends up stuck on its back is probably a tie.
Even if it doesn’t have a giant chainsaw hidden in an interesting place.
And it was directed by Stuart Gordon, best remembered for such films as Reanimator and From Beyond, who hoped that this one would be a change of pace film for him.
Until, that is, it got caught in the collapse of Empire films (along with Arena) and remained unseen for several years.
There is one more interesting name tied to this thing: science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, who is credited with the screenplay, although he doesn’t think much of it and has disavowed it.
Although it really isn’t that bad: it was just aimed more towards children than adults.
This, of course, is the one about giant robots battling each other. I suppose you might say there isn’t much more to it than that, but then, you can say that about most giant monster movies. And, let’s face it, it’s difficult to complain about this because we all know why we watch movies with giant monsters, whatever form they might take (hint: it has nothing to do with brilliant scripting, heart-rending drama or intellectual depth).
But it is actually a rather intriguing setting: a future where war has been abolished and instead the big differences are settled by gladiatorial fights between giant robots. The hardcore film fans out there may find themselves thinking of Peter Watkins’s The Gladiators, although, Peter’s film is far more serious and sadly deficient in giant robots.
Now I should note here that during the Middle Ages, a lot of such disputes were actually resolved by single combat. Despite that, I almost always end up saying “yeah, right” when someone does put the idea in a science fiction film: that would only work when everyone shared the same basic religious and political views and the only real difference afterwards would be who was running things (which was the case in the Middle Ages).
In a struggle between different worldviews like Communism, National Socialism, or Capitalism, however (And, yes, that does seem to be the case here), there would be a lot of average people who might find war preferable to the new rulers.
I really don’t think it would ever work.
At any rate, we have the earnest young gladiator hero, a particularly nasty and hiss-able villain, a new generation of genetically engineered super warriors ready to take the place of the old guard hot shot pilots, a bit of intrigue, some politics, a bit of satire about the place these games take in this society, and a brief cameo by Stuart Gordon favorite Jeffrey Combs. It’s really quite well done — and definitely entertaining — with a lot of solid performances from a set of mostly unknown or lesser-known actors, some incredible miniatures and, of course, the real stars of the show, those monster robots, with their secret weapons and the new configurations they can transform into. The feel weighty and quite real, with lots of plausible looking working parts. There haven’t been many giant robot films this convincing.
Although, to be fair, there haven’t been that many giant robot films.
Empire Film’s Charles Band would make three other giant robot movies under his Full Moon Features banner, but none of them come close to this one in quality. Despite the fact that two of them are known as Robot Jox 2, Band would never make the true sequel to the film which he’d planned.
David Allen, of course, would animate the robots in two of those and create lots of other things at Full Moon, although none of them ever gave him such an opportunity to show off his best work as he had in Robot Jox.
And I’m not sure any of the films Stuart Gordon made after this were anywhere near as good as this.
When I stop to think of it, I haven’t heard much from Joe Haldeman in a long time, either.
Oh, well. Had this one come out sooner, and got a better release, it might be remembered as a minor classic. As it is, it has a reputation as a bit of a cult classic and does have a bit of a minor following. It truly is a shame that its isn’t better known as this is an excellent B-movie, with a lot of great effects work and a great deal of attention to detail. It definitely earned its reputation and deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
So check it out if you get a chance.
Just make sure you read the fine print on your Arena ticket first!
2 thoughts on “Robot Jox (1989)”