05 January 2019

FWS Broken Promises: ROBOT JOX (1990)


During the second wave of anime, one of the foundational concepts and hallmarks of military science fiction came flooding into the United States: combat mecha. Works like ROBOTECH, Gundam, Voltron, and Saber Riders and the Star Sheriffs all featured mecha fueling these manned metal warriors to become icons of these shows that nearly eclipsed the characters. The popularity was not lost on other markets, toy and model manufactures capitalized on the trend with turning out plastic and diecast representations of mecha. However, live-action mecha was illusive and only a few examples were made prior to the advent of CGI special effects. All of us that lived through the heyday of Mecha (along with the giant robot crazy) anime/manga want badly to see live-action mech-on-mech combat as we were acting out with our toys or on the hexagon battlefields of BattleTech. Then in 1990, our hopes and dreams seemed to be answered with the release of a live-action film called Robot Jox that featured mecha! In this latest installment of Broken Promises, FWS will be looking at the betrayal that was Robot Jox.

The Origin Story of Robot Jox 
According to an August 1989 Starlog magazine article, the spark that began this film came to director Stuart Gordon came when he was in a Toys R US and saw the famous Transformer toyline. He was quoted in the Starlog article as saying that he loved the box art showing “maintenance workers climbing over the giant robots”. As far as I know, there is no Transformer toy box that has an illustration like this. It more likely that Gordon was talking about the legendary 1984 Revell Robotech Factory model kit. Upon seeing the model box art, Gordon naturally assumed that giant robots would make a great film and that the special effects industry was able to delivery on that promise.
This seed of Robot Jox was presented to Empire International Pictures head Charles Band and original shot down due to the assumed expense of showing live-action mecha on screen. However, Band changed his mind and funded an SFX demo reel for proof-of-concept with David W. Allen in charge of bring the dream of Japanese anime mecha to life. On the strength of the demo reel, funding was granted for $7 million. This made Robot Jox the most expensive film ever undertaken by Empire. To pen the script, Gordon called on a titan of the science fiction literature: Joe Haldeman. Yes, the same Haldeman that wrote The Forever War.
Haldeman and Gordon knew each other when the director was working on adapting this 1975 military sci-fi book into a four-part TV special. When that project fell through, Gordon transformed into a 1983 stage play…which Yoel profiled for FWS here. According to an September 1990 Starlog interview with Joe Haldeman, the two worked on an idea of sci-fi take on the Iliad with mecha. When the pitch was presented in LA, it was accepted and then Haldeman rewrote the film script six times. After another terrible script was penned by another writer, Haldeman was flown to Rome during filming to write as the film was in production.
He was able to see his words acting out and alter things to adjust to the actors. Haldeman loved it and spoke positively of the production and Gordon. Original, Haldeman wanted the film to be called “the mechanics”, but was overruled. In total, according to Gordon’s calculations, Robot Jox had 11 scripts and the two never resolved the critical issue of different the POV on the film. Haldeman was writing an adult film that kids could enjoy, while Gordon wanted a kid’s film that adults could enjoy. Later, Haldemen’s tune changed and thought the movie suffered “brain damage”. The filming was wrapped up in 1987 with Empire eyeballing a 1989 release. There was another year of filming associated with the mech scenes (who were designed by veteran Ron Cobb and possibly built by Danny Chambers) in a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert to capture depth of field with working with the robots. Due to the expense of the hero models, many stunt models were constructed for the battle damage and explosions effects. Some say that the final Alexander robot was destroyed on camera and a few of the screen-used robot fighter models have found their way into the hands of collectors over the years.

The World of Robot Jox
Fifty years after a nuclear war, the world is far different. Out of the devastating war emerged two political and economic blocs: the Common Market (mostly the old USA and Japan) and the Confederation (Russia, parts of Europe, some of the rest of the world). Given the horror of the nuclear war, all out warfare was ban by treaty between the two blocs. To settle issues over resources/land that could not be resolved via diplomacy, there was a form of gladiatorial combat that involved 120 foot piloted robots.
These armed contests became a key economic, governmental, and social focus that caused the best minds in resource to build the best mechs, people placed bets, and the Jox were recruited from the cream of the crop. These jox are followed like Football stars and they are contacted to 10 fights…if they live that long. At the opening of the film, the Confederation best Jox, Alexander, kills a Market Jox after his mech was broken and destroyed. With the loss of Alaska at risk for the Common Market, the best Jox in the Market is sent to deal with Alexander: Achilles. Prior to their showdown, Achilles and retired Jox, Tex, meet the new genetically engineered Jox crop. It is hoped that these “tubbies” will help the Market win more matches than just new weapons and equipment on the mechs.         

The Historical Context of Robot Jox
There are many times on FWS when we discuss the historical context, we often bring up that the work in question was not released at the right time or not in the right way…that is not the case for Robot Jox. When Robot Jox was completed in 1989, the conditions on the ground were ripe for a live-action military science fiction mecha movie. Anime was being liberally distributed across the American TV markets; toy and hobby stories were carrying mecha-related products, and the VHS rental market was well established. It should have been a slam-dunk for Robot Jox to come in and be a hit…but it wasn’t.

The Broken Promises of Robot Jox
For something to break your heart and be long regarded as a broken promise it has to have a place in your heart…and Robot Jox did for many of us that grew up at the time of the second wave of anime into America. When we saw the trailer for Robot Jox on another rented VHS tape or the movie poster, we fans of mecha rejoiced that entire live-action mecha movie was coming and it was made for the western market by a studio that seemed to understand  what they were undertaken and started off with the desire to make a mecha movie. Then we saw it and wasn’t what we wanted or even hoped for.
At the heart of the majority of the broken promises associated with Robot Jox are not the stop-motion special effects, but the most basic element of a good film: the writing. Using elements of the Cold War mixed with mecha combat in a post-nuclear holocaust world was not a bad place to start and it fits with the timeframe that the film was made in. However, the film is packed to the gills with tropes that were played out even in 1990 and it crippled the film from being more than the sum of its parts. Most of the dialog is terrible with racist/sexist comments paired with either over the top acting or wooden performances.
Some of the actors in the film, like Gary Graham, are good in the right role (he was awesome as Soval in Star Trek: Enterprise), but here, no one shines. The best bit of dialog was the moment Gary Graham yelled at Alexander that he was going to kick his ass. Then there is the mech combat, which is the reason any of us give two shits about this movie in the first place. After playing games like CityTech, watching anime like Voltron or Mobile Suit Gundam, seeing the AT-ATs in Empire Strikes Back, our collective hopes were high. The combat between two giant mecha in Robot Jox was geriatric at best and played out more like a game of rock’em, sock’em robots than BattleTech! While I understand the limitations of the special effects of the production, there was just breaks in tactical thinking and logical.
At one point, Athena blinds Alexander with a pulse of bright light. As he is stunned and unable to see, Athena does nothing. Not a damn thing. She does not alter her position or engage any weapon system. She stands there and then when Alexander recovers; he leaps on her mecha and pounds the hell out of her. So much for the superiority of her modified genetics! Following this, Achilles takes control of the mech, and once in the pilot seat, he launches his massive robot into outer space. What. The. Hell. Am I to believe that these 120 foot tall (you would not believe how long it took to find that information!) behemoths are equipped with solid rocket boosters in their boots that would allow them to enter into orbit then reentry the atmosphere and that is a valid tactical maneuver in the realm of Jox tactics? Yeah…I call bullshit on that.
Despite this insane moment in the film, it does not lead to anything save for Achilles being hit in the heel…I can’t even…and then Achilles engages Gerwalker mode. During the final battle, Alexander engages a couch-mounted chainsaw to buzzcock Achilles. Silly stupid shit. These sins among others add up to a mecha movie that was still wanting for a stronger, better script that makes the most of the well-designed  5 ½ foot miniatures.       

Wasn’t there a sequel or two?
During the dark ages before the internet and during the apex of the reign of the VHS tape, it was easier for production companies to lie to you and that is how Robot Jox got not one, but two “sequels”. In reality, there is no real sequel to Robot Jox due to the terrible performance of the film in its limited theatrical release, the poor reviews, and the first studio going out of business. The director of the film has gone on the record stating that a sequel was planned having the Robot Jox from both governmental blocs unite to repeal an alien invasion. This could have been completely deliciously terrible in a trash-but-good-way like Taco Bell. Due to the notoriety of Robot Jox, some other direct-to-video titles that featured mecha and were under the banner of Full Moon Features were tied into Robot Jox without being related in setting or story. The two films linked by misleading marketing are 1990’s Crash and Burn and 1993’s Robot Wars. Both of them are terrible in their own unique ways and not worth the hours of your life you would waste in watching them. Starship Troopers 2 looks like high art compared to these two “films”. Crash and Burn shares having Charles Band involved in the productions of Robot Jox and Crash and Burn, the misleading box art, and the words “crash and burn”.
Given this, the international releases of Crash and Burn title it “Robot Jox 2: Crash and Burn” to attempt to tie to a more well-known film. Then that brings us to other more well-known "sequel": 1993’s Robot Wars. Again, this film linked to Robot Jox due to Charles Band production involvement and the subject matter of mecha battling each other in a barren post-apocalyptic landscape using the same special effects techniques as used in Robot Jox. However, it is a even more terrible film with somewhat better robotic combat action than either Crash and Burn or Robot Jox. Much like Crash and Burn, Robot Wars was packaged as a sequel to Robot Jox, with promotional material and box art claiming that was the 3rd film in the "Robot Jox film series"! It was all VHS box lies to get people to rent these two terrible movies. None of this good for either the two other films that just happen to feature stop-motion mecha along with the progenitor of Robot Jox. These other two films, that where are very different in most every way to Robot Jox, where forced by marketing decisions to live under the shadow of Robot Jox and any fans of these films had to live with that...much like fans of Macross feel about ROBOTECH. 

My Personal Experience with Robot Jox
I mostly grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and one of the local video stores was the site of my introduction to Robot Jox. On the wall of Mega Movies in the Eastland Shopping Center (which is now a ghost town), there was the poster for Robot Jox and I felt in that moment that the promise of Battletech was going to be fulfilled in beautiful live-action.  For what it seems like my entire life, I’ve been interested in mecha, and I grew playing with Japanese robot toys, building mecha out of Legos, and playing games like CityTech. So, when the promise of a real live-action film portraying mecha battling it out…I was all fucking in. It took weeks for my brother and me to get our hands on the only copy that Mega Movies had (rental VHS tapes were about $100 back then). Then we finally saw it in its entire broken promise spender and I was heartbroken. It wasn’t the “special effects” that bothered me, but the story that was just so dumb, like diving into a pool with no water. The film lacked any depth, grandeur, or real mech combat like I had played out in CityTech. I labelled this film just another dumb sci-fi movie that littered the shelves of most 1980’s video stores and paid it little mind for decades. Hell, I enjoyed 1990’s Hardware more than Robot Jox, at least it was bold and had Lemmy from Motorhead.  Until this blogpost, I never watched the film again, and when I did, I was just as pissed off as I was back in 1990. 

What Happened to Robot Jox?
After filming was complete in April of 1987 in Rome and the lengthy work on the special effects sequences was undertaken, things began to fall apart for Charles Band’s studio. By the end of the 1980’s, Empire International Pictures was bankrupt and its assists were seized by their French bank creditors and either sold or placed to Epic Entertainment in May of 1988 that had a relationship with Crédit Lyonnais. This delayed the 1989 target release date for Robot Jox and the film languished while in post-production as the fate of Empire International Pictures holdings was decided by Epic. While David W. Allen’s crew was actually filming the robot combat scenes in the Mojave Desert, the collapse of Empire cause for the production in the desert to be shut down twice.
 Finally in November of 1990, Epic Entertainment/ Crédit Lyonnais/Trans World funded the finishing touches after seeing the promise in the footage to the film and then released Robot Jox in 333threaters via Triumph Films. It made a whopping $1.2 million in ticket sales in its short stay in theaters and not even half-a-million on its opening weekend. That was not even close to the rumored $10 million budget. It was then released around 1991 on VHS for the rental and home market. This is how the vast majority of us that witness the heartbreaking reality of a live-action mecha movie saw the film. 

The Legacy and Impact of Robot Jox  
Time can be very kind to films that do not perform well. It happened for Blade Runner and in some small ways, it happened for Robot Jox. At the time of the release of Robot Jox, it was made no money in its limited theatrical run and it is more likely that it made more money being sold to the VHS rental market with the tape being sold to video retailers for $100 ($183 in today’s money). For the first months it was out at the video store, it was a hot rental, at least in my corner of Oklahoma. At the time, its impact was that this was an honest to god live-action mech-vs.-mech movie that did not star Godzilla or was on an icy battlefield on Hoth. Then it faded rapidly due to word of mouth that this movie was just not that good. For many years, Robot Jox was aired on networks like the Sci-Fi Channel late at night and found in bargain bins, and it was mentioned here and there.
Then came the first trailers for Pacific Rim in 2013. It was then that I noticed that internet started resurrected Robot Jox for a whole new generation to learn about the legendary fist-bump of Achilles and Alexander. When someone mentioned that Pacific Rim was the first live-action mech movie, people would immediately bring up Robot Jox along with other forgotten Japanese titles like 1989’s Gunhed. That was one true legacy of Robot Jox that it can claim. It was the first western live-action mecha-centered movie and one of the first in the cinema history despite how terrible unfulfilling the film is to us fans of mech combat.
The 1990 film enjoys a cult following to the point that Austin-based Alamo Draft House screened the 35mm print of Robot Jox in 2012 in their Austin and Houston locations. In a nod to the culture that triggered Robot Jox life in the 1980’s, the Houston screening also had the sphere-shaped BattleTech simulation video games on-site to fulfill your jox fantasies. One article I read on the event had this golden nugget of excellent writing: “So gear up, strap on your silver spandex and head to your nearest Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for a night of robot carnage so inspired it would cause even Michael Bay to take a momentary break from masturbating in front of a lit match to nod in appreciation”. Bravo, sis, bravo.

Next Time on FWS...
  There are science fiction battles scenes then there are science fiction battles scenes and it is high time for FWS to examine and rank the best 25 science fiction combat scenes (both on land and in space) that is seen in throughout all media mediums. FWS reached out on social media and collected suggestions from the FWS community and this going to be a fun one and conversational.   

16 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. SO COOL WILLIAM! Still waiting for the page about the Adaptive Combat Rifles from Magpul's trashed Masada prototypes to both Bushmasters' civilian models and Remington's military models.

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    1. FWS will cover the US Army ACR program at some point...maybe years from now

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  3. Great article. The film is still talked about in the Battletech fandom though mostly for jokes *every mech should have a chainsaw codpiece* and as a warning whenever rumors of a MechWarrior movie surfaces.

    For those who have yet to see it, please watch it with friends and give the film the RiffTrax/Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment as you can only enjoy it for a good laugh after a couple of beers, making fun of the dialog *you make my drink taste like blood*

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  4. Thanks for the nice comments...this was original published by complete accident at one in morning when I fell asleep at the computer. Sorry about that.

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  5. Ok I will wait for it, also sorry to bother you.

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  6. Don't worry about it. I want to discuss the ACR program pretty badly

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  7. Yep, also wish we can see the page about the OSS baffleless suppressors' products, history, American Flow-througu engineer, reason to get rid of the government issued SOCOM variants, etc.
    https://osssuppressors.com

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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  9. Nice article, I'm not sure if I should be proud or ashamed that I got to see this thing in a theater back in 1990.

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  10. I actually remember renting both Robot Jox and Robot Wars when I was very young. And, to each film's credit, the most memorable moments of each of those films were the robot fights. Though I did recall thinking back then that a scorpion-mecha with a stinger-mounted DEW felt silly and stupid.

    Still, it does feel interesting how things have changed between Robot Jox/Wars and Pacific Rim, only for it to go back to square one with Pacific Rim: Uprising if the internet is to be believed.

    Overall, a nice little jont down memory lain.

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  11. Hopefully Ron Cobb only has Last Starfighter and Aliens on his resume. I'll take groin-saws any day over Pacific Rim 2's concepts, like welding rockets to your mech hands in order to dive bomb Mt. Fuji?! Last decent heavy mech show I've seen is the anime Heavy Object.

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    1. Haven't seen Pacific Rim 2, but that flying with rockets in your hands reminds me of this classic anime moment Warning: Castilian Spanish for the language impaired... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTJIatcj1zs

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  12. Ghana just went combat mecha and exoskeletal soldiers: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6573057/Bizarre-prototypes-military-equipment-revealed-Ghana.html?ito=social-facebook

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  13. Just found out Paul Koslo, the actor who played Alexander, has recently passed away. He was in a few other well known movies including The Omega Man (1971) and Vanishing Point (1971) along with numerous TV roles including a episode of Stargate SG-1 (S4 E14 The Serpents Venom)

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