Looking back at Robot Jox

With Pacific Rim on the horizon, what better time to look back at the 1989 giant robot flick, Robot Jox...

Soon, cinemas everywhere will unleash the giant robot warriors of Guillermo del Toro’s vivid imagination with Pacific Rim, due to open in July. And from what we’ve glimpsed so far in its trailers, boy are these babies going to rock. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen humans pilot giant mecha in the movies – back in 1989, director Stuart Gordon brought us the cult spectacular, Robot Jox.

Snow blows across a barren Siberian wasteland and a howling wind can be heard. Aside from a few scattered trees, the desolate landscape is strewn with huge broken, burnt out metal body parts. Suddenly another severed limb – this one looks like an arm – crashes to the ground, sparks still flying where it was once attached to a gargantuan shoulder. Slowly we see the remainder of the mutilated metal warrior lying in a smashed, smoldering heap on the ground as another giant gladiator steps into frame. As the ground shakes with each step, he looks down at his battered, beaten adversary. The cockpit of the defeated robot creaks open and the badly injured pilot inside screams, “You win! Alexander, I can’t move! I think my back is broken!”

We cut to the cockpit of the triumphant robot and the pilot inside calls for ‘judgment’ over the intercom. An official wearing a black and white striped referee shirt appears on a monitor and declares, “The judgment is victory for the Confederation.” He adds, “Alexander, hold your position.”

His eyes narrowing, it quickly becomes clear Alexander’s intentions are far from ‘holding his position’ as ordered. He lifts his leg inside the cockpit and simultaneously the herculean robot lifts its foot. The wounded pilot on the ground screams for his life; “I yield!” he cries, and with no remorse and even a smile on his face, Alexander slams his foot down, crushing his opponent under a hundred-ton foot. 

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In 1989, the world was still enjoying many sci-fi movies on that most retro of home entertainment formats, VHS – or Betamax, if your parents refused to believe that better marketing would trump superior quality. Some did very well at the box office, and others went straight to video, and required a few more years before their induction into cult status. One such movie was Robot Jox.

Set 50 years after a nuclear war, the two superpowers handle territorial disputes in a different way. Each fields a giant robot to fight one-on-one battles in official matches, each piloted by a man inside, known as robot jockeys, or jox. The contest for possession of Alaska will be fought by two of the best: the conscientious Achilles fights for the Americans and opposing him is a Russian, Alexander, a ruthless and bloodthirsty adversary who has killed his previous nine American opponents. With a traitor feeding the Russians secret weapons information and new, genetically engineered jox looking to take his place, Achilles faces obstacles at every turn in the hardest battle of his life.

The movie starred Gary Graham as Achilles, who of course went on to other cult sci-fi projects including Alien Nation, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. It also starred Anne-Marie Johnson as the genetically-engineered, but inexperienced jox desperate to prove her worth, and Paul Koslo as the evil, cheating Russian robot champion, Alexander. 

Both sides compete by trying to produce superior machines and better, more effective weapons. We learn early on that that this most recent defeat has not come from chance ‘parallel development’ but much more likely from espionage, and the fact that the Confederation were clearly prepared to counter the American’s new, secret weapon.  Meanwhile, the jox train relentlessly in martial arts to hone their skills.

We learn that a common phrase used by many in this dystopian future to wish someone good luck in the robot combat arena is the phrase, “crash and burn” which seems a little odd, but then it’s no different really to “break a leg”. Bizarrely, Robot Jox spawned a spin-off movie one year later entitled Crash And Burn.

Robot Jox quickly sets a tongue-in-cheek tone and it’s yet another – albeit light-hearted – example of the Cold War creeping into popular culture during the 80s. Others include WarGames, Rocky IV, Project X and even Spies Like Us. Another great future portrayal in the movie is as we see the working class of the future gathering in crowds around a giant, public TV screen discussing the odds and outcome of the fight, very similar in essence to the Running Man, which was released two years earlier. 

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Achilles must fight Alexander to resolve the dispute over who has rights to Alaska, and again, it seems the American’s newest technological developments have been leaked to the Russians. The fight takes places on a huge, purpose-built wasteland with massive stands holding thousands of eager onlookers. However, like many spectator sports, there’s always a hint of danger, and Achilles cops a full blow to the body by the detachable rocket fist of Alexander’s war machine. Suffice to say, his robot falls onto one of the stands and kills thousands of spectators. The match is considered null and void. 

The acting is far from Academy Award standard, but in its own 80s way, that’s part of this movie’s retro charm. The rest of the charm comes from its gigantic robot killing machines, an ingredient that will improve any movie. The special effects looked dated now, of course, but it truly benefits from some beautiful model making and the occasional stutter that comes from stop-motion animation.

Empire Pictures actually went bankrupt during the filming of Robot Jox, its most expensive film ever. It was bought by Epic Productions and finally completed nearly two full years after having been first started, eventually costing the studio $6 million back in 1989. 

During the scriptwriting process, science fiction author Joe Haldeman and director Stuart Gordon clashed on the vision of the film. Halderman wanted a dramatic, serious science fiction film. Gordon, however, wanted to liven it up and use stereotypes. In Haldeman’s words, “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.”

As they were saying their goodbyes to one another, Gorden pinpointed the problem. He said “Joe, our problem is that you’re writing a movie for adults that children can enjoy, but I’m directing a movie for children that adults can enjoy!”

So, Robot Jox plus Godzilla equals Pacific Rim? We’ll have to wait and see.

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