Before I get to 40, I’m catching up on all the films I really ought to have watched when I was a teenager. After posting a review of “Arena”, this was suggested to me, and as it’s free to watch on Youtube, I felt it would be rude not to. Looks like we can’t stay away from director Stuart Gordon, either – the ISCFC has previously covered “Space Truckers” and “Fortress”.
A nuclear war has killed or poisoned great swathes of humanity, and we’ve all sort of decided to have no more nukes, no more armies, and no more wars. Any territorial disputes will now be handled by one-on-one giant robot combat, which is televised, has betting, etc. The pilots of these robots are superstars, the “robot jox” of the title, as the future is too cool to spell it “jocks”, evidently. The best of the “American” pilots is Achilles, who’s one win away from retirement; and the best “Russian” is Alexander, who is really quite evil.
During his last fight, Achilles accidentally kills hundreds of spectators watching from the bleachers, and this sends him into a downward spiral, at the same time as a group of genetically engineered “genjox” are being trained to pilot the robots. Chief among these is Athena, who is introduced when Achilles suggests that rather than give a sperm sample to help produce the next generation of genjox, he could leave a deposit right at the source (charming). Oh, and there’s a mole in the good guys’ side, but who could it be? Will Achilles eventually step up and save Alaska from falling into Russkie hands?
The production of this film sounds like it had a few setbacks. The scriptwriter was Joe Haldeman, author of one of my favourite sci-fi novels, “The Forever War”, and his description of the finished product was “it’s as if I’d had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage.” Because the robots are very obviously ripoffs of the Transformers toy line, there was a struggle between making a film for kids or adults, and it would appear the kids’ side, led by Gordon, won out.
There are interesting ideas which pop up all over the place, though, and there’s plenty to like. Pregnancy is very important in the nuclear-devastated world they live in, and there are posters all over the place encouraging women to do their bit. The idea of a world so disgusted by traditional war that they resort to an idea like this is worth exploring too, even if it’s a bit of a silly idea and impractical in a world where there are still competing and incompatible ideologies. The cast is strong, and the miniature special effect work still looks great now, which couldn’t be said for the CGI of the period. The plot, while rather silly, is decently paced, and giant robot fighting is a heck of a lot of fun. Athena is not your typical leading lady – skinny, black, short hair, remains fully clothed – but Achilles lusts after her anyway, which I quite liked.
The problems start if you think about it for more than ten seconds. The mole in the organisation is so obvious they might as well have a neon “baddie” sign floating over their heads, and Achilles’ “I quit – I spiral downwards – events force me to return” arc feels completely tossed off. And things get really, really shambolic towards the end, in the final robot fight, where things happen because it would make a cool visual, not because it would make any sense. Also, If you can figure out if the good guys’ “secret weapon” worked or not, you’re a better man than I. Lastly, it suffered from release delays – made in 1987, while the Cold War was still a thing, due to bankruptcies it didn’t get released until November 1990, by which time the USSR was crumbling and the idea of the world being destroyed by two big armies duking it out had started to look a little ridiculous.
All in all, it’s not a great film. If you have fond memories of it, I’d suggest it’s from you being a kid and not from this being any good. For fun, you can imagine this as a prequel to “Pacific Rim”, though, which it bears a fairly strong resemblance to. I’ll leave you with the film’s message of peace, the “crash and burn” symbol of the film, which looks for all the world like they’ve got ports to connect a TV to an old computer console on their hands:
Rating: thumbs down (sorry, picture above)