Pacific Rim (2013), Godzilla (2014), The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Transformers 4 (2014): mechs, monsters, quasi-mechs who are monsters.
Summer films have easily identifiable trends, and recently the trend has been a potentially pernicious (but sometimes enjoyable) kind of technological fetishism operating at all levels: Characters in films meld with machines while we the audience gaze in awe at the increasingly intricate, computer-generated machines and their orgies of destruction.
These action films often come wrapped in self-conscious, adolescent wish-fulfillment: “I know very well I’m a big dumb movie,” Pacific Rim and Transformers say, “but that’s the whole point, so it’s okay.” Sometimes all this winking cynicism makes me long for the days when gleeful pulpiness, giant robots, poor dialogue, wanton destruction and karate were the provenance not of $200 million productions, but of films like Robot Jox (1990).
Watch Robot Jox:
Robot Jox is a low-budget film of a different era, written by legendary science fiction author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad Joe Haldeman (The Forever War, 1974) and directed by almost-legendary cult director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, 1985). Its subject matter would be very much at home in today’s big-budget market: In a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, the Market (i.e., NATO) and the Confederation (i.e., the USSR) settle disputes for territory not through the covert waging of war, but through a spectator sport in which two mechs fight each other. Think The Hunger Games (2012) with giant robots.
The mechs are piloted by revered military-sports heroes—the eponymous “robot jox”—and the film begins as the Market and the Confederation vie for control of Alaska. Achilles (Gary Graham), the top jock, must soon leave the game in disgrace, ceding his place to a young generation of “tubies,” humans genetically engineered specifically to pilot mechs.
The pulp sci-fi story is matched by brash dialogue, broad characterizations, awkwardly mediocre acting and evident disregard for (dubiously accomplished) realism in anything but its giant robots. Again, here it is of a kind with today’s summer flicks: The aesthetics of its future-technology and the institution of “robot jox” resemble (probably not uncoincidentally) those of Pacific Rim. The care with which it films the functioning of the mechs as they move, attack and change form—allowing for budgetary and technological differences—is not unlike a Michael Bay movie. Today’s big films dress up the content of yesterday’s low-budget flops and forgotten straight-to-video actioners in flashy new garb, selling you on “realistic,” outlandish effects and dialogue that “knows it’s bad.” The goal here, arguably, is getting the audience enraptured in technological spectacle, even while it knows it’s being duped.
Still, Robot Jox stands apart from these movies because of a rather subtle difference in its sensibility: There’s an admirable earnestness that is entirely lacking from today’s inflated pulp adventures. It’s still self-conscious to some degree, inasmuch as it doesn’t fully expect to fool you. For example, when robot jock Tex (Michael Alldredge) exaggeratedly drawls, “you ain’t usin’ ma DNA to make no tubies!” you’re not supposed to believe in him as a character.
The earnestness of Robot Jox does not quite reside in its characterization—its delineation of an inhabitable world — but rather in its wholehearted embrace (as opposed to a cynical exploitation) of the idea that nuance and full-bodied characters are not necessary components of a good pulp story. The conflict between Achilles and his Confederation opponent Alexander, for example, isn’t deeply expounded upon because the point is the conflict itself: watching two absurdly macho men physically, cartoonishly exhaust themselves trying to destroy each other. That the point is the fight itself rather than dramatic or metaphorical meaning doesn’t take the form of a clever joke shared with the audience, but is simply the way the scene works. When set against today’s destructive mechs, monsters and robots, Robot Jox illustrates that there’s a difference between knowing one’s genre conventions and using them cynically to mesmerize audiences.
What we have in Robot Jox is a movie that doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it too (like Pacific Rim) or turn its cake into a Master’s thesis on existentialism (like The Edge of Tomorrow), but just cake. And if its characters are the same sort of technological fetishists and (literally) jocks who populate today’s blockbusters, at least the audience itself is never caught up in being mesmerized by technological illusionism — the mechs are quite unconvincing, even if the fights are surprisingly well-directed. This is one of the truly good bad movies.
For an enjoyable, even humorous time involving man-machines and PG-13 gore, I’d recommend watching Robot Jox instead of this summer’s expensive and expansive crop. And the best part about Robot Jox? At 84 minutes, it’s about an hour shorter than today’s plodding blockbusters.