There are reasons giant robots show up again and again in our fables and legends. One, they’re big enough that they don’t have to listen to what their mom tells them to do. Two, they let someone engage in physical combat even if that someone has incredibly soft hands and is sitting in a comfortable chair. End of list. That’s all they need, and don’t let anyone ever try to justify these things more to you – they make no sense physically, mechanically, or tactically. They are completely and solely a power fantasy treasured by children and underdeveloped men, and I love them so much.
Which is why I was shocked and angered that Robot Jox hadn’t been discussed on this site yet. “I’ll get to fixing that,” I said from my comfortable chair.
Robot Jox is a very late ’80s movie about robot combat that was made by a film studio with nowhere near enough money or robots to actually do such a thing. You can be forgiven for having never heard of it, because the studio actually went bankrupt while making it, leaving no money for the part of the process of “telling people” they’d made a movie about giant robots. It was in and out of theatres so fast it was effectively a straight to video release, but again, they forgot to tell people they made the videos too, so it’s really just turtles all the way down here.
The other reason you can forgive yourself – honestly stop beating yourself up, this isn’t worth it – for having never heard of Robot Jox is because it’s not actually that good. And it’s not even that bad. It has none of the defining qualities of a cult classic, and is instead just a cruddy movie that has been made with a shocking degree of professionalism. I mean that! Using modeling clay, a mostly empty room, and the best actors within arms reach, these people actually managed to tell a story about giant robots. Well done them, and it’s a shame you will forget the movie as you are watching it. So take my soft hand and join me as we celebrate its feats.
Robot Jox takes place in the future, as you’d expect, in a period just after a nuclear war. War is now outlawed – which is so smart, we should do that – and now all disputes between the two superpowers are settled in one-on-one fights between building-sized robots. The robot fights, which are kind of the whole point of this movie, are all done in stop motion, which is crude but surprisingly effective. Despite everything, the big cool fighting robots look like big cool fighting robots, in a way that modern Transformers movies can’t pull off, so much so that it seems almost churlish to point out the number of wires visible in the scenes.
Our hero is named Achilles, and if you were thinking this is the movie setting him up as someone with a fatal flaw that will be exposed at a critical juncture, stop. Just stop. This movie isn’t that clever. You’re only hurting yourself. Achilles is nothing more or less than the best pilot the Americans have, thanks to… some personal qualities he must have, they’re not really mentioned. There’s a lot of martial arts training, that’s for sure.
A word about the actors: They’re all doing their jobs. They are actors, and they are acting, and I want to be clear that this movie is not bad because of them. They are probably doing more with the material than the material has done for them, and for that we should all be grateful. That said, it is impossible not to notice how they all look like store brand versions of other actors. The hero is clearly a cheaper Jean-Claude Van Damme, his buddy is 90% of John Goodman, etc.
Plot wise, there is no plot. Achilles, and his Russian foe, Alexander, are nominally fighting over the rights to Alaska, but this so beside the point that it’s almost insulting to mention, I’m sorry I did that to you. No, if this movie is about anything, it’s a character study of Achilles, the man with few if any identifying qualities. Let’s break it down, regardless: Achilles initially wants to fight Alexander because Alexander stepped on his friend. (In the lingo of the movie, this is not known as “Joxing Off,” which is a large missed opportunity.) Anyways, THAT’S A GOOD REASON. Achilles is going to fuck Alexander up, he is pumped up, and so are his friends.
And then they fight in… well they fight in a small studio where men carefully pose robots like dolls. But the small studio is made up to look like a desert. Which makes sense, you’d want to keep the building sized murderbots away from people, except there are actually people there.
But there is safety glass, and boy you’d hate to guess what might happen if that glass wasn’t there when a 200 ton robot sits down on it.
That’s right, in the very first full fight we see, a building sized robot smashes into hundreds of people, killing them.
Anyways, now Achilles is sad, and he doesn’t want to fight, and we get to the “middle” of the movie where there is no fighting. There’s just nothing but dialog and character building and other things which lean on the strengths of the script, which, again, aren’t there. Here, look at this bullshit.
This isn’t just a screenshot. The director very carefully framed this shot for several seconds. Why did he laboriously set up this image of someone making the world’s most famously easy origami model? Has the director done this because an origami motif is about to unfold here, just like I did within this very sentence?
I’m not even sure if that’s racist or just lazy! There’s more. The guy named Tex wears a cowboy hat.
Also, for some reason all the Robot Jox – American and Russian – all hang out together in this one bar.
Does this make any sense? No. But they needed a fucking place to do some dialog and no robot fights, and this room was available, so here we go. Put on your jumpsuits, everyone.
The whole middle of the movie is like this. Sure there’s a love interest, and clones, and betrayal, and none of it fucking matters, because there’s no robots. I want to be clear this isn’t just me and my soft hands angry about the lack of toys, you can feel the movie itself contemptuously plodding through all this, angry that it couldn’t just sell 43 seconds of stop motion robot fighting as a full movie, but not wanting to put in the hard yards to make the rest of the film.
The robot fights resume eventually, thank fuck, and there’s explosions and robots joxxing all over each other. But by this point you can sense they’d gone so long with no robots that they had to cram all their robot ideas into what remained if the movie’s – hang on I’m going to look up the actual number to get this right – hahahhahhahahahhahhahahhhahhhhhahhhhhha 85 minute running time.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. So Alexander has robot joxxed into an advantageous position, and in his massive, arachnid-like robot, now looms over Achilles.
It’s a pretty serious situation, but however you think Achilles is going to respond to this, you’re wrong.
Because Achilles responds by leaping into space.
Physics talk. Going to space is super hard and requires all sorts of rockets and fuel tanks and math, none of which are present on these robots at all. At no point has anyone mentioned off-hand, “oh yeah, these things can go to space, it’s a thing that happens sometimes.” Never happens. But here he just fucken up and goes to space, I’m guessing solely because someone thought it looked cool. It’s incredibly insulting if you know anything about space at all, and that actually gives a big hint about who this movie is for, mainly 5 year old children. Because six year olds will know enough about space travel to know this can’t happen.
Anyways, it seems Alexander can also go into space, so he does, and while there shoots Achilles in the foot. Then they return to Earth. Like exactly where they started from. The whole thing was somehow more pointless than the 60 minutes in the movie that weren’t robots fighting.
The robot fight, which now seems almost absurd to still be continuing, continues. Achilles, now in a robot less a foot, transforms into a kind of tank thing, which one, ok, and two, means this whole time he had been piloting both a robot and a rocket, and both a robot and a tank. Which seems like a lot. It also means he now has to scoot along the battlefield like a dog with anal gland problems.
He scoots underneath the crotch of Alexander. Alexander’s crotch unfolds a chainsaw.
What happens next isn’t as sexual as it could have been, which is just tremendous news all around. I don’t think I could have written this article if it had. Eventually both robots get destroyed, and Achilles and Alexander fight with sticks for a bit, and then they very rapidly decide to stop and be friends instead. Then they do this.
Credits roll, movie over, quest complete. This movie is fucking done with itself.
In short, you have never seen anything like Robot Jox, because movies are normally made by people who know how to make movies. So what happened here? Like who the fuck wrote this thing?
Wait. What? Joe Haldeman is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author. His whole thing is writing incredible stories, usually grounded and sober ones that illustrate the costs of warfare and the toll it takes on the people who fight in them, themes not so much absent from Robot Jox as much as they are actively refuted. War, violence, and Robot Joxing, in the movie’s mind, is awesome, and has few downsides.
It seems that while Haldeman tried to write something sane and grounded, as he does, the people paying for the claymation crossed all that shit out. Every day, this whole movie must have been one long, exhausting argument between grounded realism and producers shouting LOL, ADD MORE JOX TO THE ROBOTS, JOE. PUT A CHAINSAW WHERE ONE’S DICK WOULD BE.
Recast in that light, you can kind of see Haldeman’s influence here. There’s a bit about Achilles having a contract that some jerk in a suit tries to screw him on terms, which is a very Haldeman kinda plot point, which lasts entire seconds before the movie gives up on it. And the villain, Alexander, is mostly evil, like 90 or 95% evil as these things are measured, but beneath the scenes and the dialog and the robots abruptly going to space, you can kind of sense he’s trapped in the same kind of situation as Achilles. To be clear, drawing parallels between the protagonist and villain isn’t precisely advanced screenwriting, I think a lot of Mad Libs actually set this up for you, but it’s something.
And that spectacularly inappropriate ass pat? I forgot! I TOTALLY FORGOT. That’s a fucking plot point. My same ass-grabbing guy at one point uncovers an imposter by patting them on their ass. He detected the ass was different! They set that up so well!
Yeah, yeah, you can kind of sketch out a better story with the pieces here. A trophy fighter with no choice to fight, risking his life so that no-one else has to risk anything, standing across the battlefield from someone in the same situation. Does he escape, or allow himself to be replaced with one of the test tube people, bred to never even be able to understand the hell of their existence? (I skipped past this; it seems important now.)
But in my heart of hearts, I don’t think that movie ever existed. We can’t retcon Robot Jox into a hidden gem; this movie is literally one person smashing action figures together and another person trying to give those action figures lines grounded in a place deeper than ‘JOX FOR ROBOTS.’
I’m going to be honest with you – gestures for you to come closer to my comfortable chair – when I first remembered Robot Jox, I was like “Oh great, I’ll be able to talk about how awesome this movie is, or failing that, how awful it is. I can’t possibly lose!” And then I watched it, and reader, I lost. Robot Jox isn’t amazing or terrible, it is the most profoundly C- movie that has ever existed.
Which made me realize every movie must have gone through something like this, a thousand arguments and compromises made between people who hate each other. It’s a miracle we ever get anything as artistically cohesive as Citizen Kane or Caged Heat. In fact, nearly everything must have gone through something like this. How many fistfights erupted about the kerning on the font on your bag of Doritos? We are surrounded by the work of people, some of them talented – but far more who aren’t – some of whom cared – but far more who spent their days staring at the ceiling, silently mouthing “Fuuuuuuuuuuck, let’s just finish this.”
What I’m saying is the whole world is filled with people making Robot Jox.
So let’s try to all acknowledge how basically adequate that is.