It seems such a simple concept; meld cold war tensions with a bit of post-apocalyptic dystopia and a whole load of massive robot combat. It has everything a 1990 audience could want: sinister and cynical futurism, the chance for a bit of “USA! USA!” optimism, and the timeless wonder of hundred-foot steel homunculi beating the tar out of each other. Yet somehow what should have been Stuart Gordon’s directorial mainstream breakthrough, after writing Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, became a by-line in his filmography. But was it as bad as the critics made out? Well, two out of three decent acts ain’t bad!!
The opening starts well; It’s a post-some-kind-of-global-conflict future and everything is horrible. War has been outlawed (somehow, it never really does go into that) so now The Market (America and chums) and The Confederation (Russia and cronies) settle disputes by gladiatorial mech fights. The Confederation has been winning a lot and we get to watch the two “RobotJoxs”, Alexander (Paul Koslo) and Achilles (Gary Graham) slog it out in some amazing stop-motion, model-tastic, laser and explosion-filled action! Things go boom, mechs punch mechs, good guys and bad guys are signposted, and it’s all good fun. There is even a floating platform with four American Football referee-costumed officials, to make sure it’s all fair and needlessly stylised. Then Achilles does his Russian bad guy schtick and fires a rocket-hand which goes off-course into the watching crowds! Being American, Alexander dives in to stop the missile from killing some of the crowd, then gets knocked over, killing most of them instead.
And then there’s about forty minutes of world building, mild eugenics subplots, and what’s probably supposed to be some kind of emotional development for everyone involved. Athena the love interest (Anne-Marie Johnson) is introduced as the rookie pilot that will never be as good as Alexander because she has ovaries, Doc Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) is obviously Japanese because he does origami whilst building mechs, and Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge) is the highly punchable coach who you just want to see choke on his own tongue. Many techniques are used to make it clear that he’s got homely wisdom, such as wearing a cowboy hat, throwing out casual sexism and racism, having a Texan accent as thick as BBQ sauce, and (plot twist) being from Texas!
Alexander quits being a pilot, due to a combination of PTSD and plot necessity, and spends his time between the clean sci-fi corridors of the mech base and the grotty outside world. You can tell it’s horrible, because it looks like a middle-class housing complex which someone has thrown a bag of chalk over. He hangs out with his brother to discover that most people in the apocalypse don’t have it too great, and at the Robot Jox bar so he can miss being awesome in a stompy deathbot. And that bar serves all the Jox, including the Russians. Because letting the enemy drink where your pilots do is good for diplomacy?? All this gives him plenty of time to build up a relationship with Athena that seems as unnatural and toxic as Katie Hopkins’ soul, and to get us to the final twenty minutes where the bots come back!
The second battle is even more fun than the first, partly because it’s at least double the length but mostly because all common sense and respect for science goes out of the window. This is pure, spectacular hokum, for the most amazing kind, and you will be cheering when you see amazing tech toys being pulled out of thin air and then hammered into the other pilot’s face. Other than a few dodgy shots it all looks surprisingly real, in the same way Jason And The Argonauts does when you tell your brain to shut up and roll with it. It’s also got some actual emotional and exciting moments in it, even if they are sign-posted from a mile away and written in crayon. It’s also got lots of explosions, lots of lasers, lots of robot-punching, and lots of death. They even try to hammer in a twist ending, which just about works because whilst it’s ham-fisted, it isn’t around long enough to bring you down from the sugar-rush of the fight.
The strange thing with all this is that it would be unfair to say that this is a treasure of a movie despite the middle portion. Yes, Acts I & III are the strongest and have all the sci-fi robot-fighting goodness that the film sets out as it’s main attraction. However, you would be missing a trick if you skipped out Act II as it is spectacularly and hilariously bad, in a amazingly competent way. The script is incredibly tight, and every plot element is seeded so well that Chekhov would hang it in his gun cupboard. The acting is solid, with everyone clearly giving it their all, and you can clearly see what the set and costume designers are trying to accomplish and what messages they are trying to send out. It’s just that it’s all done so half-cocked that it never pulls together, and it ends up feeling like The Jetsons doing the apocalypse. The stakes are never that high, the tension is never that palpable, and the harsh world seems more like a student digs in the rough part of town. So, you end up giggling at it all, but also wanting to give it a hug because it obviously tried very hard.
As mentioned at the start, it has three very distinct acts with two clear differences in quality. But somehow they manage to get along together enough to make for a single viewing experience. It isn’t earth shattering, although you can clearly see bits that other, better creators pinched for far more impressive films. It’s just a tightly written, no nonsense, 90 minutes of sci-fi fun and robot battles. So it pans out as treasure, even if it’s not the most obvious kind.