By:Chuck Francisco Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 Source: Mania.com
Over the past two weeks, as I've sorted through dozens of movies and hundreds of YouTube clips containing men clad in iconic rubber monster suits, my excitement level for Pacific Rim has been steadily climbing (right in step with the summer thermometer). Like many genre fans, my childhood imagination was nourished on the the nectar of this monstrous ambrosia. And even as Kaiju countdown lists continue to spring to life on the Mania carousel, the other half of the Guillermo's blockbuster throwdown deserves some love of its own. While there are plenty of giant robot movies to spotlight, very few of them embody human nature the way Robot Jox does.
Now the gears in your head are set to spinning, attempting to best frame a snarky comment which derides how absurd my glorification of a minor 80's cult favorite is. Stick with me though, I brought my 'A' game (and examples!). Robot Jox is a near direct influence on the Jaegars of Pacific Rim and the force feedback nature of their pilot interfaces, but we'll swing back around to revisit the connective tissue near the end.
This filmed in 1987 yet not released until 1990, post-apocalyptic Cold War cautionary tale is the brain child of director Stewart Gordon and writer Joe Haldeman. They'd previously worked together on a failed attempt to adapt one of Haldeman's novels for the screen, and theoretically they would have functioned in tandem like the paired pilots of Pacific Rim. It clearly didn't unfold that way, otherwise I probably wouldn't bother to bring it up. The conflict arose between them because each had a completely different target market in mind. Gordon's vision was aimed at children, which makes sense when illuminated with the knowledge that his inspiration stems from The Transformers. Haldeman rested the cross hairs of his scope directly on adults, infusing serious themes, dramatic tension, and hints at real science into the screenplay. It's here, at this cross-purpose, that their sabers met, and the resounding clang of metal on metal became one of the most influential box office flops of all time.
Allow me to pause here for a moment to level some cold facts. Robot Jox was to be Empire International Pictures' most expensive film ever, with a projected budge of seven million dollars. It ballooned to an accountant artery clogging ten million (admittedly chump change in today's cinematic landscape). The release of the film, originally slated for 1989, was forced back a year as Empire International Pictures filed for bankruptcy. The total box office take failed to even eclipse 1.3 million dollars. Critical reviews of the time were unfavorable to rudely verbose. Despite all that (or perhaps because of it) Robot Jox went on to develop a devoted cult following, partly due to heavy rotation on early cable movie channels like Cinemax or on programs like USA Up All Night.
What is so appealing about this metal robot frat party anyhow? Beneath the mechanized man suits, Robot Jox is a story about humanity, and about trying to rediscover the man within the machine. Set after a catastrophic nuclear war, the remaining countries of the world form up into two opposing factions: Market ('Merica) and Confederation (Russia). Nursing the worst nuclear hangover you can imagine, the factions completely outlaw open conflict, instead settling their differences via arena based contests between giant robots. During his final battle, Market jock Achilles dives in front of an errant projectile which would otherwise have killed spectators. The momentum carries his mech into the stands instead, causing innocent fans to perish. Distraught over the casualties, Achilles retires, while the Market team scrambles to find a replacement and root out a mole who may have given weapon specs to the enemy.
While all of this may sound cliche, the reason it sounds so familiar is due to the influence Robot Jox exuded upon nerd and geek culture. Its wake was profound, and we're still seeing the flowers from its pollination twenty years later, as a major thematic element in a $180 million dollar film (from perhaps one of the most imaginative directors of his generation). And while Del Toro is eschewing stop motion for heaping gobs of CGI, similar veins of imagination are marbled throughout both of these cinematic wonders.
If this sounds like your brand of cola, a quick YouTube search will yield the entire uncut film for visual consumption. Below I've embedded the battle between Alexander and Achilles which I described earlier. Pay particular attention to the force feed back nature of the pilot's control suits. Notice the mechanic involved for walking. Pacific Rim takes this concept and elevates the visual spectacle to something more bombastic and kinetic, but you're looking at strikingly similar elements. I highly encourage everyone to watch Robot Jox as part of a nutritious geek diet. It's like Count Chocula: desert masquerading as breakfast. Time to crash and burn!
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.