Robot Jox Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 27, 2023 (as part of the Empire of Screams collection)
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 84:27
Director: Stuart Gordon
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams five movie collection, which also includes David Allen, Charles Band, John Carl Buechler, Steven Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou & Rosemarie Turko’s Dungeonmaster (1984), Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1987), John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller (1989), and Peter Manoogian’s Arena (1989).
In the future, war has been outlawed and international disputes are settled in a single combat between two human-piloted combat robots. Following a tragic accident during a crucial battle, veteran robowarrior Achilles (Paul Koslo) calls it quits, only to be dragged out of retirement when his arch rival, Alexander (Gary Graham), breaks the rules of robowar.
Following the release of three R/unrated cult favorites for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, writer/director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna attempted to make a family-friendly sci-fi adventure at Disney. Originally entitled Teeny Weenies and co-written with Dolls (1987) scribe Ed Naha, the story was a sort of kid’s version of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (pub: 1957) and followed a group of children accidentally shrunk to the size of insects by a sweet-natured mad scientist. Due to health problems, Gordon was forced to step down as director and was replaced with effects artist/designer Joe Johnston in his directorial debut. The project was retitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and became one of the biggest hits of 1989, all proving that there was a market for family-friendly sci-fi adventures from adult horror maven Stuart Gordon.
Eager to make more projects for children, Gordon wrote & directed the Triaminic cold medicine financed infotainment short Kid Safe: The Video in 1988, then approached Band with an idea for a live-action adventure involving giant robots rock ‘em & sock ‘eming each other. Initially inspired by Transformers, which was a mainstream phenomenon in the US during the Reagan years, the movie that was eventually titled Robot Jox also owed a debt to other Japanese cartoons, like a re-edited, Americanized version of Beast King GoLion (1981-82) called Voltron (1984-85) and Robotech (1985), which Americanized and mashed-up three different anime series. Gordon wasn’t acutely aware of the broader history of mecha fiction in Japan, but he recognized its potential in live-action and his instincts were validated when the Super Sentai series was adapted for American children under the title Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and grew into a multigenerational franchise. Sadly, Robot Jox was not a Power Rangers-sized phenomenon.
Band took some convincing, but eventually agreed and used an effects demo reel to stir-up funding, setting the initial budget around $7 million, but eventually ballooning it closer to $10 million, making it by far the most expensive film Empire had ever made. Empire wasn’t Disney – it was a tiny B-movie studio that mostly made movies for the video market and it wasn’t prepared for the production or distribution costs. For comparison, the From Beyond’s (1986) budget was $4.5 million and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids cost about $18 million. The money definitely shows up on screen, especially the stop-motion sequences, which are essentially state-of-the-art for the end of the pre-digital era. It helps that the jittery movements can be attributed to the fact that robots don’t move smoothly, of course, but the effects crew, led by David Allen, manages the important task of conveying the sheer scale of the machines and blending them with practical elements (for reference, compare these stop-motion effects to those of the previous year’s Robocop). The models fall a little short, but a lot of that has to do with them being dated, rather than badly executed.
Gordon’s co-writer, Joe Haldeman, was the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novelist and seemingly the perfect collaborator. His signature was The Forever War books (St. Martin's Press, 1974, 1997, 1999), which featured ‘power-armor,’ a mecha-like idea borrowed from Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (pub: 1959) and, while the series’ scope dwarfs Robot Jox, it covers similar thematic ground (the genetically modified soldier angle also appears in both novel series). He and Gordon couldn’t agree on the film’s tone, making a difficult project all the more arduous. But I’d argue that the push-pull between Haldeman’s serious approach and Gordon’s “Saturday morning cartoon stuff” (Haldeman’s words) is what makes the movie work. Band couldn’t afford Haldeman’s ambition and required Gordon’s satirical pulp sensibilities and shoestring effects experience to fit the studio’s needs. On the other hand, Haldeman’s core themes and dramatic awareness anchors Robot Jox just enough to keep it from turning into another goofball Empire sci-fi movie, like Peter Manoogian’s Eliminators (1986) or David DeCoteau’s Creepazoids (1987). Not to imply that those films don’t have their value, only that Robot Jox needed to be something different and that its unique appeal is its mix of mainstream theatrical aspirations and B-movie concepts.
When all was said and done, Robot Jox was a massive flop with audiences and critics, barely crossing the one million mark at the international box office. The damage had already been done before the theatrical rollout. Empire filed for bankruptcy in 1989, due in large part to the cost of making Robot Jox. This forced the film to find a new distributor (Triumph Films, a subsidiary of Sony) and delayed its release until November of 1990, where it was up against the likes of Home Alone, Rescuers Down Under, and Predator 2 at the US box office. It wasn’t all bad news, though. In the aftermath, Gordon made a different, adult-oriented sci-fi adventure called Fortress at major-minor Dimension in 1992, one year before the company was acquired by Disney. Fortress nearly quadrupled its budget (mostly outside of the US) and garnered favorable overall reviews. Meanwhile, Band picked up the pieces and founded Full Moon Productions, a company that still thrives to this day, albeit in an increasingly schlocky capacity. He even made semi-sequels to Robot Jox – Crash and Burn (1990), which he directed himself, his father Albert’s Robot Wars (1993), and Ian Barry’s Robo Warriors (1996) – and teamed up with Gordon again in 1991 one year after Robot Jox flopped to make The Pit and the Pendulum, followed by Castle Freak in 1995.
Note that this is the international cut of the film, despite the PG-rating on the box. A couple of violent/bloody shots have been reinstated.
Robot Jox had a wide(ish) release in theaters and an even bigger release on VHS from RCA Columbia (which was how I eventually saw it, because my parents didn’t feel like taking me to the big robot movie). RCA also put out a pan & scan Laserdisc, followed by a barebones anamorphic DVD by MGM in 2005. The film’s North American Blu-ray debut came from Shout Factory in 2015 (one year after Explosive Media’s disc in Germany), likely sourced directly from MGM. Arrow’s re-release, currently only available as part of their Empire of Screams collection, features a new 2K remaster of the original negative and is presented in 1.85:1 and 1080p. I’ve included a couple of comparison sliders (Arrow on the left, Shout Factory on the right) that, despite the compression in size and quality on this page, demonstrate the small, but notable remaster upgrades.
Gordon and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg shot a lot of the movie through haze, soft focus, and shallow depth to cover effects, sell the massive scale, and make the whole thing feel more ‘futuristic.’ This leads to considerable snow and grain, especially during outdoor sequences. Both discs are about the same in terms of print damage, but the old Shout disc is slightly more compressed, leading to noise effects in place of grain. Overall detail is similar between transfers, but the new scan manages to squeeze a bit more texture out of the backgrounds. It also punches up dynamic range with deeper blacks and slightly brighter colors.
The original stereo soundtrack is presented in uncompressed LPCM 2.0. Theater audio was on the verge of digital 5.1 and the sound designers utilized just about every trick at their disposal to broaden the soundscape. The action scenes are dynamic without being too busy and there’s a touch of ambience in the junked-up future city. The ghost center channel isn’t as consistent as a discrete 5.1 track would offer, but it works more often than it doesn’t. Frédéric Talgorn’s boisterous score fits the rah-rah aesthetic of the battle sequences and gives the track its biggest moments, aside from explosions.
Commentary with director Stuart Gordon – Always a reliable storyteller, Gordon discusses the film’s themes, his collaboration with Haldeman, and does a good job filling us in on the facts of the troubled production and major hardships that ended up bankrupting Empire Pictures. This track was recorded for the 2015 Shout Factory Blu-ray and is moderated by Blu-ray producer Michael Felsher, who does a good job keeping the director track focused.
Commentary with associate effects director Paul Gentry, mechanical effects artist Mark Rappaport, and stop-motion animator Paul Jessell – Another Shout Factory holdover, this is a more technical and uneven track, but still holds plenty of behind-the-scenes value.
Crash and Burn (17:09, HD) – Star Gary Graham recalls the development of his character, working with Gordon and Band (“the producer”), struggling to perform fight scenes in his bulky costume, the Italian crew burning gas-soaked rags, instead of using smoke machines, preferring the original ending, and sequel concepts.
Her Name is Athena (13:25, HD) – Actress Anne-Marie Johnson chats about her pre-Robot Jox career, her character, training, physical challenges, costumes/wardrobe and hair/make-up (the Italian crew apparently used motor oil, instead of hair spray), collaborating with Graham, cast diversity, and the film’s eventual cult status.
The Scale of Battle: David Allen and the FX of Robot Jox (26:35, HD) – A fantastic new video appreciation of the film and stop-motion animator David Allen featuring visual effects artists Steve Burg, Yancy Calzeda, Paul Gentry, Kevin Kuchaver, Dennis Muren, and John Vincent.
Looking Back (10:24, HD) – In the last last remaining Shout Factory extra, actor Paul Koslo discusses his role, working with Gordon, his co-stars, the grueling final fight sequence, and marveling at technical effects processes.
Salvaged from the Wreckage (8:19, HD) – An archive of behind-the-scenes photos, concept art, and original models from associate effects director Paul Gentry.
Image galleries – Behind-the-scenes and posters & stills
Original sales sheet and production notes
For the record, the Shout Factory disc also included archival EPK interviews and raw behind-the-scenes footage.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.