The four film series stemming from Full Moon Entertainment's Robot Jox is an unlikely cinematic universe. Most unlikely of all, Robot Jox itself is its 4th worst entry.
Robot Jox (1989) dir. Stuart Gordon
Crash and Burn (1990) dir. Charles Band
Robot Wars (1993) dir. Albert Band
Robo Warriors (1996) dir. Ian Barry
In 1983, producer Charles Band founded Empire International Pictures, effectively a mini studio designed to produce and, crucially, release the sort of low budget schlock Band had long been selling to the big boys. Success came quickly with hits like Ghoulies, and Band looked to develop the operation. In 1984 he borrowed heavily in order to finance the purchase of Dino de Laurentis' Italian studio complex, Cinematografica, and then began a creative collaboration with theatre director Stuart Gordon. The partnership struck gold with its first movie, H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator, and the two men would go on to work together on both Dolls and From Beyond before Gordon, intrigued by the success of Hasbro's Transformers TV series, pitched an idea for a giant robot movie.
Behind the scenes on Robot Jox
“It’s clobbering time!”
Robot Jox would depict a future Earth in which mankind had progressed beyond war, instead using enormous robots to settle disputes, just as the truly enlightened might. The budget required to make this world a reality was far beyond anything Empire had previously stumped up for a single movie, the stop motion would take care of that. But, with The Transformers a huge hit and writer Joe Haldeman convinced he had found a way to marry the giant fighting robot concept to Homer's The Iliad (seriously), Band was convinced, and contributed $7 million to the project (a figure which soon ballooned to $10 million). Empire went out of business before the effects were finished.
“You make my drink taste like blood.”
Robot Jox was finally released by Sony in 1990, and stormed to the bottom of the charts with its entire theatrical run recouping little more than 10% of its budget. With hindsight it's easy to see why. Haldeman and Gordon feuded over the movie's general direction, with Gordon favouring a child-oriented adventure and Haldeman a more intellectual sci-fi satire. These differences were never reconciled and left the finished movie sporting an uneasy mix of philosophies. The likes of The Hunger Games movies achieve something quite similar, and with Starship Troopers now considered a bona fide classic, the once unusual, seemingly heavy-handed and thematically disjointed tone conjured by Robot Jox doesn't seem quite so alien. You sense Haldeman slipped in certain scenes (such as the zombie-like masses gathering at public view screens to be fed quieting flannel, a la 1984) against Band and Gordon's wishes. But it's these scenes that reveal the two-tier society and its fascist overtones, adding weight and value and marrying perfectly with the hyper-real performances and heightened stakes. It’s Paul Verhoeven light.
“I will make your death interesting.”
The narrative is pretty basic. There's a big robot fight between Russia and America. The Russian cheats, the American loses confidence in himself, but regains it in time for a climactic showdown. Running in parallel is a narrative revolving around robot jock Achiles (Gary Graham) and his potential replacement, the biologically engineered Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson). We seem to be witnessing the pivot point at which artificially enhanced life forms are becoming more effective giant robot drivers than ordinary mortals. That makes for some interesting subtext even if the love/hate relationship between Achiles and Athena remains undeveloped to the point of irrelevance. Overall, though, Robot Jox is more relevant now than at any point since it was released, and stands up far better than it probably should.
Crash and Burn
“I’ll blow your microchips all over the floor!”
Crash and Burn isn't really a sequel to Robot Jox, but it was implied as such and appears to be set in the same universe, albeit after its governments have collapsed (the movie also went under the title Robot Jox 2 in some territories, although that hardly makes it unique). More relevant than nomenclature are Crash and Burn's look and feel, which matches those of Robot Jox precisely. Presumably that’s thanks to many of the key personnel being carried over from the earlier movie, and to Charles Band’s continued hands-on presence, this time as director. Everything is on a much smaller scale though. The plot plays out in a post-apocalyptic near future in which a totalitarian organisation, Unicom, has taken over the world. Their attempts to stamp out an independent TV station operating from the Nevada desert are met with resistance from a handful of free thinkers and a giant robot left over from the Jox era. It's an inbetweeny movie that never manages to be good or bad enough to fully entertain, but has enough going for it to avoid being a complete waste of time. But with just one lame scene of giant robotery, it’s ultimately a disappointment.
“She’s got some set of sweater puppies under those overalls.”
The third and final movie of the Full Moon series, on the other hand, is a blast. Robot Wars followed three years after its two predecessors and was directed by Charles Band's father, Albert. Set in a 2041 in which toxic gas has made the outside world virtually uninhabitable, a civil war rages between 'North Hemi' and a rebel alliance operating under the name 'Centro'. The plot follows Drake (Don Michael Paul), a loudmouth pilot of the last 'Megarobot', as he becomes accidentally embroiled in the Centro's attempt to locate a second Megarobot with which to battle the baddies. Or they might be the goodies, it isn’t always clear. This is the good bad highlight of the series. None of the first film's uniquely satirical tone remains, there's just lots of big dumb stuff that happens. Paul is magnificent as Drake, exactly the sort of cheesy, horny blowhard you want at the centre of a movie like this. There's less robot war than you might reasonably expect, given the title, but there's enough to recapture the stop-motion charm of Robot Jox, with the animators and model builders creating some of the best shots of the series on what was clearly a tiny budget.
“As a robo-warrior I have earned the right to challenge any other robo-warrior.”
And then came Robo Warriors. Little is known about this thing, which is probably for the best. Released in 1996 without any apparent link to Full Moon or Charles Band, it credits Stuart Gordon for creating the characters, and purports to be a direct sequel to Robot Jox. This is confusing because there are no characters, settings or themes common to both movies, and it's the only entry in the series that stands out as completely incompatible with the others. An explanation for the use of Gordon's name may lie in the presence of Cirio H. Santiago as executive producer. With Santiago's infamously progressive approach to copyright and the concept of ownership, it may just be that he was shamelessly piggybacking a series that had proven fairly successful in some corners of the world. It isn't beyond Italian genre filmmakers to credit a popular work's original author when ripping them off. Amusingly, Bruno Mattei's Cruel Jaws attempts to hijack Peter Benchley's cache by crediting him as author, a move best described as legally audacious. Whether brazen appropriation or legitimate recognition, this thing is a piece of shit. Filmed in The Philippines with James Remar in the lead, it tells the story of a child searching for his father in the shadow of an oppressive alien regime. Nothing about it works, even the (seldom seen) robots, which are rendered using the Toho-style 'man-in-cardboard-costume' approach rather than stop-motion. Don't waste your time.
So each of these movies, bound together as they are by giant robots and schlock, has its own flavour and place in the world. The first is an entertaining political treatise combined with a solid B-movie; the second is a unique but disposable post-apocalypse whodunnit; the third is a fun bag of nonsense and the forth a miserable waste of time.