Robot Jox (1990) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Strap yourselves in for 90 minutes of robot on robot battles (and some other weird stuff)!

After so many films about aliens, time travel, and other crazy science-fiction ideas, isn’t it nice to see two giant mechs slugging it out? Robot Jox is a testosterone infused look at the Cold War in a future where giant robots are used as surrogates for global war. It’s a fun, yet superficial, look at a possible future where the human race survives nuclear annihilation and learns to pool their talents.

First Impressions

What’s not to love here? The trailer for Robot Jox has two men (one American and the other Russian) settling their differences by climbing into giant fighting robots. It’s like your favorite Gundam anime brought to live action! That’s really all the trailer shows, however; fighting robots!! Well, and the angry men inside them. What’s the rest of this film about? Or maybe it’s just 90 minutes of mech on mech action. Strap in as Sci-Fi Saturdays looks at this cult favorite.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Robot Jox

Robot Jox title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Sometime in the late 21st Century, and 50 years since a nuclear holocaust, the world has outlawed war. International disputes are settled by single combat. Single combat with giant fighting robots! The two major superpowers, the Soviet backed Confederation and the United States led Market (presumably named for the free-market economy), compete for the territory of Alaska with a battle between Alexander (Paul Koslo) and Achilles (Gary Graham), the only non-trainee Market fighter left after the death of Hercules. Each Jock is contracted for ten compulsory fights before retirement. During the fight, which takes place in Death Valley in front of several grandstands of spectators, Alexander deflects a secret laser weapon of Achilles and then fires the robot’s fist knocking Achilles into one of the grandstands.

Three hundred spectators are killed in the accident, which results in a draw for the match since it was unable to be continued. Achilles reports to his coach/manager, former Market champion Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge), and lets him know that he is now out after his 10th fight. He is confronted in the local bar by Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson) and Sargon (Thyme Lewis), two “tubies” that have been bred to be the next wave of Robot Jox. They both say they would have the let the people die, since winning the match is the important part. Achilles takes his gear and goes to visit his brothers family, while Athena and her team continue to train. Sargon takes a fall in the Rattle Room training area, moving Athena up to primary fighter in the upcoming rematch.

Realizing that he can’t let the inexperienced Athena fight Alexander, Achilles returns to the Command Center and lets Commissioner Jameson (Robert Sampson) know that he’ll fight again. Meanwhile, Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona), concerned over espionage and potential leaks about secret weapons on the robot, records a private message to the Robot Jock; for his eyes only. When a concerned Tex confronts Matsumoto about the lack of training on any new weapon, the doctor counters with an accusation that in Tex’s 10th and final victory, he seemed to know exactly where to shoot the opponent. Matsumoto claims Tex is a double agent for the Confederation.

Robot Jox

Achilles trains in hand to hand combat with his other team mates, even though he sits in a robot to fight. Maybe this will come in handy later?

Tex pulls a gun on Matsumoto confirming his suspicions. Matsumoto secretly turns the video camera back on, recording Tex as he kills the doctor. Tex then reports that he confronted Matsumoto about being a spy and the doctor shot himself in shame. In the living quarters Athena visits Achilles to wish him luck, but injects him with a sedative so that she can masquerade as the pilot and fight Alexander. She makes it into the robot, but is soon discovered; but not before she climbs the mech out of the launch bay. Achilles awakens and escapes his room by using the remote control for his vehicle to crash it into the wall, making an opening. The Market coaches contact the referees that the match shouldn’t continue, as the proper fighter is not in the robot. But they don’t care. As long as the robot has entered the arena, everything is legit.

Athena starts the video from Dr. Matsumoto which includes Tex killing the doctor. Achilles can’t believe his friend and mentor would be a traitor. Before Tex can be arrested he leaps off the gantry to his death. Athena starts battling Alexander but is quickly outclassed. The referees call for a provisional win by the Confederation, but Alexander wants totality and attempts to step on Athena in her cockpit. She escapes with the help of Achilles who starts the robot again to fight, but is soon beaten back by his opponent. Alexander meanwhile turns off his boss’s video feed and destroys the referee platform wanting to kill Achilles, as he had killed Hercules before him.

Alexander’s robot chases down Achilles, who has abandoned his own machine. The Market player finds the arm from Alexander’s mech which Athena had sawn off and rewires it to launch the fist at the foreign fighter. Abandoning his own robot, Alexander–burned and injured–fights hand to hand with Achilles. After minutes of beating on each other with metal poles, Achilles refuses to kill Alexander (even though the other man would not hesitate if the roles were reversed). He tells the Russian that “we can live,” and offers his hand. The wounded man takes it and the two salute each other with the thumbs up “crash and burn” greeting used by all robot jox.

It isn’t over until somebody wins.” – Athena

Robot Jox

After their match, Alexander and Achilles share a drink at the only bar in town, which also appears to be at the Market home base…sure, why not.

History in the Making

Robot Jox is heralded as the first live-action mecha film ever. It presented something that had been a staple of animation for decades but was unfeasible to create in a live action setting. Live action films had included mecha in a limited way, if you include things like the AT-AT’s in The Empire Strikes Back, or the power loader from Aliens. But a human in a giant robot suit had not been accomplished before in film history. Not even technically with Mechagodzilla, which was just more of a robot. Of course, animated series had been embracing this sort of sci-fi creation since the days of Mobile Suit Gundam, Robotech, and most recently the Transformers (and their associated toy line). These shows, aimed mostly at children, feature either pilots riding inside giant fighting robots, robots that transform into vehicles, or both. Robot Jox uses all these elements to create a fun and lighthearted sci-fi action film.

The movie was directed by Stuart Gordon, known originally for the horror film Re-Animator, but more recently, his more family friendly fare like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. According to reports from the era, Gordon was working to make this more of a family-friendly/kid-oriented film, while the writer Joe Haldeman was trying to create a more adult-themed post-apocalyptic tale. The result is definitely more for kids with overly simplistic themes, bigger special effects moments, and two-dimensional characters. This was also a lower budget film produced by Charles Band, director and producer of films like Trancers and TerrorVision. In fact, the movie was Empire Pictures last production prior to their dissolution. Band would return with another company within a month called Full Moon Entertainment, which would continue these lower budget sci-fi and horror films.

Robot Jox

Tex is good ol’, rootin-tootin country boy. He’s certainly not a double-agent for the Russians. Uh…dang it, Tex!


A hallmark of low-budget films, especially science-fiction ones, seems to be an overly familiar plot or characters. The idea probably being that the length of a low-budget film is at a premium so creating stock characters and plots that don’t need to be overly dwelled upon frees up that time for other aspects. Additionally these types of films also use a voice over or text scroll to explain everything that the viewer needs to understand. Robot Jox goes two for two in these categories. The opening moments have a voice over that states everything the viewer needs to know in 30 seconds or less. It’s a post-apocalyptic future where war is outlawed and the nations of the world settle their differences with single combat. Cut to two robots beating the stuffing out of each other. Many sci-fi films have something similar to this (Star Wars’ opening crawl is the most famous and obvious), so ensuring the time and place of the events is paramount. However, it’s usually better to do so with imagery rather than dialogue. The characters of the film are created with similar broad strokes. There’s the American jock, and his Russian counterpart. The young, female recruit. The cowboy. And the Japanese scientist that designed the robots. Everything that people would assume about these characters exists in the film, including stereotypes and political affiliations. Robot Jox decided to pull its political climate from the 80s Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR, and not in a subtle way.

As far as the science-fiction elements present in the movie, the robots are the most obvious. These large, mobile, battle machines house a single driver (the Jox) in the head area. They use a divide called a Waldo (presumably named after the term waldo; which is a remote manipulator derived from a Robert Heinlein story), which allows them to walk and move in the cockpit, with the actions being magnified through to the robot. Each machine has an assortment of weapons that changes with each match, as the teams attempt to include devices that will provide an advantage. The barracks that the Jox live in are very utilitarian without much decoration or personal items, at least in contrast to Achilles’ brother’s home. The brightly lit walls and computer consoles all seem very futuristic but with no real reasoning as to usage. The filmmakers were making things look futuristic by finding the most appropriate real-world things they could at the time. There’s also a personal hovercraft that Achilles uses that can be controlled remotely (which has no safety elements on it, since he’s able to direct it right into the wall of his living quarters). The world seems like it has tons of technical advancements but as with modern life, it seems like the society is prioritizing weapons of destruction and the military industrial complex, over the needs of the citizenry.

Robot Jox

Achilles and Athena meet in that really awkward way. Like when your friends dad hits on the babysitter. Ugh!

Societal Commentary

The brief opening narration informs audiences that the global nuclear holocaust “almost destroyed mankind.” As a Cold War story from the late 80s, the threat of nuclear annihilation was on many people’s minds, so it’s very interesting using this language and the minimal depictions of the society. There’s not a lot of moments in the film that take place outside the Jox Arena, but the few that are are telling about the larger picture of what average citizens must deal with. Prior to Achilles first match with Alexander a group of citizens are shown outside the arena. They all wear bland jackets and head coverings, looking a little bit like members of an Eastern bloc country in the 80s. Most citizens also wear masks over their nose and mouth, not from a pandemic, but due to (presumably) radioactive fallout. Later someone reminds Achilles to close the door to the apartment, “don’t let the air in,” they say.  Armed military guards stand near the giant video screens that broadcast the event to those that can’t enter the grandstands. A pair of citizens discuss the match, and one decides to gamble some precious money by purchasing a betting slip for Achilles to win and frightfully high odds. These individuals are the normal people in stark contrast to those that work with the Robot Jox. The Jox and the support staff wear brighter colors, enjoy nicer indoor lodgings. The citizenry is also subjected to a large amount of pregnancy propaganda. In fact, the only signage around the town that we see are signs of a woman with a blanket wrapped around her and an infant that says “Prenatal.” When Achilles visits his brother’s family, the wife mentions that she’s “doing her part” to get pregnant, already having six children. Having more children leads to a preferred status, allowing them larger lodgings (three rooms in this case), and seems to be part of a governmental incentive at boosting the population after the war. This is a different take on apocalyptic futures, like ZPG or Soylent Green, where society is attempting to limit the number of children created. In addition to natural methods of population surplus, scientists have another idea in mind.

Robot Jox

The special effects were actually pretty good considering the low-budget nature of the film. It seems as if the miniatures were built large enough to give them some heft during the explosive moments.

The Science in The Fiction

While Dr. Matsumoto is responsible for the creation and upkeep of the giant fighting robots, the film includes another scientist working on another aspect of the games. Professor Laplace (Hilary Mason) is the scientist in charge of the cloning program to breed the best Jox the Market can provide–called GenJox. Most Jox, including Achilles, refer to these individuals as “tubies,” a derogatory slur against their test-tubed birth. The film suggests that they are not really like the rest of the population, as they have been specifically bred only to fight, and to only think about the games. They are certainly a younger age than Achilles and the other fighters seen, but also more naive and single-minded. There is a suggestion that because they may be clones or vat-grown humans that they are somehow accelerated in their growth, hence the naivete. The fighters also only have code names. They were never given “human names,” such as Jim–which is Achilles real name. Athena and her crew are only known by that codename, and as such probably have limited rights or freedoms. Genetically engineered for the games as they are, means that these “tubies” work 24/7 towards perfecting their bodies in training and drills. They do not have the same sort of instincts about fighting that Achilles has cultivated over his years of experience. This is one of those aspects about cloning that films always seem to get wrong. They make it appear that these adult “clones” are created as twenty-somethings, without having been matured in the same way any other human would be. A twenty year old clone would have been around for twenty years, having a childhood and adolescence just like other people. Instead, the shortcut that the scientists use is somehow that element of “wrongness” in the cloning that the film tries to isolate, rather than  (which “normal” characters find abhorrent), or possibly in addition to, the fact that these characters are treated as less than human.

Robot Jox

Crash and Burn! The final shot shows the pilots iconic (and overused) thumbs-up signal. Who would think that RCA cables would still be in use in a post apocalyptic future?

The Final Frontier

The big (if you can call it that) thematic question in the film is “why do we fight?” Achilles has volunteered (or was conscripted) for ten matches and so he fights to complete his contract. Alexander, on the other hand, seems to enjoy the bloodlust that the games provide, allowing him moments to stomp to death each of his opponents. To him, the winning of a match is equated with the death of one of the fighters. Athena has been bred to fight. She has had no choice in the matter and sees it as her destiny. If she’s not fighting in the games then she amounts to nothing and has no purpose. Tex had a similar perspective, except that his skills were not enough to win without getting intel from the other side, and resulted in him passing information back against his team. His perception of winning was more important than his patriotism or morality. All of these elements are brought to head in the final fight, where Alexander continues his assault even after being disqualified. Achilles returns to the fight in order to save Athena from dying, even if it costs him his life. He stops Alexander and reminds him that “we can both live,” as the Russian assaults him with a pipe. Alexander, whether for his honor or his countries, is accustomed to killing his opponent as is befitting of a robot jox. But he soon realizes that Achilles has the upper hand, and changes his tactics, instead choosing to surrender and live with the defeat.

To date, there has been no official sequel to Robot Jox, but another 1990 film called Crash and Burn, directed by Charles Band, is an unofficial sequel featuring re-used footage of some of the robots. Of course, the films most influenced by this film would appear to be Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) which has giant robots from several major countries fighting giant kaiju that emerge from vents under the ocean. Both these films improve on the special effects and themes that Robot Jox only scratches the surface with. That said, Robot Jox is not a horrible film. It’s simplistic and super basic in regards to plot and characters, but it does provide some wonderful effects sequences of giant robots battling each other put together by effects artist Rob Cobb. It attempts to address concerns that audiences and filmmakers of the late 80s had in a way that was easily digestible. Modern audiences can look back on the film as an attempt to entertain but also provide a light meal on more complex socio-economic issues. Crash and Burn, Robot Jox! Crash and Burn!

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