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How a master of sci-fi horror made Transformers before Michael Bay

Stuart Gordon's forgotten "kids' movie" deserves a second look.

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Stuart Gordon doesn’t seem like the most obvious candidate to helm a throwback to the heyday of Saturday morning kids’ TV. After all, this is the guy who made his name with a brilliantly deranged splatterfest in which a disembodied head attempts to give head. But in 1987, the man behind cult classic Re-Animator swapped the world of morgue-based zombies for giant mecha warriors in what’s essentially the first live-action Transformers.

The cult horror director would also go on to write Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and produce its supersized sequel. But while Gordon managed to keep his predilection for carnage and camp at bay during his brief affiliation with Disney, Robot Jox still bears many of his hallmarks.

30 years after its release in November 1990, Robot Jox stands as a testament to Gordon's unique vision, and what might have been if the director was given free rein to see that vision through.

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The moment just before hundreds of innocent spectators are graphically crushed to death in a kids movie.

Epic Productions

Within the first 20 minutes, hundreds of innocent spectators are fatally crushed when a projectile fist knocks the hero’s robot form down into the crowd. The camera doesn’t shy away from the hellish aftermath, either. As howls of pain reverberate around the bleachers, we see grief-stricken mothers cradling their lifeless children and a man with his face burned to smithereens staggering away from the scene. You didn’t get this in Space Academy.

This horrifying set-piece concludes one of the many gladiatorial contests that have replaced traditional wars in the world of Robot Jox. For half a century, after society was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, the Market (basically the USA) and the Confederation (definitely Russia) have agreed the best way to settle territorial disputes is to place their best men inside massive robots for a wasteland-set duel to the death.

On this occasion, it’s Alaska that’s up for grabs. And after the referees declare the tragedy-struck encounter null and void, the Market’s bland goodie Achilles (Alien Nation’s Gary Graham) and the Confederation’s boo-hiss villain Alexander (Paul Koslo) must battle once again.

Gordon continues to emotionally scar his audience during the rematch preparations. After discovering that the spy in America’s camp is the larger-than-life cowboy-hatted strategist Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge), poor Dr. Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) is blasted in the head at close range. Responsible for the film’s most quotable line (“It’s clobbering time”), the former jumps to his death after footage of his cold-blooded execution is made public.

Alongside all the detachable rocket-firing limbs, Achilles’ robot is also bizarrely equipped with what appears to be a chainsaw penis, an appendage he has no qualms about using to force his opponent into submission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cinemagoers didn’t quite know what to make of this curious mix of B-movie goofiness and inherently bleak dystopia. The film — originally called Robojox before Orion Pictures threatened a lawsuit over its similarity to Robocop — tanked at the box office, raking in just $1.3 million on a budget that reportedly ballooned to $10 million. Yet it’s quite the achievement that Robot Jox made it to screens at all.

The project’s seeds were sown in the early 1980s when Gordon teamed up with author Joe Haldeman for a stage adaption of the latter’s 1973 classic novel The Forever War. Inspired by its success, the pair then reunited for a serious geopolitical tale, which drew on both Haldeman’s experiences in the military and the myth of the Iliad. Well, that’s what one half was expecting, anyway.

The film’s only concession to girl power, Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson).

Epic Productions

Gordon was instead far more interested in spectacular fight sequences and one-dimensional characters that would instantly appeal to ten-year-old boys. The filmmaker later acknowledged where they went wrong, telling Haldeman, “Our problem is that you’re writing a movie for adults that children can enjoy, but I’m directing a movie for children that adults can enjoy!” By then, of course, the damage had already been done.

To make matters worse, Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, which financed Gordon’s first three films, filed for bankruptcy halfway through the shoot. Robot Jox was only completed by Epic Productions two years later, by which point the relevancy of both the Cold War and Optimus Prime had significantly waned.

And yet, as with Gordon’s previous exploitation pictures, Robot Jox has developed a cult following in the years since its belated 1990 release, becoming a regular fixture at midnight movie screenings. (Fun fact: Those blood-curdling screams you can hear on Nine Inch Nails’ “The Becoming”? They’re sampled from the film’s crowd-killing duel.)

Sure, the performances are ropey, the stop-motion animation clunky, and the political commentary hopelessly unsubtle. Gordon’s idea of what constitutes a kids film is also warped to say the least. But despite its fraught conception, Robot Jox still has more heart and soul than all of Michael Bay’s Transformers films put together.

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