Nine Things Writers Can Learn From Watching Robot Jox (1989)

Robot Jox Film PosterRobot Jox is a fucking awful movie. It’s got an average review rating of 4.9 on IMDB, which is actually pretty good for something we watch as part of the Trashy Tuesday Movie series (and if you’re interested in seeing my immediate reactions to the film, the twitter stream is archived over on the TTM wiki), but it doesn’t change the basic problem. This film is a mess. A glorious, glorious mess.

Personally I think people on IMDB are rating the film too high. Of course, I personally don’t really think Robot Jox deserves to be called a film, since it utterly fails to achieve all but the most basic requirements. I mean, it is filmed, and I suppose we could call what’s happening on the screen acting if we’re being generous, but that’s really about it.

And yet, I’m going to suggest you go find a copy of this absolute dogs breakfast of a movie if you’ve got an interest in writing, ’cause it’s failures have some pretty important lessons in terms of figuring out how stories work. One of the reasons I adore some terrible movies is the opportunity they afford me to hone my writing chops, figuring out what mistakes to avoid and how things could be done better.

So if you’re up for the challenge, I’m going to help you. Track down a copy of the movie, make a tub of popcorn, grab yourself a notebook and let Stuart Gorden’s 1989 masterpiece school you on the following.

1) MOTIVATION, MOTHERFUCKERS, YOU NEED IT

The biggest failing of Robot Jox isn’t the out-of-date effects whenever two giant robots go to war. Instead, it’s the utter failure to establish anything resembling a character motivation for anyone who isn’t the villain. People have reasons for doing things, but they’re largely at the service of the plot.

When you watch this film, try and lock down what every character wants and why they can’t have it. It’ll drive you ten kinds of batty, ’cause it seems to change on a whim. Sometimes Achilles, our protagonist, wants to stop piloting giant robots ’cause it’s kinda pants as a career. Sometimes he’s really like sexy-times with one of the trainee pilots, who is also a clone.

Sometimes he’s kidded himself that his desire for sexy-times is actually the beginning of true love, despite the fact that the trainee pilot basically spends the film being all “I want to be the best damn giant fighting robot pilot in the world” and shows no real interest in Achilles at all.

Getting motivation is actually pretty easy: your character should want something they can’t have. Films are actually built around a central spine where the protagonist, whose wants we empathise with, is finally forced to confront their demons and go after that thing they really want. It doesn’t matter what it is: world peace; a Twinkie; dumping the one ring into Mount Doom so you can go back and live a simple life in the Shire. So long as they want, and there are obstacles, you’re golden. All the other sub-plots will hang off that.

What lets this film down isn’t the lack of motivation, but the lack of consistent motivation.

2) INTERTEXT IS AWESOME, ON THE NOSE IS NOT

I’m a big fan of films that make veiled intertextual references to other narratives. There is a delight, in these moments, where you get more meaning out of a scene or a plot point because you can see it’s echo. The key to these things is subtlety, making sure it’s there for the people who want to see, and gone for the people who don’t.

There is nothing charming when your main character is named Achilles and he pilots his giant robot into space purely so his enemy can shoot him in the foot. It’s making the reference ’cause the reference is there to be made and it serves no narrative purpose outside of that.

3) WORK WITH PEOPLE WHO GET YOU

Robot Jox is written by Joe Haldeman, whose actually an SF writer with some pretty serious chops and the ability to write an engaging narrative. Unfortunately he’s been hired by a director/producer who doesn’t have much interest in that, which results in the very uneven film you’re currently watching. Joe isn’t exactly happy about that. Go look at the Wikipedia entry for this film and check out  his comments, ’cause they’re pretty damning.

Believe it or not, this is a lesson for writers. Even the ones who aren’t interested in writing movies.

‘Cause fiction isn’t quite as collaborative as film-making is, but there are still a hell of a lot of people involved in the production and distribution of a book. Writers like to bitch about writing being a solitary profession, but you’re actually working with a team of editors, publishers, agents, etc over the course of your career.

Making sure you’re on the same wavelength and capable of working together is important.

4) YOUR CLIMAX SHOULD BE A MORAL CHOICE, BUT IT’S NOT AN AUTOMATIC KNOCKOUT

If you’re anything like me, you’ll hit the end of Robot Jox and start screaming obscenities at the film. Probably ’cause you demand an ending to a film that’s actually an ending, rather than a half-baked feel good moment that’s the narrative equivalent of hitting the ejector seat.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the climax of the film isn’t about the action, it’s about the choice that’s made by one of the major characters. In Star Wars Luke Skywalker’s decision to trust the force is the real climax of the film, a moral decision to trust instinct over technology that provides the context for the action (and exploding Death Star) that follows.

Robot Jox does end on a moral choice at its climax. It’s right there in the exchange between Achilles and Alexander, and their decision not to kill each other. If you try real hard, you can actually see a connection to some of the stuff they try to set up way back in the early stages of the film.

And it fails horribly, ’cause by this point you’ve been distracted by so many other things that you’re no longer really following what’s going on.

This point goes back to point 1 – the conflict you’re setting up is going to be made meaningful by this decision. Get it right and the audience will lift off, literally rising out of their seat as they hit that moment where they scream hell, yeah, about time.

5) “YOU MAKE MY DRINK TASTE LIKE BLOOD”

There’s a good line of dialogue in Robot Jox – I stole it for the title of this section – but it’s not really a film that’s known for it’s subtlety in character or speach. Take a close look at our opening scene, just after the voice over: desolate landscape in the Siberia battleground, a pilot lying in the ruins of a giant robot who calls for a ruling, the referee’s declaring the match over…and the evil protagonist, Alexander, crushing his opponent beneath a giant robot foot despite the fact that the other pilot’s back is broken.

This is a real brute-force moment for the film, hitting you over the head with the fact that Alexander is evil, but it’s also slightly confusing for us. We haven’t been given any context to the narrative yet, beyond the voice over. We know there’s factions, we know there was a nuclear war, and we know the one-on-one giant mecha battles have replaced war. This is all background; it’s got nothing to do with the story we’re about to be told, and the real conflict we’re hoping to see play out on the screen.

With that one sequence – the referees declaring the match over and Alexander choosing to kill his opponent anyway, the injured pilot screaming I yield, I yield – we’re left with the inescapable impression that Alexander is a psychotic asshole.

What’s missing in the scene is this: a sign that Alexander isn’t our protagonist.

Believe it or not, this is something of a problem. We’re trained, as audience members, to seize upon the first major character we see and invest in them as the people who are going to carry the film. We do a similar kind of thing in books, but novels have the advantage that prologues are generally marked as such.  There very word ‘prologue’ is like a warning sign that we shouldn’t invest, that none of the characters we’re being introduced to are going to be around for long (This is one of the reasons that prologues kinda suck; people check out, narratively speaking, until the real action starts).

So Robot Jox essentially starts off with a moment of cognitive dissonance, introducing us to a character we can’t invest in because he’s got screaming-bloody-lunatic written all over him in permanent marker. Quite possibly in Russian.

You don’t really invest in Alexander as a bad guy, ’cause he’s so obviously bad. He’s like a parody of evil, when he should be a dark mirror for the films real protagonist, an example of what happens when robot jox machismo is taken to its logical extreme.

6) “YOU’RE MAKING MY BEER CURDLE.”

The film suffers another moment of cognitive dissonance when we meet out protagonist: Achilles is watching the opening sequence on a monitor, and he looks…scared. Or constipated. I’m not really sure which emotion is being portrayed here, and while I’d ordinarily say this was the fault of the actor, Gary Graham, the lack of actual directing chops on offer here suggests that it’s not entirely his fault.

In any case, Achilles is a man whose been targeted by our Russian psychopath who is probably not our protagonist. He doesn’t actually say anything or do anything meaningful in this scene, he just sits there while his trainer talks and does a whole bunch of…well, seeding subplots, really. Which is fine, except this film is lacking a main plot, and all you’ve got is the subplots to hold things together. And they don’t.

So Achilles’ manager starts talking, setting up a Jox against the establishment dynamic, but Achilles is focused on the fact that he’s the last of a ten-man team who represented the stand-in for the USA. His…well, there’s no evidence of this on screen, but we’ll the pilot who just died a friend, just died before his eyes. He’s sweating the upcoming fight.

There is something about Alaska and a possible spy, but honestly I don’t much care by this point. Alexander is so fricken’ eeeeevil he should have a twirly mustache or a hockey mask to wear, and I’m not being given a reason to give a damn about Achilles going up against him. Achilles is frightened. He’s ignoring the political reasons the fight is important, which everyone else is talking about, and he’s ignoring the fact that Tex is basically setting up the Robot Jox in the way that warriors are set up in every film – faux knight-errands, with their own code of honour. When the government man talks about needing to keep Alaska ’cause the territory is important, Tex points out the stupidity: “Dirt is just dirt.”

If it wasn’t for the fact that Tex is a bagillion years older than everyone else in the scene, out of shape, and lacking Achilles cool facial scar, he would be setting himself up as a hero I could invest in. He believes in things, man. He has a code.

Achilles, near as I can tell, doesn’t particularly want to die. I can respect that. I’d be much the same in his situation. But it doesn’t make him someone I empathise with in a film about Giant Robot Death Matches. Near as I can tell, he’s doing this ’cause he signed a contract. He’s got some chops as a pilot, ’cause he’s lived this long and he’s got the cool facial scars that tell me he’s probably competent-ish, but being the guy who is reluctant to do the job you’re hired to do ’cause its going to be a bad day of the office isn’t enough to inspire me. Presumably, psychotics like Alexander were around when he signed up. He knew what he was getting into.

Achilles, in short, isn’t being sufficiently heroic to make up for the fact that I’m already wondering who the protagonist is going to be. He would be better off if he was a prisoner of some kind, being made to fight in order to win his freedom. At least then we’d understand his reluctance and the tension is established: is it better to die free or live in a cage? He needs to find an answer.

But that doesn’t happen. Achilles is a guy whose been hired to do a job.

Worse, he’s teamed with Tex Conway as his mentor figure/trainer, and Tex Conway is kind of an asshole. In fact, one scene later, he’s a particularly misogynistic asshole. Not in a subtle, we’re-characters-in-an-action-movie-way that you’ll get in a film like Die Hard, but in an overt and quite obvious we’re being assholes kind of way.

This makes sense later in the film, when you discover that mentor figure Tex Conway is also a villain, but in those early scenes where Tex and Achilles get on screen and you’re desperate for a protagonist, they’re presenting a united front against every other character, which means Achilles gets dragged along into asshole land simply due to the fact that they’re a closed circle in terms of social groups.

Setting up two guys against a system, particularly a government system that’s trying to replace them with cloned pilots, is a brilliant short-hand for hero. Pity its when the two characters are at their lest empathetic. Back in 1989, when this film was made and feminism was moving into the public consciousness, being a misogynist prick was also a big signifier for hey, I’m a bad guy.

Worse, Achilles involvement in these scenes is never really redeemed; there’s no moment in the scene where you get a strong feel for the fact that he’s a different kind of man than his mentor, which is problematic to say the least, nor that he’s learned his lesson about the role of women in the arena of the giant robot death match. He just…falls in love? I think? It’s not terrible well handled in the film.

That we accept Achilles as a vaguely empathetic protagonist (really, go with me here) is largely a result of that opening scene; Alexander is so obviously a bad guy that Achilles is empathetic in contrast, simply ’cause he’s the victim of the Russian’s psychotic taunting. You don’t want to root for Achilles, but you do, ’cause the other option has been painted so broadly that you’ll cling to him like a life-raft.

Thing is, you’re not exactly happy about it. Neither of these guys is endearing, and neither of them is interesting yet, ’cause they’re so easy to read. Alexander is psychotic; Achilles best trait, thus far, is that he’s not Alexander and he’s showing signs of vague competence in poorly choreographed sparring sessions with trainees.

This entire films hangs on you giving a damn about Achilles and his non-struggle against a system you don’t really understand. This is why it fails.

7) YOU MUST FIRE THE ILLITERATE GUN ON THE MANTLE

There are two points in Robot Jox where characters make mention of the fact that Achilles is illiterate. One of the weird aspect so writing is that anything you mention twice is pretty much seized upon by the viewer/reader and expected to appear a third time, particularly if it’s been important enough to mention.

This goes back to the moderately famous Chekhov quote, where the gun that appears on the mantle on the first act must go off in the third. If you include an element and make the audience pay attention to it, it must pay off.

It also goes back to the rule of threes: we’re so used to seeing Chekhov’s metaphorical guns in narratives that something that get mentioned twice feels like it should be coming back in the final act as a plot element/recurring motif. If you don’t put it in, readers will notice. Put it in a third time and there will be this pleasing sense of balance.

8) AMBITION MATTERS

Robot Jox may be a failure, but it’s the kind of failure that’s fucking glorious when seen from a certain perspective. This movie killed an entire studio, sucking down ten million dollars of funds that don’t seem to have been spent on anything that actually appears in the film. It fails on every level: the acting is wooden, the direction uninspired, the script vaguely nonsensical.

But HOLY JESUS FUCK does it want to be better than it is. You have to look real close to see it sometimes, but the evidence is there. It strives for bigger metaphors than it’s capable of, writes in literary allusions that are far to on-the-nose to be truly delightful as meta-textual elements, and generally aims to be the most SF movie you’ve ever seen when a rogue clone climbs into a giant battle robot and the action heads off into space.

It’s not a movie that’s playing it safe. It’s failing on its own terms, however misguided they may be, and that’s probably one of the reasons why people respect it enough to rate it just below the point of failure rather than the 2.3 it deserves.

Your average viewer probably doesn’t give a damn about ambition, but as someone who’s consumed a lot of narrative written by aspiring writers, I can tell you how much it appeals to me over the stories that are both not-terribly-good-yet and not-particularly-ambitious. You may not be able to sell something on ambition alone, but it’s more likely to earn you further interest from the types of jaded readers (IE submission editors) who are seeing the same themes and topics and stories day in and day out.

9) FAILURE IS AN OPTION

One of the things that I think it’s really important to note about this film: despite my rhetoric, it didn’t really kill anyone’s career. Joe Haldeman continued to make a living as a writer. Gary Graham, who played Achilles, has over 90 acting gigs on his IMDB profile, most of which took place after this movie. Stuart Gordon made a whole bunch of films afterwards.

And yet there’s no way you can look at this film as anything but a collassal fuck-up. It lost huge amounts of money. It killed a studio. It is sure as hell not a film that got a new lease of life in DVD. If there’s a way to tank a film, this film pretty much did it.

People still found work.

Failure is totally an option. Some days it’s worth embracing that.

So here’s my challenge: how would you improve this movie after watching it? What tweaks to the plot and characterization would you look at making in order to give it a satisfying arc? Despite its various flaws, I truly believe it wouldn’t take much to overhaul this film and make it truly enjoyable rather than a nostalgic/guilty pleasure, and I’m interested in hearing people’s takes. 

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