Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Backlog Week 01: Robot Jox & G-Saviour. Western Robot Throwdown

NOTE: The following entries were initially lined up for the previous week.  They were delayed in large part due to planning for, and then attending, ConnectiCon.  A report for that will be up by next week as well, but I still wanted to get some of the backlog done first.

With that in mind, this will be the first of three entries lined up from last week, and this one in particular was lined up to go from before last weekend.

So without much further buildup, let's just get right into it, shall we?

This weekend saw the release of Guillermo del Toro's much advertised giant robots vs monsters throwdown Pacific Rim.  In preparation for this, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the earlier western efforts at giant robots in film.  I had considered a similar for giant monsters as well, but comparatively, there's been a much larger pool to draw from on that end, and, in all likelihood, it would result in me grumbling about Cloverfield.  Which may still happen in the future, but for now, seemed best to keep with just the robots for this one.

With that in mind, I fired up two western-based attempts to do giant robots in film before this.  The results were somewhat across the board.

First up and arguably the more well known of the entries, we have Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon's 1990 giant robot smackdown Robot Jox.

It just now dawns on me that, out of context, this tagline would sound INCREDIBLY wrong.

This is one of those films that, I will admit, I only got to seeing for the first time earlier this year.  It's one that I've always known about, but just never got around to looking into sooner.  I think part of what sold it was actually reading an interview with Gordon about making the movie and being won over by his enthusiasm of the film, which he pitches as a variation on the Achilles narrative from The Iliad.

The story is very much a product of when the movie was made - it's a post-apocalyptic future.  The surviving nations have formed into the two factions known as the Market and the Confederation.  War has been supplanted by, essentially, tournament battles between giant robots used to settle disputes (the pilots in these scenarios being the titular Robot Jox.)  In particular, we follow one protagonist, the pilot Achilles (Gary Graham...yeah, Gordon was quite direct about it) as he's pursued by Confederate rival Alexander (Paul Koslo, fresh from the Ivan Drago school of Russian acting) who desires to best him in combat.  At first Achilles is hesitant following an accident in the ring he blames himself for, but in time, circumstances force him to get into the cockpit for one more showdown.

Like I said before, this film is very much a product of the times it was made in - in that, in a lot of ways, this could be called Rocky IV with robots and not have it be too far off the mark.  The Cold War parallels are pretty out in the open and the film embraces them, sometimes with inadvertently priceless results, thanks in no small part to Koslo.  Strangely, this isn't a detriment.  If anything, it adds a sort of charm to the movie nowadays in its somewhat over the top view of the situation at the time.

Admittedly, this doesn't show it as well, but seeing these in motion is quite impressive.

Also, as a rather nice surprise, the effects in the movie have aged VERY well.  I mean, it's not the 1982 version of The Thing, but the stop motion used on the robots in this movie still looks quite good and hold up well.  It's arguably the movie's strongest feature, and it does it very well as a result.

The cast, while not winning any awards, are all at least having fun with the material from the look of things.  This is probably best exemplified in the film's final battle - the exchanges between Achilles and Alexander are at just the right level of over-the-top without throwing the scene into high comedy by coming on too strong.

Also groin saw.  It's...exactly what it looks like.

Everyone manages to strike a good balance with the material and it all flows well as a result.  It's part of what allows the movie's charm to rub off on watching.  It really is just a fun little cult movie if you're looking for another good fix of western robot cinema.

One down, and actually a pretty enjoyable ride too....let's see what we've got next...

...oh boy.

This is one that I've always been half and half with.  To give some background, both for the movie, and myself, I will start by saying - one fandom I've been pretty connected to for the better part of over a decade now is Mobile Suit Gundam.  For those not familiar with the name, let's just keep it brief and say this is one of Japan's most prolific giant robot franchises, almost 35 years old and still actively producing new materials at a regular paces.
...this movie being one of the many, many things the franchise has rolled out over the years.  More accurately, this was made back in 2000 as part of the franchise's 20th anniversary celebrations.  For those of you now going "wait a minute," yes, this IS still a western giant robot movie.  The folks at Sunrise decided a suitable way to celebrate the franchise's 20th anniversary would be a live-action Gundam production...given the general caliber of Japanese visual FX at the time, however, they opted to work through Canada.  The result was a film that, within the franchise, has become rather infamous.  Original Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino has voiced his disapproval of it, and the film has gained something of a black sheep status within the fandom - and given the already somewhat divisive nature of the franchise, is saying something right there.

With this in mind, I first went into the film years ago expecting something truly awful.  Like, Manos with giant robots grade awful.  To my relief/disappointment, the actual film wasn't really that bad.
...but it wasn't that good either.

About the best way one can sum up G-Saviour and its failings, is the fact that it feels very much like the movie was made as a pilot for a bigger project.  As such, it has many of the familiar elements of a failed made-for-TV pilot: the acting is somewhat lacking, the effects have aged VERY badly, the budget is corner cutting at its finest (many people have already called this movie out on recycling uniforms from Starship Troopers, so I'll let that slide) and the story ends on such a note that you can just hear the writers hoping they get a greenlight to do more with this.  Further, they were also careful to try and make this read like its own product - despite using the Gundam franchise's 'Universal Century' setting, it is ultimately fully detached from the previous works (though a subsequent video game did attempt to reconcile things with Victory Gundam,) and the word 'Gundam' is never even uttered.  The things that make it Gundam could easily be reworked and rewritten to make this into a generic sci-fi series in its own right with little to no effort.

Like Robot Jox, one needs to see this in motion to properly appreciate the point.  Unlike Robot Jox, this won't be doing the movie any favors.

On second thought, I'm gonna clarify the earlier statement on the acting.  Somewhat lacking is kind.  As the movie's hero, Mark Curran, Brennan Elliot seems to be naturally hard-wired for smugness.  Even when he's not actually supposed to be smug, it's there.  It really kills a lot of moments, albeit partially resurrecting them as comedy in the process.  On the other side of the coin, David Lovgren as his rival, Jack Halle, is even further into the realm of comedy, with some INCREDIBLY hammy acting.  At points, he manages to salvage some scenes simply by virtue of being over the top.  Much of the rest of the cast are otherwise pretty unremarkable, with the possible exception of Blu Mankuma, who feels like he's channeling a role that, with a better budget, the studios might have tried to pitch to Keith David.  He still tries to make the most of the part at least, so I'll give him that.

Curran pictured here in a lighter moment of smug and wearing a suit made from the pelt of a car seat.

The mentioned low budget and bad CGI are also kind of a disappointment in this case since, to be perfectly honest, the Mobile Suits (mechs, pick your wording) are actually pretty nice designs.  I mean, taken as just lineart, they are a nice evolution for Universal Century tech.  Unfortunately, the CGI of the time does them NO favors, making them look clunky and unwieldy, turning what's supposed to be a pitched and tense final battle into something bland and unexciting.  Curiously, if you watch the sequences sped up, they actually flow better.  I'd say you then risk losing the dialogue...but to be honest, you're not really missing a whole lot there.

On top of all of this, the script and direction are, like so much of this movie, not particularly interesting.  They resort to many blatant exposition lines of dialogue to help establish the setting.  The direction, meanwhile, I really don't remember any standouts for good or bad in the direction...which arguably is even more damning than if it had been bad direction.  It wasn't even like this movie had the sincerity of Robot Jox behind it to make it enjoyable.  It mostly  It's somewhat fitting for the movie, in a way - it's a film that's neither as bad as the Gundam fanbase would have you believe, nor is it particularly good in any regard beyond MAYBE some riffing material.  Were it not for the franchise ties, this would be just another skeleton in the TV pilot graveyard, riddled with so many others that tried and failed.

So we have a good entry and a 'meh' entry. Not a bad start.  For the next entry, we'll see how Del Toro's own contribution measures.  Keep an eye out, cause it will be coming up pretty soon after this.

Till then...well...
Crash and Burn!

1 comment:

  1. There are much worse movie concepts than "Rocky IV with robots."