After producer Charles Band approved Gordon's initial concept, the director approached Haldeman to write the script. Gordon and Haldeman clashed frequently over the film's tone and intended audience. Principal photography finished in Rome in 1987, but the bankruptcy of Band's Empire Pictures delayed the film's release in theaters until 1990. It earned $1,272,977 in domestic gross, failing to earn its production cost in theaters. Robot Jox received negative critical response and little audience attention upon its first theatrical run, but it has recently attracted some critical praise. The film has been released on various home video formats, most recently on Blu-ray in July 2015.
Fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, humanity is decimated and the surviving nations - the western-influenced Market and the Russian-influenced Confederation - have agreed to outlaw traditional open war. In their place, disputes are settled with gladiator-style matches between giant robots piloted by "robot jox". The running champion for the Confederation is Alexander (Paul Koslo), who has killed his last nine opponents thanks in part to a spy in the Market leaking information to the Confedeation. The next scheduled fight is for the nation of Alaska, and the Market decides to use their best jox Achilles (Gary Graham) to fight it. Achille is supported by robot designer "Doc" Matsumoto (Danny Kamekona) and strategist Tex Conway (Michael Alldredge), the only jox to win all ten fights a jox is contracted for.
During the fight with Alexander, Achilles' robot is struck off-balance by Alexander launching his fist as a projectile, causing Achilles to fall into the bleachers and kill hundreds of spectators. The referees declare the match a draw and order a rematch, but Achilles, shaken by what happened, declares this his tenth contractual fight and announces his retirement. He goes to live with his brother Philip and his family, and finds he is publically branded a traitor and a coward. Meanwhile, a new jox is chosen to face Alexander, a genetically engineered "gen jox" named Athena (Anne-Marie Johnson), who is the first female jox. Worried for Athena and attracted to her, Achilles returns to the Market and agrees to fight Alexander again, infuriating Athena.
As Achilles' robot is rebuilt, Matsumoto refuses to divulge any knowledge of its construction so it cannot be leaked by the spy, and Conway confides in Achilles he believes Matsumoto is the spy. Conway confronts Matsumoto, who reveals he has analyzed how Conway won his tenth fight and has come to the conclusion he is a Confederate agent. Conway confesses and shoots Matsumoto, who secretly records the deed as part of the mission briefing; Conway subsequently informs the Market leadership that Matsumoto was the spy. On the day of the fight Athena mugs Achilles and steals his jox suit to commandeer the robot. Unable to stop the fight once she takes the field, the Market decides to support her. While watching the Matsumoto's briefing on the robot's weaponry, the footage of Conway shooting Matsumoto is played and Conway jumps down the robot's elevator shaft to his death.
Alexander takes the field against Athena and takes an early advantage. The fight is declared in Alexander's favor and referees order him to stand down. Achilles arrives on the field and takes over the robot from Athena while Alexander smashes the referee hovercraft; the two jox stand to continue the fight. Alexander critically damages Achilles' robot, forcing him to flee for cover to an arm of Alexander's robot Athena sliced off earlier in the fight. Achilles hotwires the arm to launch its fist at Alexander, destroying his robot. Alexander emerges from the wreckage and the two battle with poles before Achilles finally convinces Alexander a match does not have to end with the death of a jock. Alexander throws down his weapon, and they salute each other with the jox's traditional "crash and burn" fist bump.Gary Graham – Achilles
Anne-Marie Johnson – Athena
Paul Koslo – Alexander
Robert Sampson – Commissioner Jameson (sic)
Danny Kamekona – Dr. "Doc" Matsumoto
Hilary Mason – Professor Laplace
Michael Alldredge – Tex Conway
Jeffrey Combs – Spectator/Prole #1
Michael Saad – Spectator/Prole #2
Ian Patrick Williams – Phillip
Jason Marsden – Tommy
Carolyn Purdy-Gordon – Kate
Thyme Lewis – Sargon
Gary Houston – Sportscaster
Russel Case – Hercules
Stuart Gordon (uncredited) – Bartender
Director Stuart Gordon stated that the initial inspiration for Robot Jox came from the Japanese Transformers toy line:
While there have been animated cartoons based on these giant robots, no one has ever attempted a live-action feature about them. It struck me that it was a natural fantasy for the big screen–and a terrific opportunity to take advantage of the special effects that are available today.
When Gordon initially approached producer Charles Band with the concept, Band said the film would be too expensive for his studio, Empire Pictures, to produce. Band changed his mind, however, and asked Gordon to create a demo reel of stop motion test footage with special effects artist David W. Allen. The footage impressed the film's potential backers, and eventually became the film's opening title sequence. Initially budgeted at $7 million, the film was to be the most expensive film Empire Pictures had ever produced.
Science-fiction author Joe Haldeman wrote the screenplay for the film and co-wrote the story with Gordon. The two met when Gordon was hired to film a four-part adaptation of Haldeman's novel The Forever War, but when funding for the project was cut, Gordon instead directed a stage adaptation of the book, which Haldeman also wrote. Two years later, Gordon asked Haldeman to work on a science fiction adaptation of the Iliad; the idea would form the basis for what eventually became Robot Jox. Haldeman claimed his and Gordon's visions for the film clashed: The former wanted a dramatic, serious science fiction film while the latter wanted a more audience-friendly, special effects-driven action film with stereotypical characters and stylized pseudo-science. In a one-and-a-half-page outline, Gordon inserted other elements into the plot, including the film's Cold War-era themes. Haldeman wanted to title the film The Mechanics, but Gordon insisted on Robojox. According to Haldeman:
I would try to change the science into something reasonable; Stuart would change it back to Saturday morning cartoon stuff. I tried to make believable, reasonable characters, and Stuart would insist on throwing in clichés and caricatures. It was especially annoying because it was a story about soldiers, and I was the only person around who'd ever been one.
Several times, Haldeman feared that this clash would lead to him being dropped from the project, but the film's producers sided with him during pre-production. Haldeman wrote that Gordon later recognized that the author was "writing a movie for adults that children can enjoy" while Gordon had been "directing a movie for children that adults can enjoy."
Principal photography on the film began in Rome in January 1987 and ended in April. During filming, the producers brought in Haldeman to work with the film's principal actors. Afterwards, Allen began to produce the film's special effects sequences. Ron Cobb helped design the robots for these scenes. Allen chose to film these sequences at El Mirage lake bed in San Bernardino County, California due to its bright skies and unobstructed panoramic view; however, weather elements frequently delayed filming.
Although originally scheduled for release in 1989 (a novelization, written by science fiction author Robert Thurston, was published that year,) the film's theatrical run was initially delayed until April 1990 due to Empire International Pictures' bankruptcy during production. After more delays, Triumph Films released the film to theaters on November 21, 1990. When it peaked in its second weekend at the 13th spot, it grossed $464,441 in 333 theaters, averaging $1,394 per theater; it eventually earned a domestic total gross of $1,272,977. Its limited run in theaters prompted science fiction writer Gardner Dozois to remark that "Robot Jox, a movie with a screenplay by Joe Haldeman, was supposedly released this year, but if it played through Philadelphia at all, it must have done so fast, because I never even saw a listing for it, let alone the movie itself."
Frédéric Talgorn, who had previously composed the music for the 1989 horror film Edge of Sanity, wrote the orchestral film score for Robot Jox, which was performed by the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra. Since Prometheus Records reissued the soundtrack in 1993, it has received generally high acclaim. An editorial review by Filmtracks.com stated that "Talgorn's usual strong development of thematic ideas is well utilized in rather simplistic fashion in this film, perfect for the contrasting characters and their underdeveloped dimensions."
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the film on VHS and Laserdisc formats. In October 2005, MGM Home Entertainment released the film on DVD. Though the cover still includes the film's theatrical PG rating, the version of the film included contained violent scenes that were cut from the North American release to avoid a PG–13 rating.
In October 2014, Shout! Factory announced that the company would release the film on Blu-ray Disc in the summer of 2015. The disc included two audio commentary tracks: one featuring director Stuart Gordon and another with special effects artists Paul Gentry, Mark Rutherford, and Paul Jesel. The disc also included various behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as trailers and archival materials. Reviewers for Blu-ray.com and Hi-Def Digest recommended the disc for fans of the film.
Robot Jox received little media coverage during its initial release, but the professional critics who did review it rated it poorly, noting the film's struggle to find a balance between adult and child audiences. By the time the film was released, its Cold War themes had become less relevant to United States audiences and the popularity of Transformers, which the filmmakers had intended to capitalize on, had diminished. The Sacramento Bee wrote that the film "spreads its dubious resources across the world, dealing with the already dated power-mad rivalry between America and the U.S.S.R. for domination." Haldeman was generally unsatisfied with the movie, later writing that "it's as if I'd had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage." Academic criticism was somewhat more positive, with film scholar J. P. Telotte writing:
While a recent film like Robot Jox (1990) ... revels in exploring the technical complexities of its central conceit–nations warring vicariously through giant robots piloted by gladiator-type "jockies"–it repeatedly emphasizes how much of the human has been surrendered to the technological and concludes with its chief antagonists abandoning their mechanical mounts to live in peace. Robot Jox, though, is just one of a great many such films to depict the attractions and promises of science and technology as essentially fictions, dangerous illusions from which we eventually have to pull back as best we can if we are to retain our humanity.
Since its initial release, Robot Jox has attracted a minor following of devoted fans and influenced various elements of popular culture. In 1994, Industrial music artist Trent Reznor sampled and looped sounds from the film for the song titled "The Becoming", which is included on the Nine Inch Nails album, The Downward Spiral. The B-movie podcast, BMFcast, uses a rating scale of 1-5 Jox for good "bad" movies. Concept artist Robert Simons featured a series of detailed works in 2010 based on designs from the film. In February 2012, Cinema Studies Student Union showed the film at Innis College, Toronto as part of a "cult film triple bill", and in August, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations in Houston and Austin held special midnight screenings of a 35 mm copy of the film. In January 2013, the website CHUD.com featured the film as its movie of the day, with reviewer Michael Monterastelli remarking that the film is "part serious science fiction, part Saturday morning cartoon and it’s one hell of a good time."
Critical reception to the film has also improved. In 2009, Isthmus film critic Mark Savlov wrote that the computer-generated imagery in Terminator Salvation "still can't hold a candle to the stop-motion and very endearing goofiness of Stuart Gordon's 1990 Robot Jox." Critic Alex Fitch praised Gordon's work in 2010, citing Robot Jox as an example of how Gordon "can mix satire with special effects to great aplomb." Writing for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in 2012, Kim Newman noted that Gordon's style gave the film "a pleasantly uncluttered comic-bookish look", while Haldeman's influences could be seen "in his distinctive blend of military-hardware expertise and anti-war attitudes".
After the trailer for Guillermo del Toro's film Pacific Rim was released in December 2012, online critics and bloggers began to revisit the film, noting the similarities between the two films. Bloomberg Businessweek writer Clarie Suddath noted that Pacific Rim was "a mash-up of the 1980s B-movie film Robojox [sic] and Godzilla on steroids". In 2014, Gordon stated that Pacific Rim was like "déjà vu", expressing that if he had done a sequel to Robot Jox, it "would have been robots fighting aliens".