R.O.T.O.R (1988) – Stupid SciFi shenanigans

As soon as I saw the Mad Max rip-off poster for R.O.T.O.R I knew I had to seek it out. Imagine taking The Terminator and RoboCop and melting them for scrap in Megacity One, while a Noir protagonist watches on, narrating of course. Now water it down, and throw in irrelevant mouthfuls of dialogue, and you’ve got this strangely amusing, postmodern rubbish heap. Director Cullen Blaine – what a name – and writer Budd Lewis have attempted to take every popular 80s Sci-fi and roll them into one self-aware beast. Instead, it turned out like something made on one of those giant old camcorders after school by a bunch of kids, miraculously stretched to a feature length production with a few real actors and special effects.

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Up until R.O.T.O.R Blaine and Lewis had only worked in the art department on kid’s cartoons, which might explain a bit of this magnificent mess. Strangely enough, that’s about all they did afterwards as well. It’s clear the pair had the passion, and the concept is promising, but it seems they lacked the ability, the budget, and the shared vision to pull off such a project. On the conceptual front, Lewis seems to be going for a self-aware pastiche, combining Noir conventions with a dystopian Science Fiction narrative. I’m guessing he was a big Blade Runner fan. Blaine, on the other hand, uses the Neo-noir style as a way to cut costs, an excuse for pointlessly long and mundane scenes, avoiding any expensive action or effects for as long as inhumanly possible. Seriously, the action is way too sparse for a film about a rampaging Robocop, the whole time the poster loomed in my mind as a frustrating tease.

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The failure of R.O.T.O.R is definitely not all on Blaine’s shortcomings as a director. With all the references and rip-off elements Lewis’ story barely holds any shred of causality. The dialogue is absolutely ridiculous at times, not for poor writing but rather a lost grip on reality. Let me try and demonstrate just how confused and conflicting this production is. When one of the scientists makes a questionable decision on the R.O.T.O.R project he goes all meta saying something about not being in a low budget Sci-fi. Later on, the stupid looking office robot makes a jarring comment about The Terminator. All the while, the script doggedly tries to draw parallels with the story of Frankenstein’s Monster and other classic literature, while desperately clinging to its wannabe Neo-noir style. Who knows, maybe Blaine and Lewis know exactly what level of trash cinema they’re making, it just doesn’t seem like it. I do admit I was impressed by the use of helicopter shots and backlit glass bricks to add futuristic styling, and the eclectic original soundtrack is odd, but heart warming in its ineptitude.

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There really isn’t much else to be said about the narrative. Our main man Captain Coldyron, first and last time actor Richard Gesswein, is in charge of some Police R&D unit in Dallas. Here they’re preparing, as you do, for the crime-ridden future by creating an all in one robot judge, jury, and executioner. By the way, if you thought the stop-motion in The Terminator didn’t age well, you have to see this obviously miniature attempt. Right on cue bureaucracy gets in the way – fat cat government type Michael Hunter, who strangely enough was also in RoboCop – and a laboratory screw up sees the prototype R.O.T.O.R unleashed without proper programming. His crime-stopping rampage begins and ends with an unhappy couple he pulls over for speeding, because apparently not only is he programmed poorly, he also sucks at his job. He can inexplicably see into the past though, and he does know how to show chairs who’s boss.

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As is par for the course on no budget flicks, the actors are all pretty inexperienced, with barely any credits between them – before or after. Spare a thought as they have some real poorly written, overly wordy, and irrelevant dialogue to deal with. It’s a worry when the office robot is one of your more believable characters. Gesswein, who also has a producer’s credit, tackles the cool but doomed noir-protagonist-come-Texas-rancher with admirable energy. Maybe that’s because he gets a little help from Loren Bivens, who actually voices the entire part in a slightly conspicuous overdub. I guess they chose him because he did some Neo-noir stuff in Blood Simple, although I have no idea why they chose to totally dub several of the parts. My guess is a failure of recording equipment on location. As for the murderous Robocop, Carroll Brandon Baker nails the robotic part, but who knows whether that’s skill or good casting? Margaret Trigg – I’d forgotten about Aliens in the Family until I read her short credits – does about the only decent work in the film as one half of the unhappily engaged couple, the bizarrely dressed Sonya or ‘Sony’. Yeah. My initial thought was product placement, but I doubt any company would want any suggestion of involvement with this wondrous production.

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While it shouldn’t come as a surprise, R.O.T.O.R is an exciting concept which turns out to be a totally lame journey. The production has, seemingly deliberately, crafted a poor man’s Sci-fi pastiche and captured none of the intelligence or excitement of the classics it apes. I don’t know how they got what little funding they did. Fortunately, the story is so pointless and nonsensical that it provides bemusing entertainment, not to mention all the laughable attempts the movie makes to be cool and stylish. If you’ve got a spare 90 minutes, and want to see how much of a struggle low-budget productions can be, check this out.

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Also, I know most places list this as 1987, but apparently the first US release was June 1988. There are no details about when it was actually made, but it could be interesting to know because RoboCop only came out in July 1987.

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