Monday, July 15, 2013

Cyber Monday: R.O.T.O.R. (1988)


Video Junkie's Interesting Fact of the Month: up until a mere ten years ago, "nostalgia" was classified as a mental disorder. Back in the '50s it was referred to as "The Immigrant's Syndrome" and led to bouts of melancholy and experimental brain surgery. Now, in our enlightened era, nostalgia is considered a positive thing (Fox News notwithstanding).

The metaphor is deep.
What's better than an action movie with a renegade cop? An action movie with a renegade cop that is a cyborg! Clearly this must have been the intent of Cullen Blaine, career director-producer of children's TV programming. To help him with this task is career storyboard artist Budd Lewis, who also has made a living in children's television programming. Oh, this will not end well, will it?

To prove they are serious hard sci-fi filmmakers, we have an opening text scrawl with foreboding music:
"Today's Headlines: Murder, Rape, Robbery, Arson. Tomorrow's Solution: R.O.T.O.R."
What the filmmakers failed to predict back in the simpler era of 1988 is that these topics don't even make the front page of what passes for a newspaper these days. Oh, and they also let you know that R.O.T.O.R. stands for "Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research". Damn, someone must have stayed up all night thinking of that.

Eh-bone-y. and. Eye-vor-y... EXTERMINATE!

Captain Dr. Coldyron (Richard Gesswein) when not tending to his horse on his strangely empty Texas ranch, is a brilliant scientist and police captain heading up a robotics research facility for the Austin Police Department. Not just any robotics research, no sir. They already have a robot security guard with a sullen disposition who should have been called M.E.H. (Mechanized Enforcement Halfwit) but instead is named "Willard". Not content with this malcontent, the R.O.T.O.R. project is an attempt to create an android officer that no one will be able to tell from the real thing! Unless, of course, he goes nutzoid and starts killing people, but how likely is that to happen? R.O.T.O.R. is an endoskeletal robot covered in flesh that strangely resembles the Adam Savage, with the well-reasoned prime directive "Judge and Execute". Apparently, he is the law!

Hmm... how are we going to pay for this movie?
I had completely forgotten how budget-starved this movie is. It's got huge ambitions and some of the most florid dialogue ever committed to celluloid, but doesn't have two pennies to rub together. Coldyron has a deactivation key that he can use on R.O.T.O.R., which if you look close is simply a gold-plated cigarette lighter. At one point R.O.T.O.R. stops to heal himself via battery jumper cables after being shot. You'd think time for some cheap animated electricity, but nope, Blaine simply has R.O.T.O.R. hold the leads and scream while the film is processed in negative. To make up for this lack of production value, Blaine tries to pen some of the most ridiculous dialogue (with some of the flattest delivery) in recent memory. If nothing else, the stunning dialogue is worth the price of admission alone.

For example, Captain Dr. Coldyron also fancies himself a fledgling Walt Whitman (the guy who invented the Sampler Assortment) with lines such as "a buttery morning sunlight painted a golden glow through the ranch house windows." If he puts on a John Denver album, I'm hopping in my time-travel machine to smack him in his damn head... err... but I digress. Much like the filmmakers digress for 15 minutes before firing up the movie proper with relentless padding showing Coldyron getting out of bed. Getting coffee. Sharing coffee with horse. Blowing up stumps (or in reality, simply setting fire to a dead tree) and finally getting around to going into work clearly hours after everyone else. I guess if you are a scientist and a high-ranking cop, you can get away with just breezing into work long after the other schlubs have had their coffee breaks.

After a plethora of shockingly unsupportive board meetings ("who are we to create such things? Heroes and villains?!"), angry phone calls (during which a can of Coke is carefully opened and poured into a wine glass), and some comic relief from a jive-talking Native American scientist pushing the boundaries of sexual harassment in the workplace ("Lookit these cheekbones, either I'm an Indian or a sissy!"), we finally get to the action... well, sort of. Coldyron quits because of the pressure from his irate division commander who wants the long term project (Coldyron estimates some 40 to 50 more years) to be ready in 60 days. Naturally the Indian guy screws up by casually tossing his walkman headphones on the wrong piece of equipment and R.O.T.O.R. escapes to execute his directives of, uhhhh, execution!

If the premise of a endoskelatal cyborg sounds vaguely familiar, the rest should be too. Essentially the R.O.T.O.R. unit is (whose logo is a Harley sticker with "R.O.T.O.R." covering "Harley Davidson") chasing down a woman with relentless determination. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. It absolutely will not stop, ever, until she is... oh, hell, you know. Sure there's a lot, and I do mean a lot, of window dressing, but what it boils down to is the time honored tradition of knocking-off that Jim Cameron duchebag. Don't feel bad. Cameron has been accused of knocking-off others, including himself.

Basically R.O.T.O.R.'s first collar is a speeding rap in which he pulls over an couple who are way past the Jerry Springer stage of their relationship. The woman, Sonya (Margaret Trigg) is so mad, it prompts her fiancee to yell "Look at ya! You look like you got both eyes coming out of the same hole!" So offended by the nonsensical nature of this line, R.O.T.O.R. blows him away and tears off after the escaping Sarah - err, I mean Sonya, who managed to get away after discovering his achilles heel: a car horn. Yep, simply press the horn and R.O.T.O.R. will do his new favorite dance, The Chewbacca. Just to prove that the similarities are intentional (car horns aside), after R.O.T.O.R. escapes, the security bot quips "I got the feeling this is how TERMINATOR got started". Hmmm... yeah, if only Blaine had half the cash that TERMINATOR's four production companies put up... or even a quarter.

Upon discovering that the project has gone renegade, Coldyron gives his clinical, scientific assessment of the situation: "It's like a chainsaw set on 'frappe'". Or like a hedgetrimmer on liquefy! Or a weed whacker on puree! Damn, I gotta get me one of those. Along the path of destruction... well, maybe more of a path of minor vandalism and assault, R.O.T.O.R. faces off with drunk rednecks, burger flippin' rednecks, rednecks with shotguns, cowardly rednecks and a few pieces of balsawood furniture. Coldyron, not to be out done, blows away several robbers at a mini-mart while making sure that the driver escapes unscathed. Nice job there Captain Dr. Wouldn't want to actually arrest any perps. Oh, wait, it is Texas, isn't it? Carry on.

Don't fuck with the fry cook! Yeah, well maybe this one.
Since catching R.O.T.O.R. is obviously a two-man job, Coldyron calls in fellow scientist Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith), a female bodybuilder who apparently helped create R.O.T.O.R. in between steroid injections and applications of Just for Men: Touch of Grey. Surprisingly the filmmaker's stick to the subject at hand and don't try to force what would have been a very uncomfortable romantic angle between the two. Also, for some reason, the two leads are dubbed by completely different actors. Judging by the lack of notable film careers for either (Smith's only other credit is a bit part in the disappointing FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS), perhaps neither were available to do any AR work. This makes the whole outing seem even more unwieldy than it otherwise would have. Not that that's entirely a bad thing, as it makes the non-stop non-sequitur moments to be even more bizarre, such as when Coldyron suddenly believes himself to be a GP, saying to his lab assistant "the man hasn't had a bowel movement in over a week. I told him to lay off that home cookin'!" For those who do not speak fluent southwest ranch-hand gibberish, allow me to translate that last sentance. What he said was "dude, get your ass down to Taco Bell - it'll clean you out faster than a quart of draino!"

Oh, if only...
Back in the late '80s and '90s I'd watch anything that would rip-off THE TERMINATOR (1984) or ROBOCOP (1987) and when R.O.T.O.R. landed on video store shelves the insanely cool reworking of the MAD MAX (1979) poster into a ROBOCOP rip-off design had me moon-eyed and drooling. I remember the movie not really living up to my rather high expectations, but I still enjoyed it. Every time I see that poster, it makes me think of my old neighborhood video stores, one of which smelled slightly like a gym locker as it had previously been a jazzercise place. I used to bring up R.O.T.O.R. in conversation and defend it against the slings and arrows of outrageous nerddom. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the cigarette-smoking, three-martini lunch doctors of the 1950s were right. I'd have to be crazy to be nostalgic about R.O.T.O.R..

I guess not everything is big in Texas

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. I'm so glad you made a post of this hilarious yet awesome film. Plus, I'm glad you did a comparison to the Mad Max cover. One more thing this film ripped off. It should be up there in the cult status of Troll 2 by now but in time I suppose. Right after I found the VHS of this excellent cheez-fest my friends and I decided to go on a rampage by 'riffing' other films like R.o.T.o.R. in our destructive path. Bored? Check it out.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSVCWXUa_zc

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