Big Bot Double Feature: Robot Wars & Crash And Burn

robot wars posterSeveral years back I was in the enviable position of being on Shout Factory’s PR list thanks to working at ToyFare. Because of that, I got a lot of interesting DVD sets, some of which I haven’t even watched yet. The Giant Robot Action Pack featuring Robot Wars and Crash and Burn is one such selection that I decided to finally watch over the weekend and I was surprised at the results.

I’ve actually tried to watch Robot Wars — directed by Albert Band and released in 1993 — a few times, but never really made it through for various reasons. This time, I was set to watch the film and actually succeeded. A kind of sequel to Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox — which is also getting the Shout Factory treatment — this movie takes place in a future world where one scorpion-like robot carries people from a protected city to one that was abandoned and preserved in 1993. After terrorists take over the robot, it’s up to our brash hero, his co-pilot, a reporter and an archaeologist to find another robot and save the day.

Though the title is pretty misleading — two robots fighting does not a war make — I had a lot of fun with this film. The stop motion on the robots looks better to my eye than the bad CGI that would be used today and the characters, while broad and oftentimes goofy, are charming and fun to watch (it wasn’t until this latest viewing that I realized the reporter is actually Lisa Rinna in an early role).

While this is far from the best giant robot movie I’ve ever seen, I appreciate that everyone involved seemed to be doing their best and trying to create something fun and interesting. Full Moon would sometimes swipe heavily from other projects, but this felt pretty original to me. That might not sound like the most thrilling endorsement, but it went pretty far for a low budget 90s sci-fi action film. It helps that my experience with huge robots doesn’t extend much past loving Transformers as a kid and loving Pacific Rim.

crash and burn posterThe other film on the set — Crash And Burn — is another kinda-sorta-not-really sequel to Robot Jox (they were marketed as such overseas, but share nothing in the way of continuity). This one actually really surprised me because it was such a mix of genres and movies that I love.

It starts off with a guy on a futuristic motorcycle traveling through the desert to visit a factory-turned-TV studio run by a rebellious old man who rails against the corporation that runs everything (and also employs the motorcycle driver). Once there, we meet an eclectic cast of characters that includes Bill Moseley, the old man’s granddaughter played by Dark Skies‘ Megan Ward, blowhard talk show host and a pair of women who…are there for some reason. Soon, an important character is murdered and the search is on to find out what happened. It just so happens to involve killer (human sized) robots and a huge robot outside that doesn’t work (BUT IT WILL!).

So, with this one movie you’ve got the seclusion of the desert with the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland-type set up mixed with the group-of-stranded-strangers motif (because there’s a radiation storm of some kind) plus the whodunnit mystery (though it’s pretty clear who the killer is if you pay attention to footwear), the someone-isn’t-who-they-seem thing AND THE ROBOTS.

Let’s jump into SPOILER TERRITORY for this graph because I don’t want to ruin an old movie I do actually want you to check out. I tried to paint with broad strokes above, but here’s the deal. If you happen to notice the murderer’s ridiculous boots and then wait about five minutes until you see the cast together once again, you’ll know who the murderer is. Of course, it’s not revealed until AFTER they do a take on the test from The Thing that doesn’t quite go as planned. But once the killer is revealed, it’s a damn delight to watch him go absolutely bonkers, knock off a few randos and then have a big fight at the end that eventually involves the big robot.

All in all, it’s a perfectly crazy movie. While I appreciated Robot Wars for being better than I expected, Crash And Burn actually surprised me by being more aware of what it was and playing with the audience before finally giving them what they wanted in ways they might not have known that they wanted it. I can’t think of another movie I’ve watched recently where I had little-to-no expectations and yet was so pleasantly surprised.

Computer Movies: Arcade (1993)

arcade poster After watching Cyborg again fairly recently, I fell down the rabbit hole that is director Albert Pyun’s filmography. While poking around, I spied a film called Arcade that sounded like something I wanted to check out. I actually had this disc from Netflix on hand when I watched Evolver last week, but the disc was cracked and I couldn’t watch it until they sent me a new one.

Before getting into the plot of this movie, I’ve got to talk about it’s pedigree a bit. Not only is Arcade directed by 90s straight-to-video maestro Pyun who did a lot with not much all the time back then, but also features a script penned by David S. Goyer and Charles Band who also acted as producer. You’ll recognize Goyer’s name from little films like Batman Begins and Man Of Steel. And then you’ve got the cast which includes Megan Ward (Dark SkiesEncino Man), Seth Green (Buffy, Dads), Peter Billingsley (Christmas Story) and even Don Stark (That 70s Show). Needless to say, I got more and more excited as the credits rolled on this film I knew almost nothing about.

Plotwise, this film follows Alex (Ward) and Nick (Billingsley) as they try to figure out what’s going on as the terribly named new virtual reality arcade game Arcade and it’s console cousin seem to be absorbing or destroying their friends. Much like Evolver, the kids wind up heading to the game company — good thing they live in California, I guess — and then using that knowledge to confront the game and save their friends and family.

It would be pretty easy to write this movie off as another Charles Band cash grab, but I’ve got to say, I found it pretty absorbing. I liked how the main kids all seemed like they could be in high school and were outsiders, but not complete degenerates. Even though you don’t see them together a ton, you get the feeling that there’s a lot of history in their crew. I also thought the plot itself was solid and included some pretty heavy elements. The movie opens with Alex remembering when she found her mom post-suicide and we eventually learn that the video game company used the brain cells of a murdered boy to help create the game’s villain. Plus, how great is it to see one of these kids-against-something-crazy movies with a female lead?

As it turns out, Band and Pyun weren’t happy with the first batch of CGI special effects and had everything redone. Those results can be seen in the trailer posted above while the original graphics can be seen below.

All in all, even though the CGI is pretty distracting for the modern audience, I had a really good time with this imaginative, sometimes scary adventure story revolving around the rad world of video games. I’ve also got to admit that I was relieved by the plot of this film because I’ve been kicking around an arcade-based story idea that is not similar to this at all. It’s always relieving to find out your not accidentally treading old ground.

Crazy Sci-Fi Double Feature: Dollman (1991) & TerrorVision (1986)

Technically I didn’t watch Dollman and TerrorVision on the same day, but I still think it would make an excellent double feature. Both movies start off on other planets with important characters winding up on Earth, which technically makes them both alien movies. While Dollman sticks more the action genre though, TerrorVision decides to mix all kinds of stories, genres and moods, but was still a surprisingly entertaining and supremely weird movie.

Dollman is actually Brick Bardo, something of a hero on his planet which looks kind of like Mega City in the RoboCop movies (read: shitty and poor, but surprisingly filled with fat people). He’s a sort of Dirty Harry type, the guy they call in for the crappy gigs. Anyway, after an opening scene that doesn’t really matter much, he winds up in a stand-off with his enemy who takes off in a spaceship. Bardo follows and the two wind up on Earth where it turns out they’re about a foot tall. It’s a pretty cool concept and one that’s not hinted at by any means in the early scenes which makes it kind of a surprise if you had no idea what you were watching. Anyway, Bardo winds up being taken home by a woman trying to keep her block safe for her son while the bad guy winds up convincing Jackie Earle Haley that he can rule the world. Or something. Anyway, it winds up being a face off between Dollman and the bad guys for the safety of the woman and the block.

At a brisk 79 minutes on Netflix Instant, I’d have trouble not recommending this movie to my fellow bad movie fans. The actors all take their jobs seriously, which adds to the flick a lot. Unfortunately the execution of some of the small scenes isn’t so good. When Dollman first lands on Earth he’s standing in front of some rocks that look pretty big to him, but then when the perspective changes and we see normal sized people they look the same size. They make good use of some projected effects and I love how the woman’s kid thinks Bardo’s spaceship is a toy. It really does look like the kind of vehicle you’d dream of for your action figures. On the other hand, I thought the special effects used to make the alien bad guy look like a totally creepy monster were pretty solid. The real joy for me in this movie was watching Haley and Tim Thomerson as Dollman. Haley of course has gone on to be both Rorschach and Freddy Krueger, but Thomerson was in one of my all time favorite movies as a kid: Who’s Harry Crumb? which I just watched with my folks and the missus when we were in Ohio a few weeks back. He’s a villain in that movie, so it’s fun to see him playing a hero here.

I don’t think I could describe TerrorVision as a good movie, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time watching it. Unlike Dollman, no one involved in this flick seemed to take it seriously. The dialogue is crazy, the characters are all extreme versions of normal people (the completely 80s daughter, her metal boyfriend, the swinger parents, the paranoid grandpa) and the tone switches around like crazy, going from camp to violent death scenes to an ET-like section and on from there. I’m guessing this was the intent from the beginning because the writer Ted Nicolaou also directed.

The idea is that another planet gets rid of their criminals by sending them out into space. I think it’s supposed to kill them, but this giant, shape shifting thing with one giant eye, one on a stalk and a tinier one winds up getting received by the swinger dad’s brand new satellite dish (it struck me during the watching of this movie that a great deal of things would have to be explained to a kid watching the movie today). The parents head out to meet a couple from a personal ad leaving the main boy home with the crazy grandpa whose room is a bomb shelter essentially. The pair realize the alien can pop out of the TV and is coming after them. SPOILERS AHEAD. Then, out of freaking nowhere, Grandpa gets his head crushed and disintegrated so the monster can absorb him. Once absorbed, the monster can recreate that person visually and sonically. It’s nuts.

More people keep showing up for the monster to kill. Next up is the parents who want to swing with this other couple in what the dad keeps calling the pleasuredome. This reminds me, the house itself looks like a cartoon (which fits the one dimensional characters and the soundtrack to a tee) with lots of pink and some strangely sexual artwork in the living room, my favorite of which was an iron with boobs sticking out of it. So strange. Anyway, the mom yells at the kid who apparently is on meds for talking about monsters–he’s also gotten in trouble in the past for prank phone calls–both of which are supremely unfortunate considering his current status. Mom’s pissed and wants to score with the Greek guy they just brought back so she locks him in grandpa’s room where the monster is hanging out! But it seems the monster is back in the TV.

Goodness, I really could go on and on about the movie, but you might as well just watch the 83 minutes of weirdness on Netflix, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Okay, I’ve got to mention a few more favorite parts. The kid thinks his parents and grandpa are dead, but his sister (who was out and just came back) doesn’t believe him, so she opens the door to their bedroom to see alien-created mom and dad in bed with the two swingers AND GRANDPA! It gave me chills, the sister said it was gross and they moved on, assuming their parents were alive, swinging and incesting all night long in their room. After THAT, the sister, metal boyfriend and the boy wind up treating the monster like a pet and making friends with it. Now, that might seem strange considering it killed their family members, but the kids don’t know that at the time.

If you’re a fan of 80s horror or monster flicks where kids take center stage like The Gate or Troll 2, then I highly recommend this movie. It’s as silly as the supposed Best Worst Movie, but the monster/alien effects and kills are surprisingly violent and cool. I really can’t recommend this flick enough, even moreso after watching the last few minutes again for this post. It’s even got a great poppy theme song! Do yourself a favor and watch TerrorVision, it’s one of the most enjoyable bad movies I’ve seen in quite a long time.