Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: It’s funny, Ken, how selective one’s memory can be. Sometimes, I’ll watch a bad movie and form an impression of it in my mind, and when I return to it a few years later it’s exactly as I remembered it. And then other times, it’s R.O.T.O.R.. This is a movie I watched once a couple of years ago, and I remembered it simply being a goofy rip-off that stole liberally from The Terminator and Robocop in equal measure. What I didn’t remember is how truly, profoundly strange this movie is. On like, every level. There are so many filmmaking decisions in R.O.T.O.R. that I don’t understand, I practically find myself as a loss. It’s a cheesy ’80s action B-movie, but it’s also SO MUCH MORE.
Ken: A statement on the rugged masculinity of Texas “police robotics” scientists? A harrowing look at a future where crime can only be met with lethal force and a thin mustache? A movie where one character is actually a four-foot-tall robot with a little policeman’s cap on his head? R.O.T.O.R. is film that wears many hats, Jim.
Oh my god, I just noticed now for the first time that Officer Robby the Robot actually has a pistol strapped to his hip. There’s no way his little pincer hands can pull a trigger.
Ken: I want to start by asking how in the world you came across this oddity.
Jim: I heard of it a number of years ago, as I do through the bad movie grapevine. It just so happened that Shout! Factory, those kings among men, were putting it out on friggen’ BLU-RAY, so believe it or not, I own an incredibly crisp and great-looking version of this hilariously bad movie.
Ken: I actually do believe that.
Jim: This one rates very high on the “how good does the picture look” vs. “how bad are the events on screen” reverse correlation matrix. It might be the champion.
Jim: As for a basic synopsis of R.O.T.O.R., it’s not all that difficult to sum up. A computer scientist/supercop guy is working on a futuristic Robocop rip-off called R.O.T.O.R., but his slimy boss and political backers want the pace of the project greatly accelerated. He quits, leaving the project in the hands of dumber men, who accidentally activate the killer cyborg, which goes on a rampage until they can destroy it. It sounds SO conventional when you sum it up this way, like something you’ve seen a bunch of times before. And yet: You have not seen anything like this movie before, I promise.
Ken: I wholeheartedly agree with you on both points: That this film sounds, on paper, to be thoroughly conventional and yet while you watch it is like peering into some mirror dimension. To start off with, it can’t quite settle on a framing device. It starts with blocky computery future text explaining that RAPE and MURDER are on the streets of the future and that the only thing that can save us is R.O.T.O.R. (Maybe you remember the acronym better than I do?) Then, it pulls the trick where it starts the movie at the end and then flashes back with our main character—whose name is for real “Barret Coldyron”—providing his best Peter Weller impression for narration.
Jim: Everything about our main character is bizarre. Every one of his lines appears to have been dubbed in post—by him? Or someone else? He speaks like a cowboy, and that sort of makes sense, because he lives on a sprawling horse ranch, which isn’t quite what you would expect from someone who is supposed to be a brilliant computer scientist. He looks like the love child of Chuck Norris and pro wrestler “Psycho Sid” Vicious from the WCW, with a majestic mane of curly ringlets flowing down his back in a quasi-mullet. He’s impossible to accept as a scientist, but that’s actually a theme of this film. Every single prominent role is bafflingly cast.
Four-time world heavyweight champion Barrett Coldyron.
Ken: I’m glad you, too, get the impression he was dubbed over, because I honestly felt like I was watching a Spaghetti Western during certain parts. Was their sound equipment just terrible and they had everybody do ADR? I MUST KNOW, Jim.
Ken: In addition to his idyllic ranch, we are shown that he uses det-cord to remove stumps from his land, and, I think, invites his horse to drink coffee laced with some kind of drug? Maybe? He has a girlfriend or wife whom he barely sees, and she figures almost not at all into the movie. This is all I can figure out about Dr. Coldyron, “police robotics” scientist. I wonder which Ivy League schools have good police robotics programs?
Jim: The weird thing is, I feel like most of the other people weren’t dubbed! It’s just Coldyron, but it’s for practically every single line. He keeps his jaws clenched during every line like he’s in extreme pain, so perhaps they literally just couldn’t make out a single word he was saying the whole time.
Ken: If any readers know why this is, please write to us.
Jim: This is made only stranger by how profoundly weird his dialog and expressions are. At one point when his bosses try to fire him, he responds with this phrase: “You fire me, and I’ll make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother.” That’s IN THE MOVIE, folks.
Jim: That was a new turn of phrase for me, Ken.
Ken: And there were just so many, it seems. I wonder if the same writer who put words into the mouth of Rogue in that ’90s X-Men cartoon punched up this script.
Jim: The other craziest one, which I still can’t wrap my head around, was when a tertiary husband character says to his wife: “You look like you got both eyes coming out of the same hole.” I have been thinking about this for 24 hours and I still can’t figure out what the hell it means, Ken.
Ken: Lord, I forgot that one. Truly some next-level folksy nonsense.
Ken: Anyway, into the board room of his Dallas-based police robotics corporation this man of the West strides, to give what must be the most hilariously bad Powerpoint I’ve ever seen in a movie since God’s Not Dead. I don’t know if you ever edited student papers for your fellow cohorts at any point, Jim, but this was like reading one where the kid clearly did not read the book and has no idea what any of the vocabulary he’s using means.
Ken: This is backed by the proof-of-concept animation of R.O.T.O.R., a stop-motion skeleton robot WHO WILL POLICE THE FUTURE!!!
Jim: By doing tai-chi and stretches, if the demonstration is to be believed. PRAISE THE SUN.
Ray Harryhausen, this ain’t.
Jim: Coldyron states variously throughout these scenes that the prototype is supposed to take anywhere from “four years” to “25 years” to go into production, but his bosses demand “product” within 60 days, which leads to his firing. The project is then put into the hands of his incompetent assistants. These characters aren’t important, except we have to talk about the robotic policeman you mentioned from earlier, the one with the little police hat. This is an entirely separate robot from R.O.T.O.R. the indestructible killing machine. This one looks more like R.O.B. from the Nintendo games.
Ken: And he seems to have an emotion chip! He’s like if Howard the Duck were a poorly-marketed Nintendo peripheral. I also want to point out that during the baffling verbiage of the R.O.T.O.R. presentation, we’re supposed to buy, I think, that this thing has no power supply because it’s just all shape-memory alloy? It’s literally just supposed to remember movements that were I guess bent into it?
Ken: I know this is sci-fi, but I feel like we need a whole other article to go into why that could NEVER BE.
Jim: Haha, I didn’t even think about that stuff for a moment, Ken. I just let all the techno-babble wash over me, and rest assured there’s plenty of it in R.O.T.O.R.. I was busy thinking about that weird robo-officer, and all the implications of his construction. Why the hell did they program this thing to be sarcastic, pessimistic and lazy? For Christ’s sake, it seems like the thing is fully sentient; it’s making jokes and sarcastic references to much better movies in the vein of The Terminator. Is it just me, or isn’t that robot much more advanced than the actual R.O.T.O.R. in a lot of ways?
Ken: He certainly is more indicative of the type of cop you’d find in, say, an average episode of The Wire, which I guess makes him a far more realistic simulacrum of a sworn officer. He’s a far more entertaining, or maybe just more memorable, supporting character than Growly McJerkBoss, the guy who threatens Coldyron with termination if he doesn’t get this prototype murder-bot to market in 60 days.
Growly McJerkBoss stares directly into the camera in an actual shot from R.O.T.O.R.
Jim: He’s also the only robot in the history of cinema who tenders his resignation in a phone call and is then never seen in the film again.
Jim: I defy you to come up with another movie where that happens.
Ken: I guess he did. Can robots claim unemployment?
Ken: Anyway, R.O.T.O.R. is brought to life by the negligence of this snarky robot and the in-over-his-head lab assistant, who leave him unattended as they go tinker with some … wiring? And then we’re treated to a scene where another little bit player interferes and accidentally activates this mechanical menace. Jim, I’m at a loss for words. Tell us about the guy whose blundering actually turns on the R.O.T.O.R.
Jim: It would be so easy to skip over this character, because he’s only in the movie for one scene, but he might be the most inexplicable of all of them, and that is saying a LOT. The one thing I can say for certain is that he’s a janitor. A janitor who very unsuccessfully tries to hit on a female scientist. However, most of his pick-up material is racially focused, ON HIMSELF, as he makes all kinds of weird native American jokes—but in an urban black man’s patois. I have absolutely no idea what his actual race is supposed to be, or which segment of the population should be most offended by him. This guy is a cipher. He offends everyone equally.
Ken: I think I detected some light homophobia in there too.
Jim: Yes, that was there too. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s one of the weirdest bit characters I have ever seen. How do you think the script described him?
… Bruno Mars?
Ken: Ethnic Creep #1? That’s about the level of sensitivity we’re operating at here.
Jim: “He has the proud cheekbones of his Chocktaw ancestors, but he sounds like a character from Good Times and makes jokes about ‘sissy’ men.”
Jim: And he has a switchblade comb.
Ken: With which he accidentally turns on R.O.T.O.R. by jamming it in there and completing a circuit. And his awakening is SO INTIMIDATING, Jim.
Jim: It does seem like we should probably talk about the actual killer robot in the title of the film, does it not?
Ken: Paint us a word picture of his dark birth.
Jim: He crawls from his bio-womb as a nude 45-year-old Midwestern man with a synthetic highway patrolman’s mustache perfectly formed on his face. He looks like any random man you would find in a Wisconsin tavern at 2 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, drinking himself to death. He trundles over to the locker room, where for some reason there is a locker of clothing already waiting for him, despite the fact that he’s not supposed to be activated for up to 25 years. Likewise, there’s a fully functional motorcycle with the words “to judge and execute” on it just waiting behind velvet ropes for him to take, but first comes my favorite sequence in the entire film: When R.O.T.O.R. walks through a room full of flimsy plastic chairs, which awkwardly scatter as he pushes his way through.
Jim: I think this was supposed to somehow be intimidating or impressive, Ken.
Ken: His shins are immune to light bruising! What can we do?!?!?
Ken: There are a number of funny things about this robo-killer that we should just run down right from the start. For one, his voice is a scrambled kind of surly, electronic roar that barely seems to form actual words. It’s worth noting that we find out early on that he is paralyzed with pain and confusion at somebody laying on the horn of an automobile, despite the fact that he was programmed to be a highway patrolman. This is his Kryptonite: A noise well within the tolerable-if-annoying register of human hearing. Despite these shortcomings, he soon menaces a young Brad and Janet for the crime of speeding.
Ken: This offense is punishable by HEADSHOT.
Jim: I love how this is presented as being a flaw in his programming. Guys, his bike and prime directive are both labeled “TO JUDGE AND EXECUTE.” This robot was literally made for the express purpose of going around, murdering lawbreakers. You can barely even make the claim that R.O.T.O.R. is malfunctioning, except for the fact that it continues to chase and stalk Janet (her actual name is “Sony” or “Sonia”) despite the fact that she committed absolutely zero crimes, besides being in the passenger seat of a car that was moving too fast. So I guess that part is a malfunction.
Ken: I think maybe her seat belt was unbuckled. Click It Or Head Shot, folks.
There really are no words for how wrong THIS guy was for THAT part.
Ken: Coldyron is made aware of this murder spree and calls in, no joke, a woman named “Dr. Steele.” Such clever naming conventions. I have to hand it to the movie for setting up this character, a built-ass woman, as the explicit brawn of the duo, which I did not see coming in an otherwise borderline-retrograde action film. They direct Sony to lead this murder-bot on a highway chase for MOST OF A WHOLE DAY until they can rendezvous with her at a lake. No reason is given for why that might be the ideal spot to ambush R.O.T.O.R., unless I completely missed this detail.
Jim: Nope! Just another bit of the film’s randomness. I can only assume the implicit answer is “the lake was well enough out of the way that we didn’t need permits to shoot there.”
Jim: And I don’t want to gloss over Dr. Steele, who is another one of this film’s insane casting choices. She looks like the toughest woman to ever anchor the roster of American Gladiators, Ken. She has a Pepe Le Pew stripe of white right down the middle of her frizzy hair like a goddamn mohawk, and she magically transforms from “Ms. Frizzle” into combat fatigues and commando gear in the middle of a Coldyron flashback sequence, entirely while the camera is off her.
Jim: The camera just pans back and suddenly she’s there, dressed like John Rambo.
The same character in two scenes, literally five minutes apart.
Ken: She really and truly came out of nowhere and it is for some reason my favorite bat-shit choice of this bat-shit movie. Spoiler alert, they battle R.O.T.O.R. on the lake, blowing him up with the det-cord that was lying on the mantle in Act One, but not before Steele freaking rips his chest cavity open with her bare hands. I was ready to cheer and then he apparently just bear-hugs her to death. It was at that point that we come full circle, with Coldyron in a police interrogation room. They somehow completely believe his story of robot killer cops and corporate chicanery and just let him go. But that is not the end, is it?
Jim: It certainly seems like it should be, doesn’t it? But no.
Jim: Because no sooner does Coldyron walk out into the day, a free man with the sun on his shoulders, when Growly McJerkBoss, the guy we haven’t seen since he made a phone call to him 60 minutes earlier, appears and SHOOTS THE MAIN CHARACTER TO DEATH IN THE BACK, because he disrespected him.
Jim: I had completely and utterly forgotten about this ending, Ken. I was just as shocked as you surely were.
Ken: He doesn’t even make any easy excuse like “Now all the loose ends are tied up” which, to be fair, what loose ends? Coldyron has shown multiple times over the course of this movie, by the way, that he can just wave his hands and order police to forget what they saw. But whatever. I guess we need a bad guy to cover over into a sequel because this movie has a franchise to launch, Jim. Coldyron’s son, a character never mentioned before, receives all of his father’s research notes (as you do). And we are left with the image of R.O.T.O.R. II, a robot that is actually modeled after the visage of the departed Dr. Steele. I will be completely honest: I am kind of sorry we don’t have that movie.
Now 30% more resistant to car horns!
Ken: Now, how Coldyron’s son managed to do this, we are not told. Maybe it’s better that we don’t look too closely into it.
Jim: I think they actually say it was his nephew? You’d be forgiven for missing one line of dialog here though, because you’re still reeling from the main character of the film being murdered in broad daylight by a minor character who appeared earlier in ONE GODDAMN SCENE.
Ken: It WAS his nephew, wasn’t it? I completely misremembered that, and it came right after what really was the closest this movie comes to a gut-punch, for sure.
Ken: Now that we’ve laid it all out like this, Jim, I have to say that this is probably the worst interpretation of RoboCop/Terminator mania I’ve ever seen. You can sort of see how they tried to work in a lot of the little extraneous details that make those films memorable, but they’re executed so weirdly and off-puttingly that it’s like you’re watching one of those movies being fed through Google Translate into one language and then back into English.
Jim: Not to mention all of the filler. We barely touched on it, but great swathes of R.O.T.O.R. just don’t advance anything and seem like they’re exclusively there to pad the runtime out to 90 minutes. The lazing around on Coldyron’s ranch, the loooong conversation of the married couple in the car, the ENTIRE character of Coldyron’s girlfriend, who disappears from the movie halfway through …
Ken: We are truly dealing in barely-feature-length territory, to be sure. And that, really, is sort of the biggest crime of this movie, if we want to JUDGE AND EXECUTE it from an artistic standpoint. The movies it apes were incredible action films that just happened to care about building a world and a cast of characters. You watch them again and you’re struck by how damn intelligent they are. It’s sort of no wonder R.O.T.O.R. can barely fill its run time, because it doesn’t bother with any of that.
Ken: Maybe I’m delivering a head shot for what should be a ticketable offense, though.
Jim: It couldn’t even bother to cast an intimidating man to play the killer robot, Ken. I think you’re pretty justified here.
Jim: I hereby confer upon you the supreme right to cast sentence.
Ken: I AM THE LAW!!! I thank you for this astonishing think piece on jurisprudence, Jim. I swear my selection for next month will be at least as profound.
Jim: I hope it will have pieces of writing as inspired as a “Dr. Coldyron” and a “Dr. Steele” who team up to cultivate mass and design killer police robots.
Ken: No promises. Until next time, sir.