R.O.T.O.R. (1987)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-02-21 23:33

R.O.T.O.R (1987)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 23rd, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

"Hey, what's the matter with you, buddy? Get your pecker caught in the plumbing this morning?"

Whenever I struggle to choose an opening quote for a review, it’s usually because a great film features an abundance of evocative dialogue. But sometimes, I run into something like R.O.T.O.R., where just about every other line is complete and utter gibberish, and it’s hard to decide which ridiculous bit is my favorite. I’m not exaggerating when I say R.O.T.O.R. features about a dozen candidates from which to choose. I might be exaggerating when I say it may be more quotable than The Terminator and Robocop, both of which were grist for the rip-off mill that is this brain-damaged, Texas-twanged exercise in nonsense. You’d be surprised how close it is, though, especially once you give yourself over to whatever the hell is going on here.

It’s not that R.O.T.O.R. is incoherent in that delirious, paint-huffing kind of way, not that it really could be considering the abundant narration and on-the-nose dialogue. An opening crawl lays the scene, ominously bemoaning “today’s headlines,” which are full of “murder, rape, robbery, and arson.” It offers “tomorrow’s solution” in the form of R.O.T.O.R., a division of “robotic officer tactical operation research” dedicated to “build the perfect cop of the future,” only “something went terribly wrong.” Enter Captain Barret Coldyron (Richard Gesswein), whose own opening narration insists that he’s nothing but a modern day Dr. Frankenstein whose intentions were “pure enough.” All he wanted was to rid the streets of punks, drug dealers, and scum, but his own experimental army of police robots got out of control and—well, I think you get the picture by now.

Quite possibly some kind of record-holder when it comes to its abuse of ADR and voiceover work, R.O.T.O.R. really wants to make sure you don’t miss its point. “Show, don’t tell,” is the oft-repeated virtue of storytelling, but here’s a film that asks “why not both?” And so it takes nearly half of its run-time to arrive at the point already explained by both of these opening narrations. I know this sounds like an insufferable, redundant amount of wheel-spinning, and I can’t deny that R.O.T.O.R. is inert from a narrative standpoint, as its arc is more or less locked into place by its extended flashback structure. Everything that happens in the film has already transpired, its ending revealed before it ever properly begins. You may wonder why anyone should even bother gathering the details of a story that was already delivered by ostensibly “better” movies.

Well, let me tell you, buddy. Did the inciting incidents in either The Terminator or Robocop involve a goddamn switchblade comb? Is this true of any other movie, for that matter? It turns out that the devil truly is in the details of R.O.T.O.R., which slowly begins to feel like some kind of experiment out of the Five Obstructions mold. The challenge: rip off two of the most popular (and now enduring) science-fiction movies of decade with a fraction of the resources, practically give away your own ending, yet remain interesting as hell. R.O.T.O.R. awkwardly but purposefully stumbles through these motions before planting a “Mission Accomplished” flag into the ground. Then, it trips again for good measure, like an exuberant teenager who barely made it through a talent show routine. Everyone claps, appreciative of the gangly, sloppy effort. That’s R.O.T.O.R.

Slack-jawed but definitely self-assured, R.O.T.O.R. doesn’t much give a damn for the unspoken pact between film and audience. Usually, a tacit agreement exists between the two, where the former will try to impart or communicate something with the latter, going so far as to even transcend language barriers if need be. There’s really no translating R.O.T.O.R., a garbled transmission whose bizarre speech patterns and mangled cinematic language seemingly hail from a microwaved brain. While it is insistently straightforward with its plot developments, it detours through one bizarre exchange to the next. Some involve humans (supposedly) communicating with machines and come off as more natural than those only involving these people claiming to be made of flesh and blood. For a moment, I was convinced this would be the twist all along, that it’d bump into some existential Blade Runner shit. (Spoiler: I don’t even think anyone involved with this movie could even spell the words “existential," "blade," or "runner.")

How else could you explain the truly alien behavior often on display here? Coldyron’s proper introduction has him reminiscing about “October morning breezes” and “buttery sunlight” as he begins his police statement, wistfully recalling his daily ranch routine of chomping on carrots while feeding his horse coffee. His line of work has him bossing around a computer assistant that looks like a rejected prototype for Paulie’s robotic birthday present from Rocky IV. When his work isn’t proceeding quickly enough, he clashes with a political superior who pours Coke into a wine glass as he chews Coldyron out. The science behind R.O.T.O.R. is utter gibberish, full of mad libs jargon. At any given point, Coldyron insists that this technology is either four, 25, or 50 years away from being stable enough for production. Your guess is as good as his—but don’t try to fire him unless you want him “to make more noise than two skeletons making love in a tin coffin, brother.” (Naturally, he up and quits his job shortly after this exchange.)

Trust me when I say this is but the fraction of the delights R.O.T.O.R has to offer, especially since it really revs up once the titular robocop goes haywire (aided by a switchblade knife comb, I must stress once again). It’s here that the film becomes an obvious riff on The Terminator, as the machine cop employs lethal force for a simple traffic violation and begins ruthlessly pursuing a woman named Sony (but pronounced “Sonya,” naturally). Only Coldyron can stop him, of course, and, despite his martial arts proficiency (on display during a convenience store robbery dust-up), he brings in fellow scientist and apparent female bodybuilder Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith) to assist. Looking as if she strolled right in from the panels of a Larry Stroman comic, Steele forms an unlikely team with Coldyron (who just looks like a distant relative of The Final Sacrifice’s Rowsdower). In order to defeat R.O.T.O.R’s “pure will,” she insists Coldyron will have to “use pure illogic,” something that only makes sense to these two characters and absolutely nobody else.

Their exchange here—which also includes chestnuts about “tempting reality too much”—almost feels like the Rosetta Stone of R.O.T.O.R, a film that is composed entirely of pure will and illogical impulses. Nearly every moment is some combination of exasperating, stupid, and incredible. Continuity often differs from shot to shot, most of the cast (including Gesswein) is inexplicably dubbed, and the entire plot hinges on a bunch supposed geniuses’ befuddlement over R.O.T.O.R. If you don’t want your android cop going on a killing spree, maybe don’t make its prime directive “to judge and execute,” guys. White guys with painted goatees and implausible accents stand in for hispanic hoodlums, while a man named Shoeboogie claims a dubious Indian ancestry and hits on a co-worker with reckless abandon.

You sometimes wonder if everyone’s in on the absurdity, and there’s just enough self-awareness to affirm it: “I have a feeling this is how The Terminator started,” quips the robot assistant, practically winking at the audience. Another scientist later asks aloud, “What do you think this is? Some low-budget sci-fi flick?” He’s addressing the question to a robot whose interface looks to have been make-shifted from a Simon Says toy, so you tell me.

But what’s truly weird about R.O.T.O.R. is just how awkwardly and carefully crafted it is. Despite the intensity of the situation, it lolls along with the urgency of someone returning an incorrect fast food order. The languid pace doesn’t come off as particularly lazy but rather feels like the product of everyone feeling like maybe they only had one take to get it right. Every shot is meticulously staged just so, resulting in a stilted quality for everything from the dialogue to the roundhouse kicks. Some of these people struggle to walk into rooms convincingly. As such, a film that features multiple brawls, car chases, and explosions somehow feels low-key and as artificial as the intelligence guiding R.O.T.O.R, who is unfortunately not the android glimpsed in the cover art but rather just a regular guy buried under an oversized helmet, aviators, and a porn mustache.

If the film’s action and effects sequences could keep pace with the rest of its gonzo spirit, this one would be an all-timer. Unfortunately, it can’t outrun its low budget, leaving it unable to truly commit to outrageous gore effects when R.O.T.O.R. rampages through a diner, breaking bones and frying skulls. Only this holds it back from the rare air reserved for the greatest trash classics; it rests somewhere below, meaning it still passes through that transcendent plane where the notion of quality becomes askew, if not inverted. Your brain becomes as scrambled as the film’s jumbled tongue, and the only recourse is to accept the synchronicity. Just one thought is left standing once you reach its conclusion: “how in the hell did this get made?”

Several films have caused me to wonder this in the eight years I’ve spent sifting through cinematic refuse here at OTH, but R.O.T.O.R. really compels me to figure out just what was in the water during this fateful Texas shoot. Who exactly is Cullen Blaine? Does he look exactly like the villain of an 80s teen movie, like his name implies? What of his merry band of lunatic cohorts, many of whom boast few (or no) other screen appearances? Digging into this would feel almost like anthropology, as R.O.T.O.R. feels as if it could only hail from some distant, lost culture, one that treated drive-ins and video stores as places of worship.

The disc:

Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release—which pairs R.O.T.O.R. with fellow sci-fi flick Millennium—offers precious few answers. Boasting only a trailer as the only special feature (plus an alternate ending for Millennium, to be fair), it’ll still leave the R.O.T.O.R. faithful to trawl the web and dig for answers. They will at least meet with an improved high definition transfer that’s miles away from the treatment it’s received in public domain budget packs over the years. Kudos to whoever is responsible for plucking this particular title from obscurity: I’ve owned it in one of those packs for years now, but who knows if I would have ever watched it without this disc.

Truthfully, the mere existence of this release feels inexplicable enough to overlook the lack of extras. Besides, something about this feels appropriate; perhaps R.O.T.O.R. isn’t something that isn’t meant to be further understood but only be experienced. After all, “we're not knocking over tin cans here—this is reality.” Whatever that means.
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