If Charles Band knows one thing, it’s how to crank movies out. During their respective heydays, his production companies Empire and Full Moon ground out movies like link sausages, stocking video store shelves everywhere with cost-effective yet professionally produced genre fare. When the Band-production machine was firing on all cylinders, you would get cult faves like Re-Animator or Trancers. Even some of the second-tier stuff could be entertaining – Crawlspace remains a personal favorite around Schlockmania headquarters because of its intensely eccentric nature.
However, the downside of Band’s conveyer belt approach to genre filmmaking is you’d end with just as many films of middling quality. They’d look decent and be too technically competent to fall into Ed Wood Jr. territory… but would also come off as bland, forgettable product.
Robot Wars is a prototypical example of the Band production machine at a low ebb of inspiration. The plot is generic space-jockey material, set in a future where giant robots are part of day-to-day life. Drake (Don Michael Paul) is the pilot of Mega Robot 2, a scorpion-shaped robot that pulls double duty as a source of public transport and a mode of defense. He is attracted to but rebuffed by Leda (Barbara Crampton), a scientist type who is suspicious about goings on in Crystal Vista, a ghost town that is one of Mega Robot 2’s stops.
This starcrossed hero and heroine duo are forced into action when wily foreign ruler Wa-Lee (Danny Kamekona) steals Mega Robot 2 and plans to take over the company that employs Drake. At the same time, Leda finds herself trapped in Crystal Vista and chased by the Centros, a bunch of cowled mutants who wear bug-eyed shades and speak Jawa-esque gobbledygook. Drake teams up with trusty mechanic Stumpy (James Staley) to save Leda and revive an old robot in hopes of defeating Wa-Lee.
If Robot Wars sounds predictable, it is. What you won’t be prepared for is how generic it is. The hero is a cocky lone wolf who rises to the challenge, the heroine is an intellectual whose icy demeanor melts when she meets the “real man” hero and the villain is a wily foreigner who isn’t to be trusted ’cause he’s foreign. Any halfway experienced genre fan has seen this basic plot dozens of times. It’s the kind of script that could have been dreamt up in the 1930’s or 1940’s, complete with post-dated racial and sexual attitudes.
Albert Band’s direction is similarly flavorless, favoring a lot of locked-down master shots and television-style closeups. In fact, Robot Wars often feels like an uninspired episode of a sci-fi t.v. show from the 1970’s or 1980’s (think Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galactica) because it has been assembled with such speed and stripped-to-the-bone economy that it’s only a few reels lengthier than your average primetime series episode (it runs a brief 71 minutes, with credits). Some have theorized that this film was edited down from a longer running time and that makes sense, as the characterizations are so thin and the plot transitions so bumpy that it often feels like entire scenes are missing.
Performances range from passable to goofy. Crampton does a solid job but has little to work with. Kamekona fares well because he acknowledges the campy nature of his role while Staley does his sidekick role well by playing it straight. Paul is entertaining as the hero, albeit probably not in the way he intended – he goes over the top with the smarmy, cocky nature of his “lone wolf hero” role and comes off as a macho cartoon. Intentional or not, it harkens back to the “macho jerk” hero archetype you often see in vintage sci-fi flicks.
Ultimately, the best thing about Robot Wars is David Allen’s special effects work. This veteran stop-motion effects wiz does typically seamless work with the giant robots here, giving the technical end of things a nice boost. The film uses these bits sparingly but they always provide a nice shot of eye candy when they appear.
To sum up, Robot Wars is a strange experience: neither good enough nor bad enough to inspire a passionate response, it just kind of spins its wheels until it reaches the end-credits crawl.