Sunday, March 27, 2016

Retro Review: R.O.T.O.R. (1988)

R.O.T. O.R.
(US - 1988)

The GETEVEN of ROBOCOP ripoffs, the deliriously awful R.O.T.O.R. was a video store staple back in the '80s and '90s and if physical media is dead, somebody forgot to tell Shout! Factory, who just released this on a double feature Blu-ray with the 1989 time travel dud MILLENNIUM. A regional sci-fi actioner shot in Dallas, R.O.T.O.R. was a one-and-done venture into movies by producer and star Richard Gesswein, who's such a terrible actor that his performance ended up being dubbed by special effects artist and sometime actor Loren Bivens, who actually receives an onscreen credit for his work. Conceived by screenwriter Budd Lewis and director Cullen Blaine, a pair of veteran industry storyboard artists and occasional animators, R.O.T.O.R. looks like a bad home movie that somehow got a distribution deal. It's amateur hour across the board in terms of acting and filmmaking, and if anything deserves to be the next ROOM/TROLL 2/MIAMI CONNECTION bad movie phenomenon, it's R.O.T.O.R. The only thing that might be holding it back is that those other films are utterly sincere in their misguided cluelessness, but there's enough weird, goofy shit in R.O.T.O.R. to suggest that it's fully cognizant of its own shittiness. Whether it's ludicrous dei ex machina, overripe dialogue ("It's like a chainsaw set on frappe!"), the hero making coffee for his horse, or an ultra-serious corporate board meeting where nearly every line of dialogue has a blatant Beach Boys reference (people from "The Brian Wilson Institute" and "Jardine University" asking "Is there some good vibration to its molecular tonality..." and "God only knows..." and "I get around, but I've never seen anything like this"), Allen and Blaine seem to be winking at the audience and saying "Yeah, this is supposed to be stupid," but as a sci-fi action movie, it's an abomination. Gesswein, an actor who makes Phil Pitzer look like Daniel Day-Lewis, is Barrett Coldyron (pronounced "Cold-iron"), a laconic Buckaroo Banzai who's a Dallas police captain and a renowned scientist who runs his division and a high-tech scientific research facility where he's developing robot cops for a project dubbed R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research). Referred to as "Captain" or "Dr" depending on which job he's working in any given scene, Coldyron is booted off the R.O.T.O.R. project by irate politician Earl Bugler ("introducing" Michael Hunter), but the carelessness of those left in charge results in a mustached R.O.T.O.R. unit called "222" (played by three different actors, including awesomely-named stuntman Brad Overturf) activating itself and going on a rampage, singling out a young woman named Sonya (Margaret Trigg), killing her fiance and relentlessly pursuing her through the outskirts of suburban Dallas. She calls the cops, and is instructed by Coldyron to just keep moving, as he and muscle-bound, femulleted robotics engineer Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith) try to figure out how to regain control of 222 and shut it down.

Barrett Coldyron doesn't bother taking off
his shades for important board meetings
R.O.T.O.R. is insanely terrible. It takes 45 interminable minutes for Allen and Blaine to even introduce 222. Until then, the focus is on the gruff, mumbling Coldyron, the kind of guy who wears sunglasses in a board meeting and whose idea of tough talk is sleepily telling Bugler "You fire me and I'll make more noise than two skeletons makin' love in a tin coffin, brother!" The film opens with hard-boiled narration from Coldyron that's ultimately revealed to be him babbling in the backseat of a car until a cop in the front seat says "Uh, what? Huh?" (more evidence that at least some of the humor here is intentional). An absurd amount of time is spent on padding the establishing shots, where you see a character park their car and then walk all the way into a building as slowly as possible. The entire second half of the film is centered on 222's pursuit of Sonya (the character's name is misspelled "Sony" in the credits), but in order to keep it going, the filmmakers suddenly give 222 the ability of "sensor recall," where it can see which direction she's headed by replaying events it wasn't even there to record. R.O.T.O.R. is also the kind of film that drops a major character midway through (Coldyron's girlfriend) and introduces a new major one (Dr. Steele) with 15 minutes left in the movie.

Insane Beach Boys board meeting starts at 5:35. 

Margaret Trigg (1964-2003)
Nobody in R.O.T.O.R. went on to anything of any significance, though Bastrup, TX-native Trigg did co-star in ABC's short-lived 1996 series ALIENS IN THE FAMILY, which was cancelled after eight episodes. She's the only star of R.O.T.O.R. who seemed like she might have some potential, but her life was tragically short: she died in 2003 at just 39, the cause of death listed as "heart attack resulting from prolonged amphetamine abuse." Smith appeared in one other movie, 1990's FLESH GORDON 2: FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS. Lewis went on to script the 1990 Robert Z'dar/Michael Pare actioner DRAGONFIGHT and do some storyboard work before his death in 2014, while Blaine went back to storyboarding and was a co-director on 1998's straight-to-DVD Disney sequel BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: BELLE'S MAGICAL WORLD. R.O.T.O.R. ends with the promise of a R.O.T.O.R. II which, like Richard Gesswein's second acting role, has yet to materialize in the ensuing 28 years since the release of this groundbreaking sci-fi masterpiece. Where's the Criterion edition? (Unrated, 90 mins)

Dr. Steele!


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