DVD Review of
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/26/08
Ok, a DVD review is not exactly what this is. Yes, I watched the 1953 legendary schlock B sci fi film Robot Monster on a DVD, but since it was on one of those cheapo 50 movie DVD packs, there were no extras whatsoever- ok, there was a chapter selection. Yippee! But, given the level of the ‘art’ the film attains, is there anything wrong with going virtually featureless? And, given that the 66 minute black and white film was originally shot in 3-D, who cares that it has nothing else to offer, save giving the English language such terms as psychotronic and calcinator death ray (which somehow turns the reality of the film into its own filmic negative)?
Robot Monster, which I’ve watched fifteen or more times in my life, is generally considered, along with Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, to be one of the twin titans of the ‘so bad it’s actually good, in a weird way’ genre of B sci fi film from the 1950s. While not as manifestly spoofable as Wood’s classic film, Robot Monster- directed by first-timer Phil Tucker in less than a week, and for under $20,000 (reputedly), does have the goofy title character- called a Ro-Man, portrayed as a thing either in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet and tv antenna attached to it, or a gorilla in a diving helmet. The confusion is because, despite the gorilla costume, the few times we look dead on into the diving helmet we see only a misty visage, which almost seems skeletal.
That said, there are only two essential ways to take this film, in any semi-serious vein: 1) as a child’s dream (which it is, ala William Cameron Menzies’ film Invaders From Mars, released the same year), or 2) as a character study of a non-human coming to terms with the very humanity he aims to destroy. The first option is the exterior option of the film, and the second is the interior. But, let me give a brief synopsis of the film, shot entirely in the famed Bronson Canyon, in California- home for hundreds of good and bad film and television shoots over the decades (Bonanza, anyone?). Its shooting location and the film score by Elmer Bernstein, who would later score The Ten Commandments and The Magnificent Seven (among many classics) are the most effective things in the film, aside from some horrifically funny pseudo-philosophy.
A young boy named Johnny (Gregory Moffett) is out picnicking with his two sisters and mother (Selena Royle), when they come across a cave where a Teutonic sounding scientist (John Mylong) and his assistant, Roy (George Nader), are working. After some inane banter, the family naps, and Johnny dreams that Ro-Man (George Barrows) has destroyed the earth, save for his family, which now includes the older male scientist as his dad, and his assistant as the love interest for his older sister, Alice (Claudia Barrett). Ro-Man threatens the family, while being browbeaten by his superior, Great Guidance Ro-Man, another Ro-Man from the Ro-Men Planet (which Great Guidance is still on), whom he contacts via his televisor- which apparently can traverse space at super-light speeds. Ro-Man is ordered to destroy the remaining humans, and almost succeeds, except that, like Roy, he has a boner for the considerable feminine charms of Alice, whom Ro-Man lusts for at first sight, when he sees her on the televisor. Roman soon kills Roy, captures Alice, whom Roy just married, but then cannot follow through and kill Alice upon his superior’s commands. Great Guidance then kills Ro-Man, after some horrid splicing in of non sequitur scenes from other films- like battling lizards, adorned as dinosaurs, from the 1940 film One Million B.C. This ‘effect’ also includes scenes from real World War Two documentaries, and a few other minor films I could not quite place the names of, and occurs several time in the film. Johnny then wakens, in the film’s coda, and the family goes home. The film then ends with a triple ending shot of Ro-Man coming back out of the cave, as the black and white film turns negative, as it does often in the film. Is the dream thus not really a dream, but a premonition? Scary stuff, yes?
But, now back to the two ways to appreciate this film. In the first take, given it is Johnny’s dream, almost all the wacky things that take place in his dream make sense. Remember, he is a child, and dreaming of aliens in the Cold War/UFO crazed 1950s. That the people act (literally, as actors, and as characters within the diegetic reality of the dream in the film) oddly makes perfect sense. The scariest things we dream of are not perfect special effects laden monsters, but those things just a tad ‘off.’ In this sense, Robot Monster is an almost perfect expression of a nightmare, as Ro-Man is far more bizarrely nightmarish than the Aliens of the Alien films. And, given the film’s opening montage of comic book covers, is it too farfetched to think a child might believe a robot is a thing with a metallic head alone (i.e.- the helmet)? And, aside from being a perfect expression of a dream/nightmare state, has there ever been a more purely expressionistic film in American cinema? Ok, perhaps some Kubrick, but after that? Also, since a child’s mind is distorting reality, some of the scenes of sexual foreplay between Alice and Roy are exactly what a child thinks of as ‘adult stuff.’ Even the relationship of Johnny with his younger sister, Carla (Pamela Paulson), mirrors the real intersexual sibling rivalry of the day. That stated, the fact that the boy dreams of one sister- Carla, being killed by Ro-Man, and the other being lusted and pawed after by Roy and Ro-Man, has some severe Freudian consequences one does not get even from an Ed Wood schlockfest like Glen Or Glenda? And, never ‘inside’ the dream within the film, do we forget that this is a dream, as clearly all the characters were demarcated in the film’s opening- i.e.- we know the old scientist, incidentally called The Professor (…and Mary Ann?), is not married to Johnny’s mom, and is not his dad, whom Johnny states, early in the film, is dead.
The second take, however, while legitimate, is far weaker, as, if seen as a character study of Ro-Man, the film fails because Ro-Man has the psychosexual development of an arrested ten year old, in his pursuit of Alice, and a craven middle manage’s psyche in relation to his superior. Thus, while a near perfect nightmare, Robot Monster is also a bad film, even if part of its badness (i.e.- the gorilla suit and helmet) actually aid its mnemonic value- would people recall this film were the Robot Monster a Gort-style robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still? Would they recall it if, in some scenes, one could not clearly see a human arm holding up the asteroid effect as it plunges toward the camera in Glorious 3-D!? I think not.
Now, here comes the but….But, compare this to the Michael
Bay mindless sci fi thrillers, or a Will Smith action film, or even a horridly
written and acted piece of tripe like Saving Private Ryan. Is Robot
Monster worse? In terms of effects, yes, and obviously; but in terms of
script? Often ridiculed is Ro-Man’s much quoted monologue to himself, after he
is ordered by his superior to kill Alice. He equivocates: ‘I cannot. Yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on
the graph do must and cannot meet? Yet I must! But I
cannot.’ Now compare that with this ‘immortal exchange’ from the
aforementioned Steven Spielberg atrocity. Ryan: ‘Tell me I’m a good man.’
Wife: ‘You are!’ Frankly, Robot Monster is definitively better, as
his oft-derided soliloquy actually has a bit more depth than the PC cheese
ending of the Spielberg disaster.
But, regardless of your opinion of this vs. other films, in terms of
sheer entertainment, the film is simply cornball terrific. I watched it, for the
first time, when I was under ten years old, and many images from this film still
resonate. Some because of the film, some because of the late night times I
watched it, when the mind is at its most suggestible. Still, watching a
Spielberg film at 1 a.m. won’t affect one as this film does. This fact
certainly does not connote greatness, much less competence, but it surely
connotes power- however it comes. I ask, can anyone recall a single scene
or bit of dialogue, three months after its release, from a typical Hollywood
film that’s in and out of theaters in three weeks? Not many can answer yes
to that. Thus, while Robot Monster is unequivocally a bad film, from a
technical standpoint, from the view of it as a dream and a cheap fluff piece of
entertainment, it’s better than many more serious-minded films. Go watch it,
in whatever format you can get it.
Oh, shit- did I mention the bubblemaking machine?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
Return to Bylines