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Friday, December 14, 2007

Robot Monster

This is another one of those movies often touted as "the worst movie ever." It was an ultra low-budget film with minimal "special effects" and weak acting and a confusing screenplay. Since it was released amid a wave of impressive movies like Invaders from Mars and War of the Worlds, it is surprising anyone remembers it at all. However, Robot Monster was so bizarre that it developed a modest cult following. Ro-Man's costume, a gorilla suit with space helmet, makes an indelible impression.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A mother (presumed to be a widow), her son Johnny (8-ish), daughter Carla (6-ish) and adult daughter, Alice, are all picnicking in bleak Bronson Canyon. Johnny is playing space man. Carla nags him to play house. While avoiding Carla, Johnny meets two archeologists working in a cave. Johnny thinks the cave painting looks like a robot. After a picnic lunch, the family all nap, but Johnny wakes up and goes to explore the cave. There, he falls and lies unconscious for awhile. While unconscious, he dreams of a post-apocalyptic earth in which his family (which now includes the older archeologist as "dad") and three others, are the last people on earth. All others have been eliminated by a robot monster named "Ro-Man." These eight are immune to his "Calcinator" ray because of an antibiotic serum the "father" had worked on. Ro-Man is ordered by his leader (Great Guidance) to eliminate the survivors so the Ro-men can take over the earth. Ro-Man kills the little girl Carla, pushes Roy off a cliff and destroys a rocket with two unseen other survivors. Ro-Man takes a liking to Alice and decides he can't kill her. Instead, he captures her and plans to keep her for himself. Great Guidance detects the "error" in Ro-Man's independent thought, eventually eliminating Ro-Man just as Ro-Man was about to kill Johnny. Johnny awakens from his unconscious dream. All is well after all. (though there is a complete non-sequetor ending of Ro-Man coming at the camera three times before the credits roll.)

What makes this movie fun?
On a certain level, Robot Monster is one of those movies that is so bad it's good. Ro-Man's costume is so absurd, it's hard not to chuckle. His "high tech" equipment includes some old radio equipment with rabbit ears on a wooden table and a bubble making machine. There are segments of recycled footage of dinosaurs fighting. It's all so odd that it's fun.

On another level, it's fun to re-watch Robot Monster seeing Ro-Man as Johnny's alter ego. Ro-Man does what Johnny fantasizes doing. This makes many of the outrageous elements somehow fit together. Why, for instance, are there recycled "dinosaur" segments from One Million B.C. and Lost World?  Boys are fascinated with dinosaurs. Nothing deeper.

Cold War Angle
There isn't much of a Cold War connection. The apocalyptic scenario almost fits, but not particularly well.

Notes
3D -- Robot Monster was shot in "Tru-3 Dimension." Around 1953, 3D was a fad nearing its peak. People would watch just about anything because it was 3D. The screenplay quality was secondary. Some of the movie's peculiarities make more sense when understood as being there for the 3D. The bubble machine, for instance, makes no sense as a prop, but is perfect for 3D cinematography.

Ro-Man as alter boy's ego -- Since it's all a dream, consider Ro-Man as Johnny's alter ego, NOT an independent character. He's supposedly very powerful. Ro-Man eliminates Carla, the pesky younger sister (who always wanted Johnny to play house). Johnny, on the cusp of libido, imagines his Ro-Man defeating the buff "rival" (Roy) for sexually mature older sister Alice's affection. One strong indicator of this boy-fantasy comes during the abduction scene when Ro-Man carries off Alice. She remarks about how strong Ro-Man is, almost admiringly. That's not your expected comment from a forcibly abducted woman. It is however, what a neo-libidinous boy would prefer to think women behave.

They're After Our Women -- The oft recurring sub-theme of the Abducted Woman, gets a big boost in Robot Monster. The poster image, of Ro-Man carrying off the woman actually does happen in the movie. What kicks it up a level is that Ro-Man actually "wants" Alice. He wasn't, like Gort, simply carrying her benignly. "Suppose I were hu-man," Ro-Man says to Alice. "Would you treat me like...a man?" This suggestive innuendo is pretty radical content for a sci-fi B movie. When Alice refuses his advance, he rips the top of her dress -- the symbolic "rape" metaphor. An even bolder addition to this sub-theme is that Alice appears to not mind (too much) being abducted. For awhile, she kicks as he carries her. Later, she's calmly riding in his arms. "Oh Ro-Man, you're so strong."

Love is Life -- In an interesting simile to King Kong, it's pretty young Alice which awakens passion in the supposedly passionless Ro-Man. When Great Guidance hears of Ro-Man's intentions to spare Alice, we hear Ro-Man trying to alter his programming, his "plan". Great Guidance scolds Ro-Man. "To think for yourself is to be like the hu-mans." Ro-Man responds, "Yes, to be like the hu-mans. To laugh, feel, want. Why are these things not in the plan?" The allure of a pretty woman is very powerful.

Lost Sonnet -- When Ro-Man is told by The Great Guidance to kill Alice, Ro-Man becomes conflicted. He has is "orders" but he has his new passions too. Ro-Man's soliloquy is almost Shakesperan. "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..." Ro-Man may be the first cinematic robot who wanted to be human. That is, if you don't give this honor to Baum's Tin Man who wanted a heart. Many others will follow.

Bottom line? All in all, Robot Monster offers some surprisingly thoughtful elements, despite it's almost total absurdity. It's definitely worth watching.

1 comment:

thingmaker said...

Nice to see some sensible analysis of this film. It may not be the fine production that "Invaders from Mars" is, but I re-watch it more often and I think it has lasting value. The apocalyptic aspect - the whole world devastated and literally only a handful of survivors - put across in dialogue and one ruined shell of a house, is weirdly effective. Altogether, there are a lot of things to balance against the inane Ro-Man monologues and sundry cheapness.