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Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Invisible Boy

MGM released this curious film in late 1957. It was actually a low-budget "A" film. It ran as the top bill in a double feature. Another MGM (UK) drama Decision Against Time ran in the "B" slot . The Invisible Boy (IB) links itself to the popular Forbidden Planet, yet, the story line in IB is unrelated. On the surface, IB is simply a encore film for Robby the Robot -- the surprise "star" of Forbidden Planet. Beneath the kids' movie surface, IB is more complex and actually contributes to the sci-fi narrative. There is the juvenile theme of a precocious boy and his faithful robot, al a Tobor ('54). There is flavor of a child's dream view, al a Invaders From Mars ('53). Also from Invaders is the trope of the 'enemy' controlling people via brain implants. IB is noteworthy for adding to the technophobia sub-genre, especially the evil computer kind. We saw this in Gog ('54) and will see it again in the late 60s with Kubrick's Hal in 2001 and in 1970 in Colossus, the Forbin Project.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr.Tom Merrinoe has a son, Timmie who is a typical 10 year old, but not too good at math. Tom bends the rules to use a supercomputer to hypnotize and teach Timmie how to play chess. Timmie not only beats his dad in six moves, he now has other mental gifts. He knows about and assembles a robot, left in pieces by an eccentric scientist who claimed to get it from the future. The robot, Robby, is reprogrammed by the supercomputer. Timmie gets in trouble with his mom. Robby suggests making Timmie invisible to avoid being caught having fun. Several invisibility gags follow. Timmie wants to run away. Robby suggests the moon, via the rocket. Meanwhile, the supercomputer informs Tom that he has Timmie as a hostage. The ransom is the access code that would free the computer. Tom is given a deadline to comply. Tom studies past program cards and discovers that the computer has snuck in seven alterations to itself over the 29 years, finally resulting in cognition. While the others try to circumvent the computer, Robby abducts key people and implants a remote control capsule at the base of their brains. The controlled people try to force Tom to comply. Tom calls the President to expose the plot, but is stopped. Robby has traveled to the rocket launch base. Troops try to stop him, but to no avail. He blasts off in the rocket, with Timmie, as unwitting hostage. Tom still refuses to comply, so the computer orders Robby to torture Timmie. Robby's old directive is still in place, so he cannot. Power is shut off to the computer because the President suspected something amiss with the odd phone call. Timmie and Robby return to earth via "the glider". Tom tries to smash the supercomputer, but it hypnotizes him. Robby enters and does the smashing. All is well again. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Beneath the almost saccharine kids' movie is darker super-computer-phobia movie which has much greater depth. Seeing Robby in his second starring role is fun too.

Cold War Angle
While not the dominant theme, the Cold War runs through the plot. The General worries a few times about "our friends across the pole." They ask the computer about the likelihood of war if "they" find out about the rocket program too soon. Ironically, the computer planed to dominate the world with nuclear bombs from space as its threat.

Notes
Sequel or Not? -- IB is sometimes called a sequel to Forbidden Planet (FP), but is it? The two stories are almost completely unrelated. Their only common element is Robby. An unseen scientist is said to have created a time machine by which he brought Robby back from the year 2309. Timmie refers to the saucer shape in the photo as a "star cruiser" -- the same terminology as in FP. There is a story thread parallel between the IB supercomputer and FP's Krell mega-computer both managing to find the "dark" side of intellect.

Boy Dream? -- Some viewers chafe at IB's shallow characterizations, plot inconsistencies and absurd moments. The writers gave us Forbidden Planet, so they weren't low-B hacks. One theory about the plot, is that it's a dream. From the time Timmie falls asleep in the chair in the computer room, the rest of the movie is his dream. The dream theory helps explain many absurd scenes, such as when Timmie is invisible at the supper table, Tom says,"Just ignore him Mary, he's only doing this for the attention." Another impossible scene comes when the army is blasting Robby with bazookas and flame throwers. Robby simply vanishes and reappears at the rocket. While totally incongruent, it fits how a boyish dream-view would resolve the impossible trap. Also, consider that the film IB double-billed with, was a drama that would have been of zero interest to children. MGM seemed to have had a more mature audience in mind. Working against the all-a-dream theory is the lack of the usual waking-up scene at the end.

Spank 'Em -- One feature of IB that is a bit odd to 21st century eyes, is the multiple spankings. The first paddling came from his mom when he comes down from flying on the kite. The second comes from his dad when invisible Timmie is caught spying on his parents in their bedroom. Dad threatens him with a spanking if he returns to earth in the glider, but s. The 50s was clearly a different cultural era.

Infernal Machines -- IB joins a nascent thread of suspicion about computers. This cultural mistrust will grow over the decades. One of the first "bad computer" movies was Gog ('54). NOVAC begins murdering scientists because it was being controlled by some foreign power. The supercomputer in IB may be the first to portrayed as having sentience and plan to rule the earth. IB becomes, then, a precursor to Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

Another Abduction -- IB uses a familiar trope in sci-fi, that of the evil power "taking over" people in authority. This is done by Robby injecting a radio control capsule into the victims, at the base of their brains. Through the capsules, the supercomputer manipulates the thoughts and actions of it's new zombies. This closely mimics the tactic of the martian in Invaders From Mars ('53). People in authority becoming "compromised" and acting as puppets for a malevolent power was a frightening thought in the Cold War communist-paranoia era.

Bottom line? IB is definitely worth watching. Yes, it has a children's movie flavor, but look through that. See the absurdities as a 10-year-old's view of the world. Catch the threads of the darker story beneath the sappy boy-and-his-robot veneer. The careful viewer will be rewarded.

1 comment:

John Drake said...

Howdy Film Fans,


First off, this movie is made for kids.

That said, it is a fun movie and well worth watching.

What I missed seeing it as a kid, and realized it as and adult, is that it has a very dark side.

The giant computer taking over the military personnel and scientists was sort of scary as a kid.

It had more impact when viewed as an adult.

The scene in the storage room where Robby was in parts sorta of remains a mystery regarding the picture of Robby in the future.

The good verses evil shows through when Robby could not hurt Timmy on the computer's orders in the "rocket ship".

Then he throws off the programming shackles and destroys the computer - good prevails.

Well worth watching even if you are a kid in your sixties.


See you at the movies - I will be far enough away from the screen to take the stress off of my eyes,

John