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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tobor the Great

Niche market movies were not a new concept in the 50s. Tobor was designed for pre-teen matinee audiences. Knowing this, the film needs to be cut some slack for not grappling with deep concepts or dramatic action. It's a kids' movie. As such, Tobor amounts to a sort of sci-fi "lite." Nonetheless, it's worthwhile viewing for its expansion on the robot archetype.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Harrison quits his job at a (pre-NASA) space agency because he doesn't believe humans should go into space. He joins an older scientist, Dr. Nordstrom, who agrees and is working on a super robot to do that task instead. They work together in Nordstrom's basement lab, eventually unveiling their creation to a select group of fellow scientists. Tobor (robot spelled backwards) has the strength and durability to withstand the harshness of space. He can be controlled remotely, but also has enough onboard intelligence to operate independently. He's also been given some fuzzy abilities to "sense" emotions and read thoughts.
A communist spy had infiltrated the group of scientists. The spies decide they must steal Tobor before he's handed over to the American government. Meanwhile, Nordstrom's grandson, nicknamed "Gadge" has become fascinated with Tobor. Since Tobor has reasoning and emotions, he and Gadge develop a friendship bond. Nordstrom's home security thwarts the spies' attempt to steal Tobor. They then arrange a kidnapping of Nordstrom and Gadge to at least learn his secrets. Nordstrom has Tobor's remote controls with him (an ear piece and special pen), so instructs Tobor to rescue them. The spies figure out that Nordstrom is stalling, get angry and destroy the pen. Tobor stops cold. Harrison switches Tobor to telepathic mode. Tobor resumes, following Gadge's thoughts. Tobor breaks into the spies hideout and fights them. Harrison and the military arrive and all is well. Tobor has proven his abilities and given a deep space mission. Nordstrom and Gadge watch the liftoff. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Tobor is a Disney-esque variety of sci-fi, which has a certain charm. It has the same simpler ethos as the old serials, Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Tobor himself is totally the star and reasonably well done for a low-budget film. Given the evolution of the robot archetype within sci-fi, Tobor adds some qualities which are somewhat ahead of the curve. The movie's wide-eyed adoration of science and technology is interesting, especially given the decades of technophobia movies which will crop up later. In Tobor, technology is our steadfast friend -- and savior.

Cold War Angle
This, while shallow, is very clear. The communist spies want to steal Tobor. Dr. Nordstrom worries that Tobor's advanced programming to be subverted into destructive uses.

Robot Power! -- Prior to Tobor, robots had been by typified as strong, silent brutes -- usually with destructive powers. Tobor is endowed with the ability for independent thought AND to sense emotions. This moves Tobor out of the typical realm of mindless mechanical minion and closer to the role of artificial human. For decades, writers and audiences would remain fascinated with the idea of a robot which is almost human (Star Trek TNG's "Data" character, Robin Williams in Millennium Man, and the little boy in Spielberg's A.I., etc.). This is aided by Tobor have a sort of face too. Compare Tobor to Gog and Magog in Gog released earlier in 1954. Gog's design was intentionally NOT humanoid.

Kid Power! -- Tobor panders to its audience, in this case 8 to 12 year olds. Pandering movies are interesting for how the protagonist(s) tend to be superlative and their antagonists are bumbling fools. This will be a frequent undercurrent in teen pandering movies to come. The teens are the smart ones who save the world, while the adults are all idiots who should never be trusted with the world. Tobor isn't quite that flagrant, but is clearly geared towards a point of view from a 12-year-old in the 50s.

Technophilia -- While the sub-genre of technophobia would be gearing up in the years to come, Tobor stands out as one of the technology-through-rose-colored glasses movies. Unlike the rather customary robot rampage scene, Tobor remains under control of his human masters -- he only looks like he's rampaging. With his artificial intelligence and emotional programming, Tobor is a technological expression of Nietzsche's ├╝bermensch -- the "superman" which mere man was supposed to "evolve" into.

No Babes -- A minor point. Tobor does not carry off a swooned shapely babe as shown in the poster. This abducting-our-women trope gets a lot of exposure in 50s sci-fi -- especially the posters. Sometimes the poster fits, such as the ones for Creature from the Black Lagoon ('54). There, the gill-man does abduct the beautiful woman. Or Robot Monster ('53) in which Ro-Man does carry off young Alice with the intent of "having" her. All too often, however, the only babe abducted is the one on the poster. The movie has no such scene. Given Tobor's target audience, it's a bit odd that the promoters thought it fitting to depict Tobor carrying off a hot woman in high heels. An appeal to early pre-adolescent hormones?

Bottom line: As a movie, Tobor is too juvenile for most non-juvenile viewers to like. It's value lies in what Tobor adds to the archetype of "robot." He's a stark contrast to the evil, heartless (or berserk) robots to come.

1 comment:

Photovoltaics said...

Howdy sci-fi fans.

This movie is just fun.

I saw it as a kid and thought it was great.

Kind of like the Invisible Boy - the kid was the star.

Keep those dvd's spinning.