160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)

“[CROW T. ROBOT and TOM SERVO are complaining to JOEL ROBINSON that the incoherence of the movie Robot Monster is making them physically ill. JOEL kind of likes it.]

JOEL: No, you don’t get it. Isn’t it kind of weird? There’s, like, a guy in a gorilla suit, and he’s got a robot head, and inside he’s got kind of a bunch of clay. I mean, I’ve seen Dali paintings that made more sense than this movie does.

TOM: Yeah, but I think there’s a fine line between surrealism and costume store closeouts!

CROW: I don’t get it, Joel. Is it cool to make no sense? Is it hip to be vague?

JOEL: No, it’s not cool, but it’s surreal…”

–“Mystery Science Theater,” episode 107 (Robot Monster)

DIRECTED BY: Phil Tucker

FEATURING: Gregory Moffett, George Barrows, Claudia Barrett, George Nader, John Mylong

PLOT: Young Johnny is playing spaceman when he encounters a pair of archeologists on a dig. Later, he is struck by lightning, we see footage of dinosaurs fighting, and Johnny awakens in a future world where mankind has been wiped out except for his own family and a few surviving scientists. The remnants of humanity are being hunted down by a Ro-man, an emotionless alien with a gorilla’s body wearing a diver’s helmet.

Still from Robot Monster (1953)
BACKGROUND:

  • Robot Monster was originally released in 3-D (which may explain why the producers thought floating bubbles were imperative to the story).
  • The film was shot in four days, mostly in Bronson Canyon, with no interiors. It reportedly cost $16,000 to make (which would be about $140,000 in 2013 dollars). As bad as it was, Robot Monster reportedly grossed over $1 million in its initial run, even before it became a cult item.
  • The inserted dinosaur footage comes from One Million B.C. (1940) and Lost Continent (1951).
  • The music is by composer Elmer Bernstein, who was just starting his career. Bernstein would go on to be nominated for 14 Oscars, winning once.
  • According to “The Golden Turkey Awards,” director Phil Tucker attempted suicide due to the negative critical reaction to Robot Monster. Although Tucker did try to kill himself after the movie was released, the idea that bad reviews drove him to it is likely to be wishful thinking on the part of Harry and Michael Medved. The story is usually repeated—with the kind of cheap irony that suggests an urban legend—as some variation of “upset over bad reviews, the director tried to shoot himself, but missed!” Bill Warren gives a more balanced account of the scandal in his 1950s sci-fi primer “Keep Watching the Skies!
  • Robot Monster is a mainstay on “worst movie ever” lists, including the Medveds “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”
  • Included as one of the experiments of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (Episode 107).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “robot monster,” with his diving helmet topped by a rabbit ear antenna, all perched on top of a shaggy Halloween ape costume—especially when he’s framed by the swirling soap bubbles arising from his atom-age alien technology.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s the bubbles that put it over the top. An incompetent apeman alien in a diving helmet I can accept. Dialogue like “I must—but I cannot! Where on the graph do must and cannot meet?” is absurdly awful, but period-appropriate. The random appearance of battling dinosaur footage is common detritus when you are digging around in the scrapyards of cinema. But the unexplained presence of the bubble machine—a piece of equipment important enough to get its own mention in the opening credits—nearly breaks the weirdometer. Where on the graph do “apocalyptic alien invasion” and “happy little bubble machine” meet?


“Trailers from Hell” on Monster from Mars [AKA Robot Monster]

COMMENTS: Plan 9 from Outer Space has long been recognized as the ultimate so-bad-it’s-good unintentional sci-fi comedy of the 1950s, and rightfully so. Among badly made movies, it is by far the most consistently hilarious and watchable, with a charming naiveté that makes it impossible to hate. If there is any disaster that might have dethroned ‘s trashterpiece from its spot as King of the Bad Movies, however, it’s Robot Monster, Plan 9‘s weirder, darker, less-coherent cousin. Plan 9 is merely a botched job that turns into an unintentional parody due to a miraculous confluence of campy acting, Wood’s twisted b-movie syntax, and flying saucers made from hubcaps. Robot Monster, on the other hand, blazes its own path in badness, earning its absurdity from a multitude of the WTFiest directorial choices you’ll ever witness. Director Phil Tucker simply took whatever was at hand and forced it into his story, whether it fit logically, or not. We’ve got access to a gorilla suit and a diving helmet, there’s our monster. The kids will love this old fighting dinosaur footage I found in the studio archives, let’s throw it in there! Oh, and I know a guy at Fisher Chemical who’ll lend us an Automatic Billion Bubble Machine if we plug it in the credits—this is going to be the best movie ever!

Robot Monster is the Wizard of Oz of bad movies. I hope I am not spoiling Robot Monster here (is it possible to spoil Robot Monster?) but, as it turns out, the movie’s big adventure is all the dream of a young boy. Only, this cold war kid doesn’t have Dorothy Gale’s optimistic imagination (or budget), so instead of colorful Oz he finds himself still wandering about in drab Bronson Canyon, still stuck in unimaginative black and white. On a family picnic, young Johnny plays at being a space explorer while (foreshadowing!) blowing bubbles; he encounters a pair of archeologists in a cave working on removing paintings from the walls. Waking early from his family’s afternoon nap, Johnny is (apparently) struck by lightning while making his way back to the cave. We see shots of lightning in the sky and the screen flashes back and forth between negative and positive images as Johnny collapses. (The negative image oscillation will recur throughout the film at random moments, along with some equally incongruous electrostatic crackling on the soundtrack). A ball of fire descends from the sky, and in the next shot it turns into a lizard who flies into frame to do battle with a (miniature) alligator with a fin glued to his back. Unrelated footage of two fencing triceratopses follows. When Johnny wakes up, a boxy rack of futuristic equipment (belching forth bubbles) now occupies the mouth of the cave where he collapsed.

Like most movie kids who escape to fantastic dream worlds, Johnny is missing a father figure in his life (the orphaned Dorothy, and also Bart from The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T), but in his dreamworld the senior archeologist from the cave is the head of his family, who make up the majority of the eight human survivors of the aliens’ “calcinator ray.” So far, so good, we guess; Johnny has an exciting new life in a post-apocalyptic world, with a cool scientist dad with a German accent. If the lightning storm is his cyclone whisking him away to his budget version of Oz, then his Wicked Witch of the West is “Ro-man.” Or, more formally, Extension Ro-man XJ2 (also known as “Earth Ro-man”), so-called to distinguish him from his superior, Guidance Ro-Man (hereafter, we will refer to Extension Ro-man merely as Ro-man, while Guidance Ro-man will be denoted by his honorific, the Great Guidance). Ro-men, you see, don’t believe in American individualism. They are hive creatures, distinguished only by their social function: i.e., Communists. “To think for yourself is to be like the hu-man,” warns the Great Guidance. “You are an extension of the Ro-man.” Emotions are enemies to these worker ants, whose only goal is to unthinkingly follow “the Plan,” or face death. Ro-men calculate, rather than feel. “Correlate! Eliminate er-ror! Is this not the Law?” exhorts the Great Guidance. “I want facts, not words!” he demands. When Ro-man shows doubt, Great Guidance’s annoyed response is “you sound like a hu-man! Can you not verify a fact?”

And yet, by observing a hu-man family closely (admittedly while trying to kill them), Ro-man learns something about the beauty and value of the hu-man way. He wonders what it would be like “to be like the hu-man, to laugh, feel, want!” Or, at the very least, he has the inter-species hots for Al-ice, Johnny’s busty scientist sister. Al-ice, meanwhile, is (like the eager audience) more concerned with her duty to repopulate the planet, although she is pretty coy about it. When hunky Roy (played in the dream by the junior archeologist) unexpectedly shows up, another survivor of the Ro-man massacre, Al-ice plays hard to get. Rather than being thrilled at the existence of a breeding male who is not related to her, she immediately insults him, leading him to respond, “you’re so bossy you ought to be milked before you come home at night!” Still, even though there are no other hu-man males around, Al-ice must play hard to get: “there are certain things nice girls don’t do, even if it means that man’s millions of years of struggle up from the sea, the slime, the fight to breath air, to stand erect…” (she goes on like that for a while). Nonetheless, the two bond over some innocent banter (“don’t you have to lube it first?”) as they work on rewiring their television set into a transmitter, and when Roy gets hot and rips off his tattered shirt, that seals the deal. Hiding out from the prowling Ro-man in a gully, the lovebirds engage in a pantomime courting ritual that’s odd even by the standards of Robot Monster, playing romantic charades with a spontaneously invented sign language that would befuddle a translator at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. This bit of foreplay leads to a shirtless wedding ceremony presided over by Dad: civilized rituals must be preserved in the post-apocalyptic future, even if tops are optional. Ro-man, meanwhile, feels understandably betrayed: after all, Al-ice ditched her date with the alien (long story) to marry Roy. When the monster catches the girl out smooching with her bare-chested beau, rather than killing her, as the Plan requires, he abducts the newlywed and ties her up in his cave—although he’s constantly interrupted before he can consummate whatever alien feelings he has for her.

Despite not actually getting any, Ro-man’s delay in killing Al-ice is the last straw for the Great Guidance, who declares, “you wish to be a hu-man? Good. You can die a hu-man!” while unleashing lightning bolts from his furry fingertips. Then, after he bombarding Earth with a few more cosmic death rays, Guidance resurrects prehistoric creatures to finish off whatever remains of life on the planet. (Wait, what? Oh, never mind…) Curiously, the reprise of the reptile footage signals the boy’s passage back from the dream world to reality, as he wakes up in the arms of the young archeologist, with a bump on his head but otherwise none the worse for wear. Like Oz‘s Dorothy, he has traveled to a far off world, and just as Dorothy learned that everything she really needed was at home in Kansas, Johnny has learned…

Well, what exactly did Johnny learn? That lust knows no species? That dinosaurs are really cool and you don’t really need a logical excuse to put them in your movie? That future technology will emit bubbles rather than pollution? That he should play house with his kid sister before a gorilla in a diving helmet strangles her? While Robot Monster regurgitates some 1950s ideals about the centrality of the nuclear family, the spirit of American individualism, and the value of the heart over cold inhuman logic, it’s just possible that the filmmakers intended to convey no deep psychological lesson through Johnny’s dream journey. Possibly, Phil Tucker just thought that eight year old boys would beg their parents for four bits to see a movie with dinosaurs, gorilla aliens, and 3-D bubbles floating off the screen. You should be willing to pay a little more than that for the privilege (although not too much more—enjoying things on the cheap is very much in the spirit of Robot Monster). This bizarre little curiosity is not recommended per se, but it is nonetheless a movie that should be on every serious cinephile’s bucket list, just to see how right it can turn out to be when absolutely everything movie does goes wrong.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Judged on the basis of novelty, as a showcase for the Tru-Stereo Process, Robot Monster comes off surprisingly well…”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“Let those who care to do so debate whether the bare-bones absurdity on display is the result of wanting resources or audacious creative vision; I’d like to think the latter…”–Rob Humanick, The Projection Booth (DVD)

“The movie is nonsensical in a way that you have to see to believe.”–Rod Barnett, Eccentric Cinema (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Robot Monster (1953)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Film/Robot Monster – TV Tropes’ humorous page cataloging the various movie idioms and cliches appearing in Robot Monster, with additional trivia tidbits about the film

Daddy-O’s Drive-in Dirt – Episode 107 – Even more trivia about Robot Monster

Episode guide: 107- Robot Monster – Writeup for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode featuring Robot Monster (with comments on the underlying movie)

DVD INFO: Although many people simply assume that anything this old and cheap-looking must be in the public domain, the fact is that Robot Monster is still under copyright. The legit DVD comes from Image Entertainment (buy). Unfortunately, the single disc version is a burn-to-order DVD-R. You can, however, buy a pressed DVD in a double feature package that also includes Plan 9 from Outer Space (buy), which will essentially give the non-specialist all the 1950s so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi he or she will ever need. There are no extra features on the Robot Monster disc except for trailers for other Image titles.

Of course, we’d be remiss if we did not mention the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” version of the film, which is not sold separately on DVD but is available on the Vol. XIX compilation (buy) along with Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, The Devil Doll and Devil Fish.

Although not sold separately on DVD, the MST3K episode is available for digital rental or download (buy or rent), as is an unedited copy of Robot Monster proper (buy or rent).

(This movie was nominated for review by “kengo,” who accurately stated, “It has been called a bad movie but that is underestimating its power. It crashes right through bad and comes out the other side in some glorious mess of surreal incomprehensible weirdness.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “160. ROBOT MONSTER (1953)”

  1. At most, I found this film to be laughable, and that’s good enough for me. It’s a classic low budget fantasy film, with interesting characters who personify various American ideals from that time. The dialogue seems quirky to us now, but I think that was pretty normal back then. In one sense I don’t think this movie is any weirder than The Wizard of Oz. But being that it’s low budget and quirky, we are left with a seemingly weird film. I guess if given enough time, any bad film has the potential to become weird.

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