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Rancid Popcorn » In Defense Of Robot Monster

In Defense Of Robot Monster

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Cinema Styles is hosting a Blogathon this week titled “The Spirit of Ed Wood”. The jumping off point is the 50th anniversary of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but the Blogathon itself is, well, let’s let Greg speak for himself:

The idea is if you want to write about Plan 9 you can. Or Ed Wood. Or any underground, cheaply made movie that was filled with heart, or just incompetence. It can even be about good movies too. Carnival of Souls was made on the cheap in the can-do spirit of Ed Wood and actually succeeded. So basically I leave it up to you. Let the spirit of that unstoppable force of cinema, Ed Wood, be your guide, not me.

I’ve been itching to have a go at Robot Monster, and I think this is my in. When the nefarious Medved brothers proclaimed Plan 9 the worst film ever in that book of theirs, Golden Turkey Awards, or whatever it was called, Ed Wood’s profile got a serious shot in the arm some thirty years ago. A kind of groupthink Bad Movie Canon took hold, with Wood and his Plan reigning over fellow travelers like Terror of Tiny Town and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. The film that emerged as perhaps the greatest competition to Ed and his crown was Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster.

I’m going to go against the tide of history and all you other MFers: I don’t think Robot Monster is a bad movie at all. Incompetent, sure. Obviously cheap in all the wrong/right ways, a la the Woodster. But not bad. It has a distinction and saving grace most famously bad movies don’t have – it’s actually about something. Glen or Glenda is most certainly about something, I’m not sure any of the rest of the Wood oevre is. Most of the other “bad movie” usual suspects aren’t either. Heck, the runaway number one movie in America right now is Transformers 2, which, like the movie or not, is about nothing at all. Toys, how cool cars can look switching into giant robots and shooting stuff. That’s not a narrative subject, that’s about pleasantly passing two hours. There’s nothing wrong with having nothing to say, but nothing very admirable in it either.

But Robot Monster…Robot Monster. It’s about the confusions of childhood, not unlike the fondly held Invaders From Mars. Our boy, Johnny, is missing a dad, with seemingly no other males prominently in his life. He’s growing up in the Mutually Assured Destruction, duck-and-cover nuclear 50s. He doesn’t entirely know what to make of those screwy girls, and his older sister’s mature sexuality has not escaped his notice. These things – the yearning for a father, a big brother, the fear of dying young in nuclear cataclysm, and yeah, maybe even fear of girls – these are all played out in Johnny’s whacked-out dream.

And it is a dream – 63 minutes of movie, 57 of them a child’s dream sequence. Anyone who actually watches it from beginning to end understands that, but there seems to be great reluctance to think that this lets it off the hook for any of the silliness. The dialog, hackneyed from the humans, pompous nonsense from the Ro-Men, is marked by frequent non-sequitors. The gorilla suit/diver’s mask, the repetetive hillside wandering, the German-accented dad draw sneers. And the bubble machine…oh the bubble machine! All of it though – all of it – is a plausible outgrowth of this boy’s dream logic, his personal interests, his fears, and his own limitations as a “writer”. As an act of filmmaking, they are not just cheap but lazy, in an essentially Woodian way. But as an explication of a child’s subconscious, the slapdash becomes the inspired, even brave in it’s 1953 fatalism.

Let’s examine some evidence:

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The poison that is warping our young men’s minds! The first shot of the film. Nothing that comes after this beginning should be much of a surprise. It also grounds Robot Monster where I think it fits best -as a morbid children’s film. I like to think what we’re seeing here is Johnny’s personal comic collection.

While we’re on the credits, there’s some other ground we should cover:

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Yes, yes, Elmer Bernstein did the score. Which means an Oscar winner worked on it, which is more than most flicks can claim.

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One of the most charming credits ever.

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Young Johnny stalks his little sister in the park, approaching her in his bubble-blowing space helmet.

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“Gee, are you scientists?”

The kids meet a couple of men studying markings on the cave wall. They’re archaeologists, which Johnny quickly, happily catergorizes as scientists.

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They return to Mom and their older sister for a picnic lunch. Mom’s picked just the right spot, if you like desolation. We find out Dad died some time ago, and Johnny for one misses the Old Man. Or at least his familial role – he hopes they get a new dad, and wishes that dad could be a scientist. They all nap after lunch, and Johnny’s dream unambiguously kicks in. He awakens before the others and wanders back to the cave mouth.

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At first the cave looks as it did when the archaeologists were there, but as Johnny falls to sleep there again, it gains a smattering of cartoonishly scientific equipment and…a bubble machine!

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Johnny awakens and hides as Ro-Man appears! Yes, its basically a gorilla suit and an old diver’s helmet. Yes , it’s silly, cheap, incompetent, but it’s also not so out of line with shot one – the array of sci-fi monster comics. It’s not hard to imagine how Johnny’s Id dreamed this fellow up.

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Ro-Man XJ2’s devastation, leaving earth a hulking wreck of film negative. He’s a foot soldier for the Ro-Men, charged with eliminating Earth’s threat by eliminating every Hu-Man in a grand holocaust.

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He’s periodically receiving orders via viewscreen from this fellow, the Great Guidance (aka the same gorilla suit with a slightly different diver’s helmet). The Great Guidance, it turns out, is a demanding boss who just micromanages and doesn’t understand that sometimes your employees just need to feel a litte appreciated.

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Johnny with his dream family. The German-accented archaeologist is now (and seemingly always was, in the dream reality) his dad. Mom has a new, fashion-forward dress. Their home is a ruin, but they are safe because brilliant scientist dad (with brilliant scientist older sis) has constructed an electrical shield that defies detection. As is frequently the case, what seems silly must be allowed as part of the dream-logic: Johnny’s family are the last humans alive on earth, and Ro-Man just happens to have made his Earth headquarters in a cave just down the road from them? Yes. Even if competent people with budget to spare were making this, you wouldn’t change that – if we were asked to take it seriously it would be ludicrous. We’re not though – we’re asked to accept that this is how a boy would dream of his encounter with a world-destroying alien, and that’s not hard at all.

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Frustrated Ro-Man taunts the last plucky family that defies him. Johnny’s dream is both nightmarish (alone in a nuclear annhilation) but self-aggrandizing (my family is the toughest).

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The last people on Earth, Johnny’s family. They’ve been joined by George Nader (the assistant archaeologist of the pre-dream opening). He’s sweet on Johnny’s older sister and is a potential big brother. Nader is all ripped shirt, he-man tough guy, and not overcompensating in any way at all, really he’s not.

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Thank God! These 63 minute features really are a trial.

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Walk walk walk walk. Ro-man does lots and lots of this, tediously back and forth across the dry hills. The movie is padded at 63 minutes. I always like to imagine that he’s walking somewhere mundane, like he ran out of margarine back at the cave and needs to pop down to the store.

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Ro-man has decided that although he’s sworn to destroy all Hu-Mans, there’s something about Sis that makes him want to “negotiate” with her. Dad and George seem to know exactly what that’s all about and tie her up so she can’t go meet Ro-man.

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I once caught a fish this big!”

This would be the ever-so-ill-conceived silent love scene, played out entirely in made-up sign language. It’s horrible. And not to be missed.

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George and Claudia decide they want to get married before they’re all killed. Dad performs the solemn ceremony. So solemn that George takes his shirt off for it. Because he’s dead butch, make no mistake.

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Little Carla comes across Ro-Man on the trails. Compare and contrast to the first human subjects in the film, Johnny in his space helmet menacing his little sister.

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Mom and Dad find Carla’s broken body. Children die in this, which makes the film both unusual in 1953, and, like I said, pretty morbid for a kid’s film.

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Ro-Man: I am ordered to kill you. I must do it with my hands.

Sister: How is it you’re so strong, Ro-man? It seems impossible!

Man, that is poetry. Straight up, testosterone juiced poetry. Caveman, indeed!

Ro-Man catches his girl and takes her back to his cave to show her his wall paintings. He roughly rips the front of her shirt down and ties her up. Tying up big Sis is becoming a theme.

Ro-Man: I cannot, and 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.

Okay, that is not poetry.

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On a roll now, Ro-man gets ahold of Johnny and strangles him! Strangled, in your own dream! Ok, this is where I should mention one of the complexities that I think makes Robot Monster worthy of brownie points. I think, in Johnny’s dream, he is not only himself, Johnny, he’s also Ro-Man. At least some of the time. All-powerful in his space helmet, unstoppable, cannot be told when to come in for supper, confused with Claudia’s changing relationship to boys (and his own changing relationship to girls). Owner of the galaxy’s most powerful bubble machine! Is it really such a leap between the two images below: Johnny striding over the hills play acting the villainous helmeted spaceman and Ro-Man being the villainous helmeted spaceman in the exact same park?

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The Great Guidance exults in Johnny’s death, and rains down destruction on everyone/thing left, including Ro-Man.

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A boy and his monster alter-ego, in death together. The very earth splits, and all things end.

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Johnny wakes up back at the cave with a knock on the head. All is back as it should be. Dad isn’t “Dad” anymore, he’s back to being a friendly German archaeologist. It’s a little Wizard of Oz – “and you were there, and you were there” – but only a little. All is well.

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Or is it? Ro-Man appears again, lumbering from the cave, over and over, coming right up to us before he translucently disappears.

The dream is now yours.

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I’ve completely avoided mentioning the dinosaurs until now. I don’t know where these clips come from, was it some Ernest Shoedsack production from the 20s/30s? These stop-motion dinosaurs appear at the beginning of the dream and the end. I can’t mount a defense for this. I got nothing. It’s just dumb.

A final thought – the ridiculousness of the Ro-Man costume. Let’s spare a moment for his comic book compatriots and insipirations, and remember that the illustrators of these comics had no practical limitations on their imaginations – they didn’t have to actually design to costume an actor. In short, they had no excuse:

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I came to praise Caesar, but I’ve probably just managed to bury him some more. And yet, I will always think not just fondly but at least a little well of Robot Monster. Of course it isn’t a masterpiece – I’m struggling just to get away with a reason to call it not bad. Yet neither is it anything like the worst non-Ed Wood movie ever made. I could name five Nicolas Cage movies with less redeeming value without thinking hard. With a reasonably competent director/crew, with at least a television-sized budget, and ten minutes shorter, Robot Monster could have been a fondly-remembered episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, rather than a casual subject for decades of mockery.

10 Responses to “In Defense Of Robot Monster”

  1. Greg F says:

    Darrell, I think that’s a brilliant defense of the film. I’d like to see it again now to view with this in mind. It definitely owes a kinship to Invaders from Mars which I love unabashedly.

    Also, I bet I could name ten Nicolas Cage flicks with less redeeming value, especially any movie with “treasure” in the title.

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon, I appreciate it.

    • Darrell says:

      Thanks Greg! And thanks for the chance to participate. There’s probably some sort of drinking game to be made out of naming bad Nic Cage movies, but I’m not about to put in the work to come up with it.

  2. Chris Stangl says:

    Re: stock footage — the fighting lizard dinos are from ONE MILLION B.C., animated creatures from LOST CONTINENT, and Ro-Man’s viewscreen shows borrowed effects from ROCKETSHIP X-M, and, reportedly CAPTIVE WOMEN.

  3. Darrell: I enjoyed this post a great deal. I thought your observatins were right on! I am a Robot Monster fan myself. You have inspired me to include my post on Robot Monster in the Ed Wood Blogathon soon.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. — Mykal

  4. C. Jerry says:

    I was lucky enough to see this at the 3-D Expo and – Surprise! – the 3-D was pretty good. Especially the soap bubbles. The gorilla with the space helmet is one of the great iconic images of the 20th Century.

  5. […] See the original post: Rancid Popcorn » In Defense Of Robot Monster […]

  6. That IS the spirit! Darrell, we’ve said it one, we’ll say it again: you are welcome at DM any day! THIS is what we were hoping to find during this blogathon! A positive voice that reads clearly between the lines! Word UP! Sad that you’d have to “defend” any movie that you like, tho, don’t you think?

  7. Darrell says:

    Bless you Macistes! Thanks for the words of encouragement! Looking forward to your Woodish offering.

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