Throwback Thursday: Robot Monster 1953

In the 1950s, a classic era of film reared its head within the science fiction genre. Some of the movies made in this time were hokey, utilizing poor special effects and sometimes even worse acting, but there were others that rose to the top. The original ‘War of the Worlds‘ and ‘Forbidden Planet,’ both made in the ‘50s, were some of the best. On the other end of the spectrum lies the dirty, gritty, and sometimes campy primordial ooze of science fiction “B movies.” This is where you’ll find ‘Robot Monster.’

The story: a young boy named Johnny falls and is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he finds that an alien, Ro-Man, has invaded the Earth and killed all of humanity except for eight people. Conveniently, the survivors are Johnny’s family and a few scientists. The character of Ro-Man, one of the most popular ‘50s-era movie monsters, is played quite obviously by a man in a huge gorilla suit with – get this – a diving helmet on his head that has a TV antenna attached to it. The ridiculous costume was only one of many unintentionally-hilarious moments in this film. Using a few thrown-together pieces of what looked like old radio equipment, a dresser with tape over the mirror, and a bubble machine, Ro-Man was able to communicate with his alien superior.

The survivors are immune to Ro-Man’s “Calcinator” due to Johnny’s father injecting them with his newly discovered antibiotic. Fending off Ro-Man’s ability to locate them with a series of wires strung around the perimeter of their shelter, they await a couple of scientists who are traveling to reach an orbiting space station which houses soldiers who will save the day; that is, until Ro-Man foils their plans. In one particularly bad scene, you are able to see the hand and arm of a person holding the space ship that carries the two scientists.

After killing two of the remaining survivors, Ro-Man finds himself attracted to the pretty, twenty-something daughter. In a somewhat disturbing scene, he captures her and takes her back to the cave where he tries to molest her. Ro-Man is ordered by his superior to kill the remaining humans, including the girl; however, the monster finds that he just can’t find it in his heart to follow through with the order. For a few glances at some noteworthy lines, there’s a funny scene in which Ro-Man rationalizes the dilemma between his feelings and his commands, and he laments “at what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet?” A personal favorite was when Johnny tells Ro-Man that he looks like a “pooped-out pinwheel.”

One of the most memorable features in this movie was the re-use of footage from older movies. Specifically, ‘Robot Monster’ features a clip of an alligator (with a fin attached to its back) and a monitor wrestling each other (from 1940’s ‘One Million B.C.’), along with a borrowed stop-motion dinosaur from 1925’s ‘The Lost World.’ These “lifts” understandably provided comic relief for some viewers and confusion for others.

There were many inconsistencies in this movie, including when Johnny falls at the mouth of the cave when Ro-Man makes his entrance; in his initial fall, Johnny is wearing pants, yet he wakes up with shorts on. There were also scenes re-used in different parts of the film, likely due to a strained total budget of $16,000. The movie was filmed over the course of only four days; originally released in 3-D, it astoundingly grossed over $1 million. The director, Phil Tucker, was only twenty-five when he made Robot Monster.

At the time of the movie’s release, some reviewers made a connection between Ro-Man and the Russians. Filmed during the Cold War era, it must have been obvious that all Americans believed the Russians were going to invade, kill them, and rape their women. The phrases “Ro-Man” and “Russian” were even directly mentioned in some reviews as sounding awfully similar…

Bad acting, bad effects, and an absurd creature costume all combine to make this a ridiculous spectacle of a movie. From the inconsistencies to the random vintage dinosaur footage, the film turns into a farce. If Tucker had found more money to bring in the robot he originally wanted instead of the haphazard ape suit, I have to wonder: would the film have been better? If this had happened, however, we would have been deprived of the vision that is Ro-Man in all his strange glory.

Aliens invading with the objective of eliminating the human race is not a new concept, but this particular story is unique. Here we find that the aliens are unable to kill this family due to some sort of super antibiotic. But at the end of the day, the humans were still vulnerable to physical attacks, no matter how feebly they are doled out. There are a few shocks in the death scenes, but overall the story is weak and smells of desperation.

It’s in the presentation of the film where the inconsistencies most hurt. It was obvious that Tucker filmed some scenes to be reused over and over again. Ro-Man and his superior are one and the same, but his repetitious and blundering movements stand out. If your spaceships have visible fishing line attached to them, that’s one thing, but when a whole arm can be seen, that’s too much. Tucker seemed to have trouble finding enough footage to fill the measly one hour run time, so he reverted to splicing in the above mentioned footage from other movies.

Through all this, however, I do recommend that you check out ‘Robot Monster,’ if you haven’t already. This film is referenced so much in pop culture and can be found in many places in the entertainment world, so watch it for the sake of saying you have, and to get a small piece of the ‘50s sci-fi B-flick lodged in your brain. It’s a cult classic, after all.