Dir. Phil Tucker
Film #28 of The ‘Worst’ of Cinema
"The trouble with modern day films is that the actors and actresses seem to be showing off rather than acting...don't you think."
- YouTube Comment -
I will argue that American genre cinema is not as unbridled and uninhibited as one wishes it could be. Japan sits on top of both categories as the unchallenged king, able to have deep questions on the human condition alongside two androids melding together into a phallic-headed man. After that every country has vast quantities of these ideals, especially in Europe and Eastern Europe. American cinema has its fair share of imaginary phantasmagoria, but there is also many ‘should-have-beens’, films which could have been more artistically creative, more pulpy, more crazier, despite the great ideas they had to start with. Fifties science fiction is becoming for me a vast area of all these virtues in American cinema even if the films are bad. The obsession with nuclear annihilation and the Cold War, mixed with an innocent sincerity, despite the darker aspects of the era, and the development of technology like 3D, creates a distinct tone to these films where everyone I’ve seen is difficult to forget, even if I am bored by them, because of their moods created from all this. Robot Monster, dubbed one of the worst films of the genre, is a lot more potent in its tone and creation than a great deal of bad films, as has been brought up with other films reviewed in this season, made decades later.
When the entire human race, in a quite gruesomely nihilistic fashion, is destroyed, except for eight people, by cosmic death rays by the alien species the Ro-mans, the survivors have to content with the Ro-man charged by his grand leader to eliminate the last survivors. It is impossible to take Robot Monster seriously, but considering how legendary this film is for its titular monster, a man in a gorilla suit with a diver’s helmet for a head, this should vetoed from being a justifiable criticism. A real criticism is that, while this could have worked fully with such a low budget and small cast, a great deal of its sixty or so minutes is of the Ro-man wandering around the countryside and cave hideout. There is a fine line between moments of introspection and just having actors waddling about the shooting location, and just like being too reliant on exposition dialogue, it has undermined a terrible amount of B- and C-level films and quite a few blockbusters too. The sense of the gap in ‘bad’ cinema, the pregnant pauses and long, awkward passages of dialogue and action that catches itself out in comparison to ‘good’ dialogue and acting, which blends into the cinematic world seamlessly, is an obsession for connoisseurs of these sorts of films. There is a concern however that the border between the profoundly languid and comedic, and the utterly tedious, is up for debate. In the case of Robot Monster, for its benefit, it blurs, but other times you wonder why anyone would find any worth in a long drawn out of scene. Perversely this is the same concern that exists in areas of art cinema, the difference between Michelangelo Antonioni and Bela Tarr, in their use of slow, methodical camera takes, to a hack who leaves the camera on not knowing what to do. The difference is the latter isn’t discussing the awkward transitions in Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) where actors move across screen to the next plot point or their next line.
Robot Monster is also peculiar – not weird, but peculiar in how goes with the concept of the end of humanity by an extraterrestrial force through a young boy’s mindset. This may spoil this film, or the one I am about to evoke if you’ve seen Robot Monster, but this film has the same narrative structure of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), the only film Dr. Seuss worked on, and one has to wonder, even if the film has glaring flaws, whether the writer of this film’s plot was purposely playing off the story as the sort of thing a younger boy would conjure up. With an opening title with sci-fi comic books and paperbacks in the background on top of each other, and the boy character wandering around in the first scenes with a toy space helmet on, with a toy ray gun pretending to disintegrate his little sister, is this film purposely playing itself off as, without revealing too much, a child’s flight of fancy? Considering the structure of the film, where an older archaeologist he meets becomes his father, his real one dead, and his assistant becomes the love interest for his older sister, and somehow this film that is dismissed as garbage manages to be actually interesting as cheapy sci-fi pulp that was shot in four days in 3D. This is not to defend Robot Monster as a great film, but like a lot of these films, it was an attempt at sincere filmmaking, and in this one, that sincerity shines through. The peculiarities of the film, of what Ro-man looks like and, more oddly, of there being scenes of stop motion dinosaurs or actual lizards fighting on tiny, model jungle opening sets, whether for the film or pre-existing footage, used numerous times including to depict mankind’s end, makes the film stranger. Why dinosaurs and overlarge iguanas? It is better not to ask and go with the surrealness of it. The Ro-man himself falls in love, or has inklings of physical passions for the older sister, and has an existential crisis about his function in life. The sister herself, an independent and technologically gifted genius, is literally tied up by her father and lover who refuse to let her act by herself by meeting the Ro-Man and having a negotiation of their lives with him in favour of a relationship. This sort of thing is far more interesting than what usually counts as entertainment in ‘so-bad-its-good’ films. Boom mikes popping up in the corner onscreen are amusing, but they don’t hold a candle to a creature, made from a gorilla suit and a diver’s helmet, being given a personality and a conflicting crisis about his existence of a drone.
This nature of what Robot Monster is – of what could have been a legitimately great film but is still memorable to see – is far more worth its weight in gold for me after a season of films like this than something ‘so bad’ you laugh at it. It’s a compelling failure rather than an excuse in film making product – like Sunday School Musical (2008) – that is completely worthless. I didn’t find Robot Monster to be the most rewarding of films of this ilk I’ve seen, but playing out as an adolescent’s imagination in cheap location scouting and costuming, it proves to be more than its reputation as a golden turkey suggests even if it’s just to illicit surprise and little else.