Numerous films dealing with alien invasion were produced during science fiction’s heyday of the 1950’s. Some, such as producer George Pal’s The War of the Worlds or 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, are considered legitimate classics of the genre and among the best sci-fi films of their era. Others, such as producer Edward L. Alperson Jr.’s Invaders From Mars or the Ray Bradbury-penned It Came from Outer Space, while widely respected, are remembered as prime examples of the “pulp” entertainment these films were generally meant to provide. Others still, such as Invasion of the Saucer Men or (arguably) 1959’s Teenagers From Outer Space are now considered “cult classics” to a growing legion of cinematic cheese gourmand.
And then there’s 1953’s Robot Monster.
Shot almost entirely in Los Angeles’ Bronson Canyon, which has been featured in countless classic (and not-so-classic) sci-fi films, Robot Monster tells the story of “Ro-Man”, an alien agent sent from the Earth’s moon to destroy all life on our planet. Why these “Moon Men” have decided to destroy our planet is never really disclosed, but let’s face it, there are plenty of logical arguments as to why humanity doesn’t deserve to exist. As the film opens, Ro-Man is nearing completion of his mission, with only 8 Earthlings still left alive.
Although called a “Robot Monster”, there’s little about Ro-man’s appearance that signifies a creation of robotic nature. In fact, the “monster” part is somewhat questionable as Ro-Man is really nothing more than a simian creature (as portrayed by a homemade gorilla suit) with an antique diving bell on his head. While featuring a skull face in the film’s promotional materials, this facet is never clearly seen in the film, if it’s even there at all. However, despite being on a mission of genocide, Ro-Man may not be the film’s biggest “monster”.
Of the 8 humans still alive, one is a young boy named “Johnny” (Gregory Moffett). Johnny lives with his parents and two sisters in the tattered frame of what was once a normal everyday home. Johnny’s father was a scientist before the invasion by Ro-Man and his ilk, as was his older sister, Alice (Claudia Barrett). Also living with the family is the father’s assistant, Roy, who is believed to have been recently killed by Ro-Man’s “death ray”.
When we first meet Johnny, he’s wearing a plastic “spaceman” helmet and brandishing a toy “raygun”. He “zaps” his younger sister, Carla, blissfully unaware, or possibly unconcerned, that he is playfully recreating the demise of his entire species. Tired of her brother’s game, Carla asks Johnny if he will play “house” with her now that she’s “dead”. Instead of playing with his sister, Johnny wanders off to what may be one of numerous caves in the area, but is probably in reality the same cave entrance used repeatedly by director Phil Tucker in an effort to save time and money. As the film was reportedly shot in 4 days on a budget of just over $16,000, this seems a likely answer. The kids discover two Earth astronauts, here called “space pilots”, waiting just inside.
The “space pilots” announce that they’ve returned to Earth from an orbiting space station, but will soon be preparing their ship for departure. Some questions go unanswered here, such as “How did the Moon Men miss this space station while preparing their invasion of Earth?”, and “Why are the space pilots leaving Johnny and his family behind to die while they return to the safety of their space station?”, but gaps in narrative logic such as these are commonplace in Robot Monster.
Alice and her mother soon arrive at the cave, out in search of the young children. They introduce themselves to the pilots, which provokes Johnny to tell his mother that he hopes his next father is a “big, burly scientist… like these men”. As Johnny’s father is very much still alive, this sounds like a rather spiteful comment. However, as Johnny has been raised to watch everyone in the world die, his statement is presumably based in grim reality.
The family says their goodbyes and sets out to have a picnic, followed by a short nap. Out in the open. With an alien creature devoted to their demise still on their trail. While the others doze, Johnny wakes from his nap and returns to the cave to continue his visit with the astronauts. The men are nowhere to be found, but in their place now awaits footage of dinosaurs fighting that is ripped directly from 1940’s One Million B.C.! As viewers are rendered speechless by the nonsense unfolding before them, Johnny is rendered unconscious by some sort of electrical force emanating from the cave. Upon waking, Johnny discovers a bizarre device resembling a bubble-spewing reel-to-reel recorder just feet from where he lay. The boy flees from the cave just moments before Ro-Man emerges from the darkness within.
Ro-Man has also installed a large viewscreen contraption with which he communicates with an identical alien creature back at the Moon Men’s base. (Presumably, on the Moon.) This alien, referred to as “The Great Guidance”, is the “leader” for Ro-Man’s mission. The Great Guidance urges Ro-Man to finish the eradication of the Earthlings as quickly as possible, growing irritated that the job has already taken as long as it has. This irritation is quite justified, especially when you consider that Ro-Man could have just killed Johnny while he was setting up that new entertainment center. Maybe drop a subwoofer on his head a few dozen times?
Back at the family’s shelter, the older members of the clan grieve the recent (assumed) loss of Roy, as well as the loss of every other person on the planet. Mostly Roy though. Maybe it’s childish innocence and naivety, or maybe watching the entire planet die eventually desensitizes a kid, but Johnny makes a few jokes at the expense of the fallen. Whatever it takes to get you through the realization that in order to repopulate our planet and return Earth to its former glory, you’re eventually going to have to fuck one of your sisters, Johnny. Whatever it takes.
Somehow, Johnny’s family owns a similar viewscreen. Ro-Man spends a large portion of the film essentially prank calling the family on their viewscreen just to taunt them with death threats and chants of superiority. You’d think as a “superior species” he’d have the ability to use the viewscreen to triangulate on their coordinates, but he’s too busy bragging about all the people he’s killed to even look in the background of the image and notice that the humans are living only mere yards away!!
Roy suddenly returns, bringing with him a plan to defeat Ro-Man. As both Alice’s scientific rival and not-so-secret love interest, he also brings with him a barrel full of sexual tension. While this romantic element is superfluous to the story, and presumably a “turn-off” to many of the young comic-book-reading boys that the film undoubtedly targeted, more disenchanting is that this dynamic completely distracts from a more compelling story element. Just before Roy reappears, Johnny’s father reveals that he’s been hiding a pistol weapon. When Alice remarks that such a weapon would not stop a being of Ro-Man’s “immense power”, the father replies, “It’s not for him. It’s for us!”. This is an unusually dark concept to consider in what is essentially a film for kids, especially when films from this time period would normally shy away from even implying things such as suicide.
Ro-man once again “calls” the family on their viewscreen to harass and threaten them. I’m not sure why Johnny’s family continues to answer the “calls”. I mean, it’s not like anyone else will be waiting on the other line. As if to prove his determination, Ro-Man uses the death ray to destroy the launch pad that the astronauts need in order to return to space, seemingly killing both men in the process. This only accentuates the cold, uncomfortable fact that if Johnny and his family have any hopes of re-populating the planet, there is a 100% chance of incest in their future.
In an effort to save her family from inevitable death at Ro-Man’s hands (or rays), Alice agrees to meet with the alien in the hopes of negotiating for their survival. She plans to meet with Ro-Man alone, an idea that her family is strongly against. So against, in fact, that both Roy and her father physically restrain her from leaving the shelter. With all of their focus spent on stopping Alice, they completely neglect to notice Johnny slipping over a short wall and out into the wasteland.
It’s revealed that Johnny’s father has developed a serum that has made the family immune to the death ray attacks. Unfortunately, Johnny divulges this information to Ro-Man after the creature’s failed attempt to “zap” the child. The little dumbass also lets slip that the astronauts had been given the serum as well, meaning that they’ve actually survived Ro-Man’s attack. How these two men managed to survive an exploding rocket will remain a mystery.
The tone soon shifts towards more of a “love story”, focusing heavily on Alice and Roy’s burgeoning romance. Despite avoiding his advances throughout the film, Roy manages to plant a kiss on Alice’s forehead. From this moment forward, the blossoming young woman seemingly can’t keep her hands off the man, groping him every opportunity that she gets. The two lovers are concerned more with plans to get married than the alien entity attempting to kill them.
The couple is soon married by Alice’s father in a small ceremony. This news does not sit well with Ro-Man, who has developed an attraction towards the Earthling girl, much to the disdain of the Great Guidance. Ro-Man argues that Alice should be spared in case she is needed for “future research”, but it’s a shallow ploy that the Great Guidance quickly sees through. In spite of his orders, Ro-Man still can’t bring himself to kill the girl, but he seemingly has very few qualms about killing her family.
Ro-Man accosts the newlyweds as they make-out in one of the numerous clearings of Bronson Canyon, or wherever this apocalyptic landscape is supposed to be. Roy is killed (for real this time) and Ro-Man carries Alice off to his cave. As if this act of violence weren’t enough to quench the creature’s murderlust, Ro-Man also kills the youngest sister, Carla. Although many reviews list the girl’s death as strangulation, she is found with her head laying on a large rock, which lends credence to the idea that the alien may have bashed her head in or broken her neck. Whatever the true cause, Johnny’s only response to the death of his sister and only playmate…. and possible future mate… is that he probably should have played house with her more often. You’re a cold motherfucker, Johnny!
In spite of her steadfast will and determination in the face of sexual discrimination in the scientific field, Alice puts up absolutely no resistance when Ro-Man binds her arms, rips the straps of her top, and pushes her to the ground. However, he still refuses to kill the girl, which leaves the Great Guidance with no choice but to destroy Ro-Man and finish the job himself. He accomplishes this task by unleashing a series of earthquakes, as well as more stock footage dinosaurs, upon the Earth.
Much to the dismay of many viewers, the entire story is revealed to have been Johnny’s concussion-induced dream. Our world had not been eradicated. However, as if in an attempt to imply that everything that had transpired was indeed still about to, the film closes with a shot of Ro-Man emerging from the cave. While the scene pretty much fails to convey its message, what’s clearly understood is that viewers have just wasted 66 minutes of their life on this tripe. Even a score from Elmer Bernstein does nothing to lift Robot Monster‘s low standings.
Despite its paltry budget and a lack of polish, cohesiveness, or competency, Robot Monster managed to pull in over one million dollars at the box office. That said, the film is still widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. What there is no doubt to, however, is that the film remains a shining example of ineptitude. As if to further expound on this belief, it is reported that years after the film’s release, director Phil Tucker, distraught from not being paid for the film, attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. He did not succeed. It arguably was still not his biggest failure.
PUNY HU-MANS!! ROBOT MONSTER IS AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM AMAZON: CLICK HERE