Robot Monster comes with quite the reputation, often being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space as one of the ‘worst’ – and so most inadvertently entertaining – films ever made. And it’s a reputation that is pretty much deserved, although I would question both the entertainment value and the sheer badness of the film to different degrees.
Don’t get me wrong – this is sheer, unadulterated rubbish for the most part. A masterclass in basic filmmaking, the story opens (after a preamble I’ll discuss shortly) with the last six people on Earth trying to escape the clutches of Ro-Man, an invader form another world (who, as you all doubtless know, is played by a man in a gorilla costume with a diving helmet on his head) who was conveniently wiped out the rest of humanity off-camera. They are equally conveniently stuck out in the desert, and most of the ‘action’ alternates between their makeshift camp and the cave that Ro-Man has set up shop – his advanced technology consisting of a video communications screen (which the humans also have) and a machine that pumps out bubbles for no logical reason beyond the fact that director Phil Tucker thought it looked cool, needed something to justify the 3D and had obtained one for free from the manufacturers (they get a significant mention in the opening credits).
Ro-Man may have wiped out the rest of humanity, but thanks to an inoculation, these surviving humans are a trickier problem, and so much of the film is taken up with him being berated by his boss on the home planet for his incompetence and talking to the humans on their viewer, offering them a ‘painless death’ if they surrender. They are having none of it though, and when Alice (Claudia Barrett) agrees to negotiate with the alien, her father (John Mylong) and boyfriend (George Nader) object vigorously, tying her up to prevent her leaving. They suspect – with no reason at all, but correctly as it turns out – that Ro-Man has developed an unlikely crush on the girl, and while you might think it would be a sacrifice worth making to ensure the survival of humanity, this God-fearing lot will have no truck with such behaviour. In fact, so fixated are they with propriety, that Barrett and Nader go through a marriage ceremony after one date – if you’re going to repopulate the species, you won’t do it out of wedlock, goddammit!
Robot Monster is nonsensical rubbish… and yet within the context of the film, that makes a certain sense. The film opens with annoying children Johnny (Gregory Moffett) and Carla (Pamela Paulson) meeting a couple of archeologists while out on a family picnic, then suddenly lurches into the main story, where these characters are part of the family. So it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that the film is actually a child’s dream – a low rent sci-fi version of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps. The whole story, therefore, makes a certain amount of sense when seen that way. It explains why Johnny is shown as a heroic, spunky kid who helps save the day, and why his whiny kid sister gets killed by Ro-Man. In fact, we should perhaps praise Tucker for so accurately translating a small boy’s fantasies to the screen, with no quarter given towards logic or the adult audience.
But before you go off thinking that Robot Monster might be an unheralded work of art, I should point out that even allowing for this interesting approach, the film is astonishingly shoddy, with terrible acting and dreadful production values and even at 62 minutes, feels a bit slow. There are great moments – Ro-Man’s infamous “I must… but I cannot… but I must… but I cannot” speech, the scene where the kidnapped Alice pauses from screaming to have a calm chat with Ro-man about his technology, the ridiculous stock footage of dinosaurs (which again make a sort of sense if the story is filtered through the mind of a little boy – what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?) and of course Ro-Man himself, a classically dreadful alien creation – but on the whole, the film lacks the sheer weight of brilliantly bad dialogue and general nonsense to have the same entertainment value of Ed Wood’s great works.
Neither as unremittingly terrible or as entertainingly trashy as its been made out to be, Robot Monster is a definite 1950’s curio, up there with ‘what were they thinking?’ flicks like Beast of Yucca Flats for sheer oddball outsider cinema appeal. It’s certainly worth seeing, especially with a crowd and the assistance of alcohol. There are enough fun parts to make the slow pace acceptable, and while not the howlingly funny movie it’s been hyped as, it’s definitely unique!