Robot Monster (1953) is one of those supposedly awful sci-fi movies that I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch. However, when Amok Time Toys advertised a 13” deluxe vinyl figure of the titular creature (technically called “Ro-Man”), I realized how darned fun it might unexpectedly be. I mean, the gorilla body with a presumably human head inside a space helmet is awesome!
I’m still not rating it very high; it’s not a well-made movie. It runs slow even at only a 66-minute running time. Silly, yes. Unrealistic, yes. However, when you realize the twist near the end, everything about what’s come before makes perfect sense. You have to experience it through the eyes of a child, which it turns out, is exactly how the story has been told.
Yes, spoiler alert, it’s all the dream of an unconscious boy. Learning this after the fact made me appreciate the movie a little more, but I share it up front here because knowing might help you be more forgiving along the way. For example, your opinion of alien technology that’s no more than a bubble machine might change from ridiculous to amazing.
One of the things I liked about Robot Monster is its opening credits. They appear and disappear over a background of what we’d now call “vintage” pulp magazines, including one named, Robot Monster. This immediately sets an expectation that the movie meets in concept, if not exactly in style or execution.
I was also surprised about the quality of music, written by Elmer Bernstein. Yes, that Elmer Bernstein, the one who later scored The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird. What in the world was he doing with a movie like Robot Monster? Well, it seems he was a victim of McCarthy era blacklisting and this was the only work he could get.
The movie is notable for a couple technological advances. It was the first science-fiction film with stereophonic sound and, according to Starlog #4:
Astor Films released the first sci-fi 3-D film, directed by Phil Tucker.
The article, Science-Fiction Movies in 3-D, also points out one of the most bizarre aspects of Robot Monster:
But it borrowed 2-D clips from One Million BC, which was made in 1940 to pad out its footage of prehistoric monsters.
It also used stock footage and matte paintings from Lost Continent (1951), Flight to Mars (1951), Rocketship X-M (1950), and Captive Women (1952.) I don’t know if Tucker was authorized to use this footage or what copyright laws were like in the early 1950s, but it demonstrates that there was no budget to create original special effects… except for bubble machines.
Robot Monster has earned its reputation today, but how was it received at the time it was released? For Variety, at least, both good and bad:
Judged on the basis of novelty, as a showcase for the Tru-Stereo Process, Robot Monster comes off surprisingly well, considering the extremely limited budget ($50,000) and schedule on which the film was shot.
Of the principals, George Nader, as the aide who falls in love with and eventually marries the scientist’s daughter in a primitive ceremony, fares the best. Selena Royle also comes across okay, but of the others the less said the better.
Written by Wyatt Ordung
Directed by Phil Tucker
Starring George Nader, Claudia Barrett, Selena Royale, John Mylong, Gregory Moffett, Pamela Paulson, George Barrows, John Brown
RT 66 min.
Released June 25, 1953
Home Video Amazon Prime
David Hutchison, Science-Fiction Movies in 3-D
Starlog, pp. 27, 29
February/March, 1977, United States, Starlog Group
Variety Staff, Robot Monster
December 31, 1952