And film to me is a magical medium that makes you dream.” -David Lynch
I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!” –Robot Monster (1953)
Robot Monster (1953) is all a dream. I spoiled the movie for you; I am so sorry.
As those proverbial dogs of summer offer a few more bays before rolling over to autumn, we find that these sleeping pups have a few more whines or whimpers in the form of nightmares, what the writers around here are calling impositions. The latest burden comes in the form of the B-movie entitled Robot Monster which has the dubious honor of being the second worst sci-fi film (Plan 9 from Outer Space laying claim to the top prize).
The story goes that, in light of the film’s negative reception, director Phil Tucker took a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and missed. Perhaps that is an apt metaphor for the movie itself, as it does not even succeed at being a bad movie. Some movies are “so bad they’re good”; this movie is just bad.
Make no mistake: you should not see this movie.
Why would I subjugate myself to such a painful cinematic experience then, you ask? Two words: Caleb Stallings.
I wish I could convey to you the misery Robot Monster inflicts on you, but then I would just be showing you the movie. Much of the painful one hour and six minute runtime revolves around a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet monologuing about what it means to be a Ro-Man and how he will annihilate the human race.
Before the machinations of the invading race are disclosed to us though, we open on a fine, summer day (much like the ones we are currently experiencing) with Johnny (Gregory Moffett) romping through the countryside, playing space men. Joining Johnny is Carla (Pamela Paulson) who, true to gender norms of the 1950s, is annoyed and wants to play house. Before long, both kids will get what they want as aliens have to be repelled (space men) and the earth must be repopulated (house).
After roaming down to a cave where a character known only as The Professor (John Mylong) and an archaeologist named Roy (George Nader) are excavating, Johnny finds himself asking about the people who once inhabited the hills. After some chitchat, Alice (Claudia Barrett) and Mother (Selena Royale) arrive to chastise Johnny for not taking a nap, which is what kids are supposed to do in the afternoons (this kid is probably eight years old). The relationships here are unclear, but the notion of a romance between Alice and Roy as well as between the widowed Mother and The Professor are foisted upon those individuals almost at once. Enter a bizarre comet blazing through the skies, some weird close footage scenes of wrestling lizards with fins taped to their bodies, and we come to the post-apocalyptic world of the Ro-Man.
Bringing human civilization to its collapse by use of a so-called Death-Ray, the Ro-Man still has yet to kill the family as they survived by taking a special serum, which was invented by the oddly foreign-sounding professor who is now their father. Did I mention that Ro-Man is supposed to be shorthand for robot man but has nothing robotic about him? Allegedly, the director was short on cash and had to settle for a gorilla suit courtesy of George Barrows. Thank you, George.
Perhaps the oddest segment of this movie, and this for a film where soap bubbles are emitted from a device of advanced technology, comes during an interlude where a shirtless Roy and a lithe Alice are traipsing through some fields and frolicking through the wilds in the early stages of romance. The subplot consumes a lot of screen time and finds its fulfillment when The Professor suddenly turns priest and marries the couple. In a movie where there is a subtext of nuclear fears, the nuclear family is safe. Further, the movie is fraught with the shifting sexual dynamics that will find its expression in Ro-Man’s struggle to overcome his libidinal desires for Alice. To discover that all of this is part of a preadolescent’s dream is nothing short of disturbing.
I find it ironic that Caleb imposed on me the task of watching Robot Monster while I had, without his knowledge, imposed on myself the task of watching every iteration of The Nightmare on Elmstreet franchise. To a certain extent, there are similarities between Phil Tucker’s B-Movie and, at the very least, the sequels to Wes Craven’s original slasher. Both are full schlock and represent the nadir of cinema. Both employ a dream device though admittedly The Nightmare on Elmstreet movies, if only in the original, are working from an intelligible and intelligent premise. By Freddy’s Dead though, both of these cinematic experiences had me dreaming for a better summer movie. What masochism was propelling me back to these kinds of narratives? If movies are dreams as David Lynch claims, then these were nightmares.
The underlying horror to both Robot Monster and The Nightmare on Elmstreet franchise though is the concept of the fragile female, the woman who is exploited sexually and violently. Aside from fleeing Freddy in the corridors of some haunted dream, the female often exists as an object of desire for teenage boys. This objectification means the woman is your American damsel and characterization is jettisoned. In similar fashion, the female figures in Robot Monster are all tropes and flat characters and do not represent women with dignity or worth. Alice exists to get married to Roy and repopulate the earth. Carla (played by a Pamela Paulson who was apparently so annoying that the cast and crew went to any length to have the character killed off) serves no other purpose than to reinforce gender stereotypes. The young girl is dispensed in the most indifferent of ways that raises some serious questions about how the death of a child could be handled so poorly on screen. The Mother, who is not even given a name, has the role of getting remarried to The Professor so she can provide Alice with a father again. Although I am not denying gender distinctions and functions within creation and the church, these kind of caricatures and objectifying portrayals further marginalize the historically oppressed women in the world and deny their full humanity. As the church, we must deconstruct what is creational and what is social regarding gender. For example, the other day my wife, Kerra, and I were discussing my step-daughter’s penchant for jeans over dresses. In the course of the conversation, Kerra mentioned how as a girl she loved dresses and LEGOs. Some of what gets labelled as masculine and feminine are bewildering indeed.
The climactic scene of the film comes when Ro-Man is given orders from The Great Guidance (another Ro-Man with a slightly different helmet, making demands from a remote location in outer space) to kill Alice with his bare hands. Such a dictate prompts the pseudo-philosophical musings from our epigraph:
“I cannot – yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”
Ro-Man’s inability here has to do with desire and emotion, which are qualities that are human and that he has not had until this point. Recently, I wrote about my struggles with OCD for Mockingbird, and the healing that comes from exposing ourselves to what we do not want to confront. When I am made anxious by an intrusive, unwanted thought that I feel as if I cannot let it exist in my mind, I find that I must if I am going to make any progress in terms of having relief from the hyper-vigilance of my brain. And yet the cannot-must paradigm applies to the disease itself, I find myself resisting the compulsive thoughts that I conjure up to negate the obsessive ones only to feel impelled to follow through on the mental ritual, as imposed upon by an outside force if you will. My choice is locked and imprisoned in this cycle, and my neurosis is a parable for the human race that is fallen and unable to accomplish God’s commands, although we are obligated to keep them.
Thus, if a movie is an expression of a culture situated in a specific time, then it is also true that its social consciousness applies to other periods of history as well, as the fundamental corruption of power structures because of the curse find different manifestation in different generations. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, we are acknowledging more and more the travesty inflicted on women, but the abuses, although they are the result of many other factors, stem from a degenerated view of women. Jesus redeems the degraded, demeaning idea of women as chattel by being born of a woman, by surrounding himself with women in his work and life, and by appearing first to a woman in his resurrection. Furthermore, he gives his people, the church, the gender of woman. Far from being an object, the church is the Son of Man’s bride and his body, his feet and hands to the world. Akin to a husband and wife, the church is one flesh with the Son of God.
In a recent conversation with Grindhouse editors, we were discussing the current tendency among some evangelicals and church leaders to deny victimhood to women and people of color. Failure to denounce racists and sexists in the church is a glaring and alarming trend among some of the celebrity Christians. Ian Olson brought up a salient point that remained with me. Without denying God’s ability to abduct anyone’s bodies and possess them with the Spirit of the King, we cannot use the colonizing power of God to give those who fail to decry abusers (or worse, defend them) a cart blanche to act as they will. When Robot Monster had fifteen minutes remaining, I looked at Kerra and said, “How will all of the conflict be resolved with such little runtime left?” And, of course, the director relied on that most deus ex machina, the, “It was all a dream” trope. Likewise, it is a deus ex machina if we expunge church leaders of any responsibility by saying, “They could be changed by the grace of God.”
Nevertheless, a hope for recreation remains for all creatures, because we do not have a Ro-Man who descends from another planet to exterminate us, but we have the God-Man who descended from the heavens to rescue us. While Ro-Man has no emotions and human desires until the tipping point at the end of the movie, the God-Man is like us in every respect but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And while the Ro-Man was receiving orders to destroy humanity and defied those orders to force himself upon the female, the God-Man obeys the orders to be destroyed for humanity and woos the church to him rather than violate her.
So, to come back to the perennial question of existence, “when does must and cannot meet?”
I suppose for me it meets in the form of a B-Horror summer movie imposition known as Robot Monster.