3-D movies, the most stubborn fad in cinema, turned 100 last year. Twenty twenty-two marked the centenary of the unremembered 1922 film The Power of Love, released with dual-strip projection and those familiar anaglyph glasses to a presumably gobsmacked audience of Los Angelenos.
The technology has, of course, continued to evolve amid peaks and valleys in its popularity. Even the little-appreciated Blu-ray 3-D, which debuted in 2010 with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs — so many delicious spherical calories, showering one’s living room! — occasionally keeps the technology alive on a small scale.
So when I received a copy of Robot Monster on Blu-ray (BayView Entertainment, $34.99), with flimsy red-and-blue-lensed glasses tucked inside the jewel case, I couldn’t resist. The micro-budget independent science fiction film, released in 1953 and celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, purports to be the first movie shot in the proprietary “Tru-Stereo 3-D.”
I can report that, functionally, everything works: The 3-D effect, while not exactly on par with its dazzling deployment on, say, the Avatar series or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, can be felt every time a character waves a projectile in front of them, or bubbles waft in the foreground. Whether you’ll actually want to sit through the movie is another matter entirely, one dependent on your predilection for 1950s schlock cinema, the company you keep, or how many drinks you’ve imbibed or, let’s say, certain gummies you’ve ingested before pressing Play. My viewing, it must be said, was completed while entirely too sober.
Robot Monster’s reputation as one of the worst movies ever made precedes it, to the point that, like Plan Nine from Outer Space and The Room, it’s become a badge of honor. Both Mystery Science Theater 3000 and one its offshoots, RiffTrax, have riffed the movie, further cementing its place in the annals of cult trash.
It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, where a race of alien Ro-Men — faceless figures in ape suits topped with makeshift space helmets and antennae — have wiped out almost all of humanity in a preventive measure. We have, after all, developed the Bomb, and we have become, in the Ro-Men’s calculation, far too intelligent and threatening to survive. Only one family, led by patriarch Roy (George Nader), remains, having developed a protective force field against the Ro-Men’s weapons. One Ro-Man, voiced by George Barrows in his best Orson Welles radio baritone, is dispatched to Earth to seek and destroy the family.
Shot by director Phil Tucker for all of $16,000, Robot Monster is the type of movie that leaves in its mistakes, like the occasional amateurish shaking of the camera; why bother re-shooting when everything else in the take was fine? The movie’s special effects are as leaden as its heavy-handed score (by Elmer Bernstein, of all composers), and consist almost entirely of stock footage of wrestling dinosaurs and soaring rockets from other B-pictures, repeated ad nauseam.
But what really dooms (or further endears) the film is its overall inertia. The dramatic potential of its premise quickly withers. Tucker was smart enough to conceive of a form of video screen communication more than a decade before Star Trek, but essentially the Ro-Man just hangs out in his cave and Skypes people — either his supervisor, known as the Great Guidance, or Roy.
Screenwriter Wyott Ordung’s dialogue is hilariously wooden, whether conjuring alien-speak or attempting to capture prepubescent slang (To the Ro-Man: “You look like a pooped-out pinwheel,” dings Johnny, Roy’s youngest son, played by a gung-ho Gregory Moffett). There’s even a subliminal dig at the movie itself, as when one character channels the film’s audience: “I only wish it were over now.” The movie is a tedious 66 minutes, complete with an “Intermission” title card, which may be the most unintentionally funny gag in the movie.
Maybe it’s my nature to find unironic value even in such transparent trash, but a modicum of intellect lurks under the tacky costumes and ham-fisted script. The nuclear threat, and its potential to wipe out humanity, was a palpable concern at the time of Robot Monster’s release, as the buzziest film currently in our theaters reminds us. And the movie explores the duality of the individual versus the collective, with the Ro-Man, arriving on Earth from a Borg-like society, attempting to establish his independence from the hive-mind.
Of course, just when we start to take something, anything, seriously, a deus ex machina cheesier than a Velveeta factory disrupts the story. But at least it’s accompanied with some analog visual fireworks to justify the 3D glasses.
BayView’s Blu-ray restoration is beautiful. The funds, supported by a $63,000 Kickstarter campaign, were clearly well-spent, and the disc contains more than two hours of bonus footage. The surplus of support even allowed for the commission of a new original song cheekily referencing the movie’s plot, “Was I a Man,” written and performed by the New York folk duo the Other Favorites. The moody composition, added on to the end credits as a postscript, may be the best original Americana tune about a sci-fi B-movie since Sturgill Simpson’s title song from “The Dead Don’t Die.” And it works even if you’re stone-cold sober.