|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Aug 01, 2003)
THE INVISIBLE BOY
Alternative Title: S.O.S. SPACESHIP
Pro Co: Pan Productions/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Dir: Herman Hoffman;
Pro: Nicholas Nayfack;
Wr: Cyril Hume.
Phot: Harold Wellman;
Film Ed: John D. Faure;
Mus: Les Baxter;
Art Dir: Merril Pye.
SFX: Irving Block, Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin.
Cast: Richard Eyer, Philip Abbot, Diane Brewster, Robby the Robot, Harold J. Stone, Robert H. Harris, Dennis McCarthy, Alexander Lockwood, John O?Malley, Alfred Linder (v only), Marvin Miller.
INTRODUCTION (Minor Spoilers Within)
Fred M Wilcox?s Forbidden Planet (56) is generally considered a key work in SF cinema. Remembered for its for its impressive technical skill and production values along with its ambitious plotting, most viewers will have probably have some difficulty recalling much about the rather bland leading characters and performers who appeared in the film. The exception to this was a character created by the production?s craftspeople.
Created at a cost of anywhere between $125,000 and $1,000,000, depending on which source is quoted, and measuring over 7 foot tall, Robby the Robot was the result of the efforts of a number of individuals, although the final design as it appeared in the movie is usually attributed to Robert Kinoshita. On the release of Forbidden Planet, Robby became an almost overnight star in his own right, even appearing as a very popular self-assembly model kit. Producer Nicholas Nayfack, long resident at MGM, of course immediately saw the potential for a vehicle featuring the robotic character, particularly amongst younger viewers, and established an independent company (within the studio) then had Forbidden Planet?s screenwriter Cyril Hume rework an existing treatment based on noted sci-fi author Edmund Cooper?s 1955 short story ?The Brain Child?, to accommodate Robby?s presence.
Two high ranking military officers, General Swaine and Colonel Macklin arrive at The Stoneman Institute of Mathematics, and are greeted by its director Dr Marineau. They are there to make use of the Insitute?s top secret computer facility, hidden deep underground within the Institute. There, surrounded by other subsidiary computers, the officers are taken to the main console, that controls a super computer which has stored all human knowledge stored in its memory banks. The colonel expresses reservations about the effectiveness of the security in place at the Institute but is reassured by both Marineau and Swaine that every precaution has been taken to ensure the computer and the facility?s personnel. Marineu is given two problems concerning a new military space platform, punched onto two cards. These are fed to the computers, which to the surprise of the military men can communicate verbally. The results generated by the computer shock the Colonel and the General, as it is so at odds with their own experts? findings. The director tells him that there is virtually impossible for the computer to have made an error or for it have lied to them. On leaving the console room Marineau is asked how it is possible to prevent the enemy form invading the premises and stealing part of the computer in order to build something similar for their own purposes. He tells him that the machine cannot be manipulated without a complex mathematical code that only he is in possession of. Later the director is at dinner in his house with his wife and young son, Timmy. The father is becoming annoyed by Timmy?s table manners and chastises him for it. Eventually the boy asks Marineau about his work with the computer. The father is pleased that the child is beginning to take an interest in scientific matters and proceeds to elaborate at length about the computer and its functions. After noting his son?s black eye, which he received from another boy, the father shows little sympathy and announces maths classes for him. The boy is completely uninterested in mathematics, much to the exasperation of Marineau and the lesson finishes early. After bemoaning to wife the lack of progress in teaching even the most basic concepts he returns to the Institute and uses the computer to assess the situation. The computer tells him that it cannot make a complete analysis until he has made direct contact with the boy. On leaving the console room the director remarks to his colleagues that he has a suspicion that the computer just made an independent suggestion. Later the boy is presented to the computer who then proceeds to hypnotise him so that the rules of chess can be instilled into him. The next day the boy is narrowly defeated in a game by his father. The son then challenges him to another game with the reward being that he will be allowed to visit a discontinued project at the Institute called Robby?
There has been some debate in fan circles as to The Invisible Boy?s relationship to Forbidden Planet. The general consensus appears to be that the Robby the Robot character that appears in Herman Hoffman?s film is not the same as that in the earlier production. However closer examination of The Invisible Boy reveals a strong link between the two movies.
In a scene taking place in the film?s first act, Marineau?s son, Timmy, is being shown around a lab where the disassembled Robby is stored, when both he and his father come across a photo of Robby surrounded by strangely uniformed people and purporting to be Chicago Spaceport in the same time period as Forbidden Planet. The father explains that Robby was the product of a time travel experiment of a former Institute director who subsequently went mad. This scene therefore suggests that Hoffman?s film is a direct spin-off from Wilcox?s original.
Reportedly the studio that made Forbidden Planet, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were somewhat taken aback at the completed work presented to them by Fred M Wilcox and his crew. Instead of the juvenile space adventure they were expecting from a director best known for family fare like Lassie Come Home (43) and The Secret Garden (49), what they actually got was a creative, highly imaginative reworking of William Shakespeare?s ?The Tempest?.
The Invisible Boy can therefore be seen as something of a corrective by the studio to Forbidden Planet, with the presence of a lead child actor, along with much more family audience friendly comedy and lightweight dramatic situations.
Viewers familiar with syndicated American television comedy, particularly sitcoms, may recognise Diane Brewster (The Pharaoh?s Curse 56), here playing the titular character?s mother, from the early seasons of the highly influential late 1950s series Leave It to Beaver. While her role is very much subordinate in Harold Hoffman?s production, it is significant since, for its first half, The Invisible Boy resembles a dry run for that programme.
This impression is underlined by the appearance of child actor Richard Eyer (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad 58), whose appearance and performance are designed to maximise the cuteness of his character, with emphasis being placed on his freckled complexion, comic malapropisms and baseball attire. Eyer?s appearance is the over-familiar, and annoying, standard model for nearly all television pre-teen kids, and many viewers will get the impression that the makers are making the serious error of talking down to their target audience.
The sitcom influence can also be seen in the film?s visual style. Obviously made with far fewer resources than were made available to Fred M Wilcox?s production, the overlit, monochromatic photography of Harold Wellman (Atlantis ? The Lost Continent 61) adopts the limited camera set-ups favoured by filmed television while the direction by Herman Hoffman, with its absence of any real style or creative flair, for the most part, shows why he was comfortable working almost exclusively (apart from the occasional writing credit) in episodic television from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s. Most of the film?s other production values such as the art direction and the music score by Les Baxter (Macabre 58) are just above broadcast standard.
Cyril Hume?s screenplay reworks many conventional sitcom plot devices to accommodate Robby and the other sci-fi elements found in The Invisible Boy. When he has reassembled Robby, Timmy and the robot, with some assistance from his father?s master computer, team up for a series of comic japes. This includes the construction of a giant radio-controlled kite, in which the boy flies through the air to the horror of his mother. Later, employing some of the scientific equipment at the Stoneman Institute, Robby is able to make Timmy invisible (thus justifying the movie?s title). While invisible Timmy plays pranks on his father and his colleagues, takes revenge on the school bully who has been terrorising him and ends up spying on his parents in their bedroom.
This is all pretty mundane, uninteresting stuff and is not helped by Herman Hoffman?s leaden direction which makes the film?s first act and part of the second very hard going indeed, except for the least demanding viewer.
Although presented as a typical television family, the situation in Herman Hoffman?s work is not quite what it appears.
Initially presented as rather amiable, the father (Philip Abbot) is soon revealed to be an emotionally repressed intellectual fascist and all-round control freak whose only concern is his work as director and controller of the Stoneman Institute. Despite having very little empathy with his son, he feels it is his duty to educate him in order to create a carbon copy of himself. Timmy?s mother is the opposite of his father and reacts to everything by emotional overreacting.
Timmy himself is seen as a normal, cheerful child, harbouring dreams of playing with other children and visits to the cinema and the candy store rather than spending the holidays learning mathematics with his father. He is also shown to possess creative tendencies, preferring to read a book or play the piano instead of being programmed with mathematical formulae by his father in much the same way that he programmes the computers he works on and with whom he has stronger empathy. It is implied by screenwriter Cyril Hume that because of his parents? serious inadequacies, the son may be developing serous emotional and psychological problems as evidenced by his graphic description of what he would like to do to the school bully.
If the first half of The Invisible Boy is mainly routine, things become much more interesting during the latter part of the second act.
Following a serious row with his parents over the prank in their bedroom, Robby suggests that Timmy could run away from home, which he does. Upon the character?s disappearance from the plot, The Invisible Boy suddenly stops being a comedy-drama and veers off into conspiracy thriller territory.
Even early on there are indications that something has gone seriously wrong within the Stoneman Institute. Firstly the master computer, supposedly incapable of independent thought, appears to have made a suggestion of its own in order to help it solve a problem. Then, after a hypnosis session with the machine, Timmy is able to effortlessly reassemble Robby, something that no-one else at the Institute was able to do. Finally, using an adaptor cable, the computer and the robot exchange data and programs. When this is completed, Robby refers to the computer as ?Master?.
In fact Robby the Robot joins a select group of errant robots found in American SF cinema of the 1950s including those found in Herbert L. Strock?s Gog, Lee Sholem?s Tobor the Great (both 54) and Eugene Lourie?s The Colossus of New York (58).
Like Gog, Cyril Hume has the robot fall under the influence of an outside agency. In an ironic twist, this influence comes not from humans, in the form of the Soviets that the General (Harold J. Stone, X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes 63) and the Colonel (Dennis McCarthy) are so paranoid about, but rather from their own technology, as represented by the master computer, which has developed its own agenda and has been actively working against its masters over many years, subtly suggesting changes to its design and programs to allow it to become more powerful and independent.
In another piece of irony employed by Hume, both the military and the Institute personnel have developed more detached personalities much like computers are meant to behave. The master computer, meanwhile, has adopted some human qualities, some positive (it is aware that the problems existing in Marineau?s family are in fact caused by the scientist himself), but mostly negative such as paranoia and hate (its ultimate aim is to develop a space platform to roam the galaxy, destroying organic life-forms before they can develop into a threat).
This uber-machine has therefore become self-aware and so looks forward to movies like Joseph Sargent?s Colossus: The Forbin Project (69) and Donald Cammel?s Demon Seed (77), while its plan to control events from the space platform is echoed by Skynet?s actions in James Cameron?s The Terminator (84) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91).
The departure of Eyer?s character also marks a distinct change in tone for The Invisible Boy. Here Robby, under the influence of the computer (and apparently completely invisible, given that his presence is never by anyone, even if turning up only a short distance away), is abducting not just Institute personnel and military officers but government officials sent to investigate events at Stoneman. The purpose of this course of action is to implant mini-transistors into the cranium that are linked directly to the computers allowing it to eventually control the facility.
Many of the later scenes in the movie show cinematographer Harold Wellman, employ a distinctly expressionist style, best illustrated by a sequence in which a government investigator (Robert H. Harris, How to Make a Monster 58) is lured into a lab to do some work. Shown earlier in the film in a strictly naturalistic style, it is now a distinctly threatening environment, with much use being made of shadows and deep focus photography. In these later scenes, Robby is rarely show in his entirety, but his appearance is hinted at through shadows and obscured glimpses, adding to the sense of menace felt by his presence.
Probably the best sequences in the entire film occur in the set housing the master computer. There the machine can be seen in all its glory. Easily dwarfing its human antagonists, its is lit in such a way to imply great power and shot by the cinematographer to also suggest that Marineu and his team may already have lost control of the machine at the start of the movie. This impression is underlined by the use of the very resonant vocal tones of Alfred Linder (Superman?s Peril 54).
The design of the computer itself, the result of efforts by the art director Merrill Pye (The Power 67) and the special effects team of Irving Block (who co-devised the original treatment for Forbidden Planet, and helped design Robby), Louis DeWitt (Behemoth ? The Sea Monster 59) and Jack Rabin (The Atomic Submarine 60) is certainly impressive. Sharing some of the same design features as the robot (notably the glass dome and internal workings), it most important elements are the constantly flashing and mesmeric lights housed within elaborate steel panels.
Thanks to the creative use of camera angles and lighting, at times the computer seems to be an almost organic entity. Robby certainly considers it to be a superior being and almost confers godlike status on it. In return for this worship, Robby has his programs altered so that he is no longer bound to protect humans and the atomic structure of his casing strengthened, making him virtually indestructible and suited for any environment found in outer space. Of course the computer has absorbed all Robby?s knowledge of the future universe he inhabited, so making itself even more powerful. The sequences where the computer goes into full operational mode, have a delirious quality about them, mainly thanks to the rapid cutting of John D. Faure (The Vampire 57) and use of extreme close close-ups of electronics and faces. Les Baxter?s music score here harks back to the electronic score composed by Bebe and Louis Barron for Robby?s debut.
The Invisible Boy climaxes with the computer successfully having a nuclear payload installed on the soon to be launched rocket carrying the space platform, before sending Robby to pilot the craft. Timmy is shown to be inside the rocket. To get the mathematical code held by Marineau, the machine intends to slowly torture the boy, until his father facilitates the safe dismantling of the computer and its launch into space. To further press its case, the machine threatens to unleash a hundred nuclear devices against the planet from the platform.
To get aboard the spaceship, Robby has to battle the soldiers at the launch site. A major drawback for this sequence is that the robot has looks decidedly awkward, cumbersome and faintly ridiculous when seen in broad daylight in an exterior location (in reality the Pablos Verdes missile base). This is partially made up for by a spirited skirmish between Robby and an army unit, with Robby proving impervious to bullets, bazookas and flame-throwers. Probably the film?s most arresting images occur here with the robot seen standing against the fin of a giant rocket. Together with some imaginative model work, these visuals prove a triumph of the pulp imagination.
Although Robby the Robot?s contribution to The Invisible Boy has often been downplayed he remains a striking figure, thanks to his imposing design and presence along with the tones of dulcet tones of Marvin Miller (who also has an uncredited cameo as a soldier toward the end of the film). He is the film?s one true heroic character and the embodiment of Isaac Asimov?s ?Three Laws of Robotics?, until corrupted by the master computer. In addition he possesses several positive human qualities, of the kind outlined by Marineau in a speech he makes to the controlled humans, in which he discusses things like love and honour. Ironically the humans never really possessed these qualities anyway and so they do not seem all that different from before they were taken over. At the end of the day it is the robot who shows compassion and affinity for mankind in general and Timmy in particular. He ultimately becomes a real member of the Marineau family, acting as an older brother protector for the child.
Following his appearance in The Invisible Boy, Robby the Robot (or copies of him) turned up in a number of other films including Allan Arkush and Joe Dante?s Hollywood Boulevard (76), Steve De Jarnatt?s Cherry 3000 (85) and Fred Olen Ray?s The Phantom Empire (86) as well as television programmes like Lost in Space (whose own resident robot was obviously inspired by Robby), The Twilight Zone and Mork and Mindy.
©2003 Iain McLachlan