RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 14th column, Kim rediscovers the oft-forgotten sequel to Forbidden Planet.
Until The Invisible Boy was included as an extra in a sumptuous DVD release of Forbidden Planet, it was easy to forget there ever was a sequel to that 1956 classic — built around the presence of Planet’s break-out star, Robby the Robot (or Robby, the Robot as he is billed here). For some reason, The Invisible Boy has been among the least-seen of all 1950s science fiction films — and certainly it doesn’t deserve this sort of obscurity when, say, Conquest of Space, Monster on Campus or Giant From the Unknown are in constant rotation.
It may have slipped out of the canon because of the perception that it’s a film for kids — though, like the earlier Invaders From Mars (which it resembles slightly), it’s a child’s wish-fulfilment fantasy (wouldn’t it be great to be pals with Robby the Robot? or be invisible and whip a bully’s ass?) with some darker edges. An odd convention of 1950s sci-fi was that a hulking robot was likely to be a boy’s best friend — as seen in Tobor the Great, or the more melancholy The Colossus of New York. This premise survives in Japanese cartoons, and even, at a stretch, Terminator 2.
Protagonist Timmie Merrinoe (Richard Eyre) is a fairly whiny, unprepossessing ten-year-old, which is something of a plus in that most gosh-wow kids in ’50s sci-fi films (cf: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Cosmic Man) are so insufferably cute you’d swap them for an alien seedpod any day of the month. Timmie feels neglected because his workaholic maths genius father (Philip Abbott) seems to have written his son off as a dunce since he can’t yet give him a good game of chess or do quadratic equations. Mom (Diane Brewster) is a typical starched 1950s stay-at-home who fusses indulgently, but worries her boy will harm himself in some prank and so keeps Timmie on a short leash.
Mr. Merrimoe works on a top-secret computer project to build a giant thinking machine (several large cabinets studded with flashing lights, recycled from the Tracy–Hepburn comedy Desk Set) which develops self-awareness and displays megalomaniac tendencies. This is now a sci-fi standard in everything from Colossus: The Forbin Project through 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Terminator series, but was very fresh on screen in 1957.
In the Merrinoe garden shed are the dusty, cobwebbed components of Robby, supposedly brought back from the future by a time-travelling eccentric everyone wrote off as a loon — especially since no one has been able to assemble the bits properly. Dad says the robot parts are off-limits to the boy, but Timmie is still allowed access to the computer (evoking the child logic of Invaders From Mars or The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T).
Timmie gets a brain-boost from the computer and plays chess well with his father, eliciting a promise that he can have the robot if he beats the old man. Already showing signs of cunning to go with his new smarts, Timmie says the hard part of this was losing the first game convincingly before making the bet and smugly checkmating his befuddled father in only a few moves. Timmie puts Robby together and the robot becomes his genie-like best pal, though when he builds a man-lifting kite the robot refuses (thanks to the Asimovian programming featured in Forbidden Planet) to let the boy use it for fear of hurting himself. Complaining that Robby is just as much a spoilsport as his mother, Timmie takes the robot to the computer, as the machine always planned, and gets these safety protocols overridden so he can have fun.
The business about plugging robot and computer together with stout cable is clunky now, but was unprecedented at the time and represents clever forecasting on the part of screenwriter Cyril Hume (returning from Forbidden Planet and working from a robot-free source story by sci-fi author Edmund Cooper). This is a film full of computer/robot/space business for which technical terms hadn’t yet been invented, which the modern viewer takes for granted: artificial intelligence, modem, interface, programming, software upgrade, etc.
There’s a slack middle-section as Timmie gets Robby to grant him wishes while the computer calculates its next evil steps — though there’s actually a slight, believable chill to the scene in which Timmie fools around dangerously on his hang-glider (another uncoined word) while his mother frets and we see that she has a point about his recklessness. The business promised in the title comes when Timmie gets Robby to prepare an invisibility potion and he pulls some mildly creepy pranks — distracting stuffy scientists (who, let’s face it, are trying to save the world) with Three Stooges pokes and prods and, in one oddly adult moment in a kidflick, preventing his parents from having sex. This pushes Dad too far and, in a strained and uncomfortable moment, he grabs the see-through kid and spanks him soundly (Abbott is not as good at this as other actors in ‘invisible’ films have been).
Then, the film drops the mildly tasteless knockabout and gets on a more nightmarish kick as the computer uses an irresponsible, even malign Robby to implant control devices in the brains of Dad’s co-workers (more Invaders From Mars business) and plot to control the world (or even the universe) from a satellite which is about to be launched. Timmie and Robby go up in the rocket and get put into orbit, and all the computer needs is a secret code-number from Merrinoe to attain its full independence — the scientist staunchly refuses, but the computer calmly tells the worried parent that Robby knows all about the human body and could torture a child for weeks without killing him (‘you may begin with the eyes,’ it instructs Robby). However, at this crisis, anthropomorphism kicks in — it’s unthinkable that the lovable, helpful, always-polite Robby will really hurt Timmie and so he resists the computer’s control (just, as decades on, the T2 would bond with John Connor) long enough for the lad to save the day.
Directed by the unsung Herman Hoffman, The Invisible Boy could do with some of the inventive visuals William Cameron Menzies or Jack Arnold deliver in Invaders From Mars or The Space Children. There’s a sense that MGM put this together just to reuse a couple of expensive props, and otherwise didn’t bother much about it: certainly not feeling any need to repeat the widescreen, colour, experimental music or star power (Abbott and Brewster are unmemorable, though well-cast in their roles) of Forbidden Planet.
Hume’s solid script shifts subtly from character drama through comedy to paranoid horror, but Hoffman directs every scene as if it were a sit-com — the home stretch, which features some surprisingly scary ideas, frustratingly doesn’t take advantage of what’s on the page. Nevertheless, what matinee audiences wanted in 1957 was more Robby — he later showed up on a variety of TV shows including The Twilight Zone, The Thin Man, Lost in Space and Columbo — and this was duly delivered.