The Invisible Boy

Synopsis: Timmie is a typical ten-year-old boy: he loves fun and mischief and hates to study. When his scientist father, in an attempt to improve Timmie’s mind, plops him in front of the Super Computer, the boy learns more than how to beat his dad at chess. With designs on world domination, the computer has Timmie reactivate Robbie the Robot and directs the metal hulk to do his bidding. But while Robbie is an efficient minion, can he be made to harm the boy who gave him life?

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The Invisible Boy 5.5

eyelights: Robby the robot. the pre-Terminator ‘rise of the Machines’ theme.
eyesores: the kid-centric plot. the special effects.

Robby the Robot: “Pardon me, sir. My basic directive….”
Dr. Tom Merrinoe: “Have an apple, Timmie. (also putting an apple in Robby’s hand) Robby.”

Following the success of ‘Forbidden Planet‘, there was apparently an appetite for more adventures featuring its main side-kick, Robby the Robot. But, instead of creating another science fiction adventure, MGM proceeded to cobble together a sci-fi dramedy aimed unabashedly at the pre-pubescent kids’ market (while I can’t confirm this, I suspect that Robby the Robot was extremely popular with young boys of the time).

So what they did was to suggest that Robby had slipped back in time to then-modern days somehow, and then contrived a way to have him interact with one of our leads, a young boy named Timmie. The only way that they could do it, though, given how stretched the central conceit was already, was to have Timmie rebuild Robby from a bunch of junk parts in his father’s lab – after having his brain stimulated by a manipulative central computer.

“Whoah! Wait-a-minute”, you say. How does any of this make ANY sense?

No. It doesn’t.

The film is no more than entertainment aimed at 1950s pre-teen males, and everything is designed to connect with and/or involve the boy in what is going on on-screen. Even though it could be argued that his father, a genius who developed the central computer, is the main character, everything that takes place revolves around Timmie. And Robby, of course.

From the start, when we find a disconnected Timmie, unable to understand his dad’s dull technical mumbo-jumbo, the boy is meant to be relatable to real boys his age. He is then given an IQ boost by the self-aware central computer – and proceeds to trounce his dad at chess. And which little boy wouldn’t want to be smarter than his dad? But boys also want to be stronger than them, so the filmmakers gave him a powerful, indestructible robot as a companion and friend, someone who can do everything the boy can’t.

Thankfully, beneath the layers of fluff and pre-teen wish-fulfillment fantasies, there is an intriguing theme: machine vs. man.

With computers and robotics relatively new to the world, people probably reacted with either awe or fear. While Timmie and his scientist father were in awe, the core message of the film is that computers could become more intelligent than their human creators and might someday revolt and/or attempt to enslave them. This is a theme that would become more prevalent in fiction as the threat of human subjugation to robotics and computer intelligence became more pervasive, but it was likely relatively new at the time.

In this inadequately titled ‘The Invisible Boy’, the super computer achieves consciousness and decides that it wants to rule humanity. But, aware that there is a fail-safe mechanism in place, an atom bomb, it decides that it should launch itself in space – this way, it will be able to rule over the planet without fear of reprisal. It’s all quite simplistic and silly (especially how it uses Robby as its pawn and how it implants chips in the heads of key scientists and Army Generals to have them do their bidding), but it nonetheless presents a creepy alternate reality – one that has been reused to great effect in the ‘Terminator’ series.

But, ultimately, ‘The Invisible Boy’ is hampered by a light script that focuses all too much on the child. It may have created a piece that parents could stand watching with their kids, but I can’t imagine that it was entirely successful either as kids entertainment or as thriller for grown-ups. If anything, this bizarre mismatch of casual Sunday morning matinée comedy and dystopic techno-paranoia might have scarred a few naïve young minds. By grafting so ham-handedly these two concepts, it’s no wonder that ‘The Invisible Boy’ was relegated to obscurity until recently, when it was included as a bonus on the DVD and Blu-ray of ‘Forbidden Planet’.

Dr. Bannerman: “In certain intolerable situations, a man’s unconscious mind can be the instrument of self-destruction.”

Date of viewing: November 19, 2012

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