To avoid the life-threatening dangers of manned space exploration, Professor Nordstrom creates a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence capable of piloting a starship to other worlds. In order to transmit alien data, the extraordinary robot is infused with a powerful telepathic device that enables it to instantly read and even feel emotions. Danger strikes when a sinister band of covert agents kidnaps Gadge, the professor's 10-year-old grandson. But Gadge has a powerful ally. For he has developed a psychic, emotional bond with his grandfather's robot. And now Gadge's captors must suffer the wrath of his protective friend. They must face a mechanical monstrosity bent on a killing rampage of revenge and destruction.
There's something warming and lovable about B-movie science fiction films from the 50s. There may not be much to them and they may cover a lot of similar thematic ground, but their earnest ambition is undeniable. There's a charm to their low-budget nature of recycled sets, cheap effects, and their reliance on random stock footage to pad out the runtime to an appropriate feature length. 1954's Tobor The Great from veteran serial and B-film director Lee Sholem and starring veteran character actor Charles Drake is true B-movie sci-fi cheese at its finest. Loaded with stock footage and crammed to the gills with nuclear war fears, the film also sports some solid explorations into empathy and the looming fears of artificial intelligence.
As the United States and the Soviet Union stockpile nuclear arms, they're locked neck and neck in a race to dominate outer space. Without knowing the effects of space travel on the human body, Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) objects to the government's incessant experimentation at the risk of human life. After resigning his position from the agency in protest, he catches the attention of lead science officer Professor Arnold Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes) who has a unique way to assuage Harrison's fears about testing on human subjects. What if the subject was a Robot instead? Named "Tobor" by his young grandson Gadge (Billy Chapin), Tobor is a one-of-a-kind machine. A sentient robot with the capacity to learn and feel. His metallic structure and advanced electronic brain make Tobor the perfect candidate for the rigors of space flight testing - and a gang of foreign spies has designs to woo this free-thinking and feeling machine to their cause.
For all of the nuclear war, Red Scare fear mongering of the era, Tobor The Great thankfully keeps things pretty light and straightforward. While there is no mistaking the film's reliance on these emotions of the era, the flick maintains an optimistic approach. The key human characters played by Charles Drake, Taylor Holmes, and Karen Booth as the beautiful Janice have an empathetic nature to them that works to ground the film in some context of emotional intelligence. They know the score, they know the world is full of people who refuse to think about the situation before acting, but that doesn't keep them from hoping that a simple sit-down conversation can't solve most problems. Obviously, things don't go that way. This is a science fiction movie about evil government spies and a monster robot with emotional issues after all!
To that end, you gotta love the titular Tobor. That has got to be one of the most uncomfortable monster costumes to wear this side of a Metaluna Mutant. The arms and legs are overly long and jointed in weird places that would inhibit natural movement for the uncredited performer J. Lewis Smith. That said, as goofy as the main metal monster is, there is a lot of character in that beast. He may not be quite as charming as Robbie the Robot, but Tobor stands on his own and certainly is a memorable presence living in the shadow of some of his more famous robotic cinematic siblings.
Tobor The Great may not be the definitive mad-robot science fiction parables ever made, but it does a damn good job with what its got to work with. Given the minimal number of locations, one can guess that the bulk of the budget available went into ensuring that Tobor didn't make people laugh at first sight. This is true B-movie sci-fi cheese wiz spread over a meager 77-minute runtime. Coupled with that is the film's reliance upon copious amounts of stock footage to stitch things together. The first ten minutes alone is nearly all stock footage with some clumsy edits back to our actors pretending to react to what they're seeing in supposed real-time. It's goofy. Even as the film tries to tackle serious themes about emotional intelligence and the need for an empathetic understanding of one another - including our enemies - the film never forgets that it's about a robot gone mad that grapples with good and evil and it delivers the goods. If you have a love for schlock 50s science fiction, you should get a kick out of Tobor The Great.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Tobor The Great arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics Label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 Disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case. Also included is a booklet containing cover artwork for various Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Tobor The Great comes to life with a solid 1.67:1 1080p transfer. Aside from a few nicks and scratches and some mild speckling, this is a pretty great looking Blu-ray release. Textures and finer details are appreciable. Facial features, clothing, and production design work are generally pretty good looking although some softness is persistent throughout. Middle shots and close-ups look the best while establishing and wide shots lose a lot of that desired detail. The film's greyscale is spot on with great use of light and shadow with great black levels and controlled contrast to give the image a notable sense of depth. Aside from the softness, there's really nothing much to knock the presentation for.
With an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix, Tobor The Great displays a bit of rust. The mix, in general, has a bit of a tinny artificial quality to it. Dialogue sound accurate but also a bit hollow as if there isn't any life behind the voices. Sound effects can be a bit muffled and music scoring is present but doesn't exactly lift out of the mix. It's a fairly flat sounding affair. Thankfully the audio doesn't suffer from any notable hiss, pops, or cracks. The biggest grievance kicks in towards the last act of the film where the pleasant and stable volume levels drop dramatically forcing you to pop the volume up. It's not a severe dropout, but you may want to have your controller handy just in case.
As is the case with most Studio Classics releases, bonus features aren't very plentiful here, but the audio commentary is a pretty great listen. All in all, this is a pretty standard bonus feature package from Studio Classics.
Audio Commentary Featuring film historian Richard Harland Smith.
Invisible Invaders Trailer (SD 2:00)
Journey to the Seventh Planet Trailer (HD 2:07)
Gog Trailer (SD 1:51)
The Magnetic Monster Trailer (SD 2:21)
Donovan's Brain Trailer (SD 2:02)
If you love your science fiction firmly rooted in the political climate of the 1950s with a healthy dose of stock footage and hammy exposition, Tobor The Great is one for your collection. The film may not be the smartest reel of celluloid in the room, but it has an earnest heart and works well with relevant themes. Plus it has a gigantic robot run amok! A solid cast comes together to bring this tin bucket of bolts to life and for the most part it works. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings Tobor The Great to Blu-ray with a strong video transfer, a middling audio mix that shows its age but is still good, as well as a great audio commentary and a collection of trailers. Tobor The Great may not be as famous as Robbie the Robot, but his outing in this flick is well worth the time you give it. It's an uncomplicated efficient piece of pop sci-fi entertainment schlock at its finest. As this sort of flick fits well within my love for B-movie sci-fi, it's an easy one for me to call recommended.