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Hipster Holy Grail: The Colossus of New York (1958)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I was hoping to end October with some classic horror, but The Colossus of New York isn't exactly scary.  (Except for one chilling line when a little child says, "He asked me to call him Daddy," which is terrifying in pretty much any context.)  Nevertheless, it's a breezy, fun movie about a killer robot, and that's always a pleasant way to spend an hour and some change.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

The film concerns the travails of the Spensser family, a wealthy and erudite New York clan of scientists.  William is the family patriarch, an elderly and renown brain surgeon.  His son, Henry, is a captain of industry and automation wizard whose innovations have made many assembly lines and factories more efficient and profitable.  And William's other son, Jeremy, is a humanitarian involved in some nebulous research that will apparently solve world hunger.

When the film opens, William, Henry, Jeremy, and Jeremy's son, Billy, are gathered in the family room to watch one of Henry's promotional films expounding the greatness of automation.  Their viewing is cut short when Jeremy's wife, Anne, interrupts with a newspaper announcing that Jeremy will be given the International Peace Prize by the United Nations.

They celebrate and the movie fast forwards to the evening of his prize.  As they're walking down a sidewalk, Billy drops his toy in the street and Jeremy runs out to grab it.  Unfortunately, he is struck dead by a speeding car.

The family mourns and then William shuts himself up in his lab at home, secretly working on something.  (You know, the lab that all brain surgeons have in their homes.  The same way that a writer would have a library and an artist would have a studio.  That's how it works, right?)  Eventually William invites Henry to join him, and there he reveals that he kept Jeremy's brain after the accident and hooked it up to some machinery to keep it alive.  He asks Henry to use his automation skills to build a robotic body so they can put Jeremy's brain inside and revive him.

Henry refuses at first since it is an unnatural (and sorta creepy) thing to do, but then William goads him on by explaining that Jeremy left behind so much unfinished research that could make the world better.  After thinking about it in those terms, Henry agrees, and they build the titular Colossus, an enormous hulking robot.  It's indestructible and will let Jeremy live on to finish his work as long as they keep its power switch, a prominent crank fixed on its left side, turned to the "up" position.

After booting up for the first time, Colossus Jeremy is horrified to realize what he has become and he begs to be destroyed.  But William explains again that his work is too important to leave unfinished - they need him to keep working on that world hunger thing.

(And here I want to take a brief tangent to mention that they never bother to explain what Jeremy's research entails.  Is he breeding new forms of crops the way Norman Borlaug did?  Is he creating preservatives to aid in long-distance transport of food?  Is he just poking a stick into a block of sugar and pretending it's science?  Who the hell knows.)

Fast forward a few months.  Colossus Jeremy is hard at work when he unleashes the first of three completely unexplained powers that nobody knew he had: remote viewing.  He's apparently able to psychically project himself into the world and see events unfolding all around him without leaving the room.  William and Henry think this is pretty cool, but don't do a whole lot with it.

Fast forward even more, and Colossus Jeremy starts to get stir crazy - he hasn't left the lab since he was first resurrected and he's starting to get irritated with Henry, who at first was horrified by the Colossus experiment, but now kinda treats it like a joke.  But William doesn't want him to go out in public, so Colossus Jeremy uses his next surprise power: brain control.  He stares William down and tells him he's going to leave the lab.

While wandering, Colossus Jeremy meets up with Billy and introduces himself as a friend.  Billy is surprisingly calm about finding an enormous stone-faced robot out in the woods and is more than happy to become acquainted.  They start meeting up every day to hang out.

Unfortunately, Colossus Jeremy also spies his wife, who is forming a far too comfortable relationship with Henry.  (Another tangent: Ew.  Really.  Ewwwww.  I can't imagine trying to go after either of my brothers' wives if either of them died, horrible accident and robot body or not.  And I can't imagine my wife hooking up with either of my brothers if I died.  Can't Henry have the decency to chase one of his cousins instead?)

After seeing Henry and Anne kiss, Colossus Jeremy goes into a rage and reveals himself to his wife for the first time.  She faints and Henry runs away.  Colossus Jeremy withdraws into the shadows to rethink his current situation, and Henry decides he better skip town since Colossus Jeremy is likely to find and murder him if he sticks around.

Almost immediately, Colossus Jeremy tracks Henry down and reveals his last surprise power: death vision.  Out of nowhere, he shoots fuzzy beams out of his eyes that paralyze and then kill Henry.

When Colossus Jeremy returns to the lab, he goes on a rant to William about how the world doesn't need humanitarians; in fact, his robot body has somehow twisted his brain so much that he believes the best thing to do is kill all the philanthropists.  So he goes on a rampage in the United Nations building and starts fuzzy beaming everybody in sight.

The rampage is cut short only when Billy runs up to him and tells him he hates him.  Colossus Jeremy is suddenly reminded of his humanity and realizes he's gone so far over the edge that he's beyond redemption.  He asks Billy to turn his power switch down and dies on the UN floor.

...and William apparently gets away without any repercussions, because that dude just kinda stands around looking a little bummed.

The Part About the Colossus's Powers

It's funny to see how filmmaking has changed over time.  There's a sense of awe and wonder about the world that movies had before the '70s.  It was an optimistic kind of "anything could happen" spirit where the director didn't feel the need to explain too much to you.  He'd just say, "This is a movie about a robot with psychic powers," and the audience would go, "Wow!  That's possible, right?  I wanna see it!"

And then something happened that made everybody a lot more cynical.  We like to pretend that our cynicism is actually skepticism, but that's bullcrap - skepticism wants things to be true but simply wants proof.  Cynicism is a derisive, pessimistic mindset where you hear something like "robot with psychic powers" and immediately go, "Hmph.  Couldn't happen.  Your movie is bullshit."

And so now, whenever a director wants to introduce a fantastical concept, they either have to come up with some quasi-scientific explanation that sounds reasonable in order to appease the cynics - even though those explanations are every bit as bullshitty as saying "just because" - or, more likely, they have to restrain themselves and toe the arbitrary line between fantasy and "gritty realism."

To put it another way: if they made The Colossus of New York today, Jeremy's powers would either not exist or they'd be bogged down with so much extra baggage that he wouldn't even use them.  Today we would say, "You know what, you already have a reanimated corpse robot.  That's enough."  The only way he'd get away with any powers is if there was a scene where William explained some nebulous mechanism to justify their existence.

Admittedly, part of me does find his powers ludicrous.  Why would having a robot body give you psychic readings or mind control?  Worst of all is the Death Vision.  The other two powers are kinda just an offshoot of telepathy, which can at least be explained away as being "part of the brain" (I know, I know... telepathy is not real, but at least in the made up rules of the movie it makes sense).  But the Death Vision?  How?  That had to be something that Henry just built into the robot body.  Big mistake, guy.

But as much as I think it's nonsense, I also find it refreshing.  It's fun to watch a movie that just goes for it and says, "To hell with it, he can shoot laser beams, too."  If you can't see that in a movie, where the hell else can you?

The Part Where I Possibly Read Too Much Into the Political Subtext

There are a few scenes where the movie touches on the topic of philanthropy, and I'm not entirely sure how to read it.  It reminds me of how people looooooove to get all smug when they do an Objectivist reading of The Incredibles, even though that movie contradicts the basic tenets of Objectivism all over the place.

(But then again, finding contradictions in Objectivism is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Objectivism is to the world of philosophy as Cheez-Whiz is to the world of fine art.  You might be able to paint a vaguely interesting picture with it, but only on a small scale and you'll want to toss it before it starts stinking up your apartment.)

In an early scene, William explains to a reporter that there are different levels of "genius."  The lowest level of genius is in total service to one's self; the level above that is in service to one's family and community; and the greatest level of genius is in service to the world.  For me, this is a fascinating thing to hear from a movie made in the '50s, a time that I link in my mind strongly to Conservativism and Republicanism.  Weren't the '50s the time when we were so terrified of socialism we started blacklisting people left and right?  Wouldn't it be risky to propose that "genius" is equal to "service of others" when that is blatantly contradictory to capitalism?

...and yet, the '50s were so much more a time of socialist policy in America compared to today.  Workers were much more in control of production and wages, the tax rates on the wealthy were double than they are now, and if you acted like a self-obsessed dickhead the way we do on Facebook and kept posting pictures of the food you were eating on bulletin boards in front of your starving neighbors, they'd lynch the shit out of you and nobody would mind too much.

Hell, look at how our icons of industry have changed over time.  In the '30s through '50s, if you wanted to say a particular tycoon was a "genius," you'd probably point to Henry Ford - a guy whose insistence that his factory workers should be able to afford the cars they produce revolutionized the auto industry.  But today people would probably point to Steve Jobs, a massively ego-centric douchebag who basically just took other companies' work and put a good spin on it, then exploited his workers to produce overpriced hardware that only the overprivileged can afford.

I'm getting sidetracked.  My point is, the movie opens with the idea that serving the world is ideal.  But then William goes on to imprison Jeremy in a lab and force him to do work for the benefit of others.  In this respect, he is a villain and would represent the Randian nightmare of the government punishing geniuses by forcing them work in a philanthropic manner.

But then the ending of the movie spins that around and makes it clear that the Colossus is, in fact, the bad guy.  His speech about destroying humanitarians is meant to be horrifying.  His attitude is the mindset of, quite literally, a monster - which would imply that the filmmakers were saying ultra-capitalists who want to quash humanitarian movements are no better than a hulking deathbot.

I guess the question I have is: why was William the one who locked Colossus Jeremy in a room and told him to fix world hunger?  When you take your humanitarian mouthpiece and make him the device by which exploitation happens, you're automatically making a political statement even if you don't intend to.

Ultimately the movie is sending a mixed message, but I think at least one thing is clear: deathbots are a bad idea, guys.

Where You Can Watch

Paramount added this to their Youtube Vault, so you can watch it online completely for free.

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