The Invisible Boy is an odd, fun, occasionally darkish science fiction film that shifts wildly between lighthearted Leave It To Beaver mirth and chilling techno-anxiety, much like the fifties themselves. One minute you have little Timmie getting up to boyish antics like taking a ride on the enormous kite made for him by his robot friend or using his temporary invisibility to prank the neighborhood bully, and the next you have a room full of dead-eyed human drones solemnly doing the bidding of an AI menace bent on world domination. It’s easy to dismiss the film for its unevenness of tone and crazy-quilt plot; certainly it doesn’t compare to Forbidden Planet, the science fiction classic to which it is a very loose sequel (having spent $125,000 on Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet, MGM decided to get its money’s worth by making another movie with the robot). But The Invisible Boy is entertaining and even insightful in its own wacked way. The key to making sense of it is to view it in the context of its time.
The name of the film is misleading; Timmie’s invisibility doesn’t last long and isn’t a major plot point. Mostly this movie is about a supercomputer that achieves sentience and wants to rule the world. The film was released in October 1957. Something else was also released in October 1957: Sputnik, the Russian satellite whose launch threw the U.S. into a malaise of fear and uncertainty so intense, and with such far-reaching results, that it might rightly be called a crisis.
There are striking parallels between the Sputnik crisis and The Invisible Boy. This couldn’t have been intentional; the U.S. didn’t even know about Sputnik until after it was launched, and the filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated it or the public turmoil that would follow. But the same cultural climate produced both crisis and film, and a very tumultuous climate it was.
Though the actual launch of Sputnik was a gut-punch of shock to the American public, the idea of a satellite was nothing new. Both Russia and the U.S. had been announcing plans to launch satellites for years. But once Sputnik was up, the American imagination went wild. What was it there for? Was it spying on us? Were the Soviets using it to gather targeting information for ballistic missiles? In reality, Sputnik was just a modest little 22-inch aluminum sphere with four trailing antennae and a radio beacon; it beeped for a while and then fell from orbit only three months after launch. But the same rocket that launched Sputnik was capable of sending a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world within minutes, as the troubled American public well knew.
The Invisible Boy opens with some Pentagon officials preparing to consult a supercomputer about the launch of a space platform—a satellite, like Sputnik, but much bigger. Fear of the Soviets (referred to throughout the film as “our friends across the Pole”) pushes the whole enterprise, but the real enemy turns out to be the very technology designed for defense. The supercomputer, built and operated by Dr. Tom Merrinoe and housed in an underground mathematics compound, has been secretly biding its time for years, suggesting changes to its own design that have allowed it to achieve personality. Now it plans to get itself onto the space platform and carry out world dominion from Earth’s orbit.
Dr. Merrinoe takes his visitors to the computer, which spouts figures and probabilities as glibly as See Threepio. First, it tells them their fuel estimates for the launch are low by 29.7%. The general is shocked. How could their scientists have made such an error? (They didn’t; the computer needs the extra fuel to get its hefty self launched aboard the satellite.) The men consider checking the computer’s work, but it would take weeks just to get a print-out of its computations, and they want the satellite up in four days; so they decide to take the computer’s word for it, trusting mechanized calculation over human judgment. There is a sense of urgency and reckless one-upmanship throughout the proceedings; the people are afraid, and the computer knows it, and uses that fear to gain power.
Then the general asks, “What odds our friends across the Pole will start an atomic war the moment they learn of this project?” The computer answers, “If discovered before launching, probability of armed attack 91.6%. If discovered after launching, probability of peaceful negotiation 87.3%.” The general replies in all seriousness and without a moment’s hesitation, “Good.”
So far, the supercomputer’s evil plan is working just fine. But to actually get itself into space, it’s going to need the help of someone who can walk around, and for that it must worm its way into Dr. Merrinoe’s home life.
At the dining table with his family that evening, Tom Merrinoe hunches over some ponderous book, his eyes glued to the pages; his ten-year-old son Timmie reads a comic book. Mary Merrinoe asks her husband, “Well, did you have a tiring day at the computer, dear?” This at least gets him talking. But the thing that really perks him up is when Timmie, in an effort to deflect attention from his soup-slurping, asks, “What’s a computer?” His father gives far more of an answer than Timmie bargained for, beginning with the soup course and ending while the family is eating dessert, by which time Timmie is clearly dying to get back to his comic, and even Mary is looking a little glazed. Interestingly, Dr. Merrinoe ends his lecture by addressing the question—which no one at the table has asked—of whether a computer is capable of thought. He concludes that it is “a philosophical and semantic paradox, and therefore impossible.” Little does he know.
After dinner Merrinoe drills his boy on fractions. As Timmie sits despondently on the piano bench without pencil or paper or visual aids of any sort, Dr. Merrinoe asks, “How many twenty-fourths are there in one and a quarter?” Timmie replies, “Three? Seventeen. Forty-four? A hundred?” His father chastises him for guessing, then asks, “How many twenty-fourths are there in just one quarter? Six, obviously!” Baffled, Timmie says, “Honest?” “Of course!” says his father. Then Timmie asks, “Why?” His father answers, “Because that’s the way it is! Always was, always will be. The science of mathematics!”
Of course this is true. Mathematics has the stark, bold beauty of self-evidence. Nothing is subjective or open to interpretation (at least as far as I got with it; I don’t know what goes on with those super-duper upper-level math folks at their fancy rarefied math conferences). “Six twenty-fourths equals a quarter” just is. It’s not a mere convention, like with grammar, where the rules could just as easily have been different. It is, and it will continue to be, no matter what people think of it or whether they comprehend it. But that is not the answer you give to a child, and it’s not the way anyone learns fractions.
Merrinoe has forgotten this. He has truly lost touch. What’s even sadder is that the moment when Timmie asks why actually looks like a teachable moment, but it passes and is lost.
Finally Timmie is dismissed. Merrinoe laments to his wife, “He’s already ten years old, and he can’t even play a decent game of chess.”
One of the most significant outcomes of the Sputnik crisis was a new American obsession with education. The nation was plagued with self-doubt. The Soviets had beaten us to the punch with Sputnik 1, and a month later followed it up with Sputnik 2. Our first satellite, Vanguard 1, failed; its launch vehicle exploded on national television. Bested and shamed at being out-scienced by Communists, America reasoned that if we were going to compete against the Soviets, we had better start cranking out some engineers, and robust new education programs were introduced with that aim in mind.
Dr. Merrinoe, filled with similar worries, consults the supercomputer about Timmie. He knows this is a sad misuse of government resources, but he is desperate. The computer, again preying on fear, diagnoses a case of maladjustment caused by Dr. Merrinoe himself. It can fix the situation, but only if it has direct contact with Timmie, alone. And Merrinoe agrees. His anxiety over his son’s education is so great that he asks an artificially intelligent being for parenting advice, then turns the boy over to it for unsupervised tutoring.
The computer’s session with Timmie begins with a straightforward lesson on chess. Then things get weird. Before long, Timmie is in a hypnotic trance. He learns to play chess, all right, well enough to beat his father in six moves. He also learns a great deal more. Suddenly he wants to play with Robby the Robot.
This Robby is the same character as in Forbidden Planet. A time-traveling Dr. Greenhill brought him back from the 24th century, but no one at the institute was able to get him running, and he now lies in pieces, his cranial dome covered with cobwebs.
Timmie picks up a screwdriver and in short order has Robby running just fine. Like Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet, Timmie has had his intellect enhanced by a computer; and, also like Dr. Morbius, one of the first things he does with his new brain power is tinker together a robot.
As in Forbidden Planet, Robby is a likable character, earnest but understated, and fun to watch as he lumbers noisily about with his head sensors spinning. He follows Timmie around the institute one day. It’s lunchtime; the conference room is full of scientists at tables, reading or doing calculations while eating and drinking, just as Timmie’s dad does at home. Timmie, with his robot trailing behind, wanders from one scientist to the other, plainly longing for attention; but the men are underwhelmed, even grumpy. Here is a seven-foot talking robot walking around, and all they can do is grouse about the noise! Clearly the spark of scientific wonder has been lost. Science is serious business to these guys; they don’t have time for robots from the future, much less children. The words “invisible boy” take on real poignancy here.
The robot is the computer’s link to the physical world it has to manipulate to get satellite-born. After overriding Robby’s basic directive to not permit injury to humans, the computer uses him to plant mind-control electrodes into scientists and military personnel with high security clearance. Once taken over, the people continue to look and act normal until they’re found out; the movie’s creepiest moments are when the faces of the human drones suddenly go sinister and cold. There was a genuine fear of espionage in 1950s U.S., and the film reflects this. After the Soviets conducted successful nuclear tests in 1949, many Americans believed Soviet spies had had passed nuclear technology secrets from the U.S. to Russia. Merrinoe’s Pentagon visitors warn him that the Russians (“our friends”) might slip through air defense, visit the institute, and “hack of some of your basic units. Enough to make one of these computers for themselves. That’s their way of inventing things, isn’t it?”
In the end, after everyone else on the project has been taken over by the computer, it’s Merrinoe, Robby, and Timmie who save the day. Merrinoe refuses to give the computer the numeric code that will enable it to be dismantled and loaded onto the satellite, even when the computer threatens to use Robby to torture Timmie. But Robby, ordered to get on with the torture, resists the computer’s control to the point of visible internal struggle. And Timmie, seeing the robot in distress but not fully understanding the situation, reinstates Robby’s basic directive with the flip of a switch—not to save himself, but out of compassion for his friend.
The film ends happily, but with a few loose ends. The computer is destroyed (though Merrinoe immediately begins plans to build a new one), the human drones are expected to recover their senses (though who knows, really), and Robby becomes a beloved member of the Merrinoe household (though several implied questions as to his potential personhood, as well as that of the computer, are left unaddressed and indeed unasked). Timmie presumably keeps his enhanced intellect, and Merrinoe expresses no regret over letting his son get mind-zapped by a supercomputer; on the contrary, he seems pleased that Timmie wants to learn all he can and come work with him one day. Balance of a sort has been restored. Given the time period, this is probably all the resolution that can be expected.