Giant robot gyros from space
This prime example of 1950s science fiction has been much overshadowed in intervening decades by more expensive productions like Forbidden Planet. This is unfortunate, as in some ways Kronos (1957) was ahead of its time, and would be a fine candidate for a remake. In other ways, it’s very much of its time, such as in its special effects. Achieved through animation and miniatures, the f/x are at times unconvincing, but for the most part are wonderful.
Like so many ’50s sci-fi flicks, it begins with a mysterious object in the sky. Following classic UFO procedure, the object in question somehow disables a truck motor and abducts a human subject. Taking possession, the alien intelligence uses the truck driver’s body to get inside a secret government lab, where it switches over to Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery, looking like a sinister Walt Disney). Elliot sabotages S.U.S.I.E. the supercomputer, which is used to track space stuff.
For those taking notes, S.U.S.I.E. stands for Synchro Unifying Sinometric Integrating Equitensor. She’s the brainchild of classic nerd and hero’s sidekick Dr. Arnold Culver. Culver is played by George O’Hanlon, star of the long “Joe McDoaks” series of shorts. Minding S.U.S.I.E. turned out to be good training for O’Hanlon, as a few years later he’d be the voice of button-pushing George Jetson.
This makes it difficult for stolid and studly scientist Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow, the friendly alien from This Island Earth) to track his favorite asteroid when it sneaks out of orbit. The mystery also indefinitely delays his drive-in date with saucy technician Vera Hunter (Perry Mason regular Barbara Lawrence). Fortunately, S.U.S.I.E. is fixed in time to alert everyone to the danger when the asteroid’s path is detected.
This newspaper headline tells the tale, as well as revealing lax framing in Image’s transfer of the Regalscope aspect ratio: “STEROID HEADING FOR EAR”.
The military scrambles, firing atomic missiles to explode the object in the upper atmosphere. However, the missiles only succeed in diverting the intruder from hitting New York, forcing a landing off the West Coast of Mexico. It also causes Elliot to collapse. He’s placed under the care of Dr. Albert Stern (Morris Ankrum, taking a break from his usual role as a general to play an MD), who is puzzled by Elliot’s oddly fluctuating brain wave patterns.
Bypassing red tape, Morrow and his crew hotfoot it down to Mexico to check out the mysterious “asteroid”, but can find nothing. While Les and Vera play From Here to Eternity on the beach, the alien object surfaces off shore, appearing as a huge glowing dome.
The next morning, a towering machine is found standing on the beach, standing 100 feet high and looking like the 1950’s idea of a futuristic skyscraper. Curiously, a drawing of it in a newspaper looks completely different than the real thing. Did they change the design that much from the concept art in postproduction?
A colossal energy vampire, the machine (dubbed “Kronos” by egghead Morrow) begins stomping across the landscape. It destroys a power plant, absorbing all of the escaping energy. An attack by the Mexican Air Force is a disaster. Though Gaskell’s warnings are in time to avert the U.S. Air Force from dropping an atomic bomb on the robot, Kronos grabs the bomber from the sky and absorbs all the energy from the resulting explosion. Kronos converts all the energy to matter, growing ever bigger. It then heads for an atomic bomb stockpile at Wainimi. Is there no stopping this menace from space?
Lawrence and Morrow are positively excessive in the almost-cartoon portrayal of stereotype characters. She’s obsessed with romance, even during the crisis. He’s equally obsessed with scientific research. Can this couple be saved?
The special effects, while uneven, are often spectacular, giving an epic scope to the $160,000 picture. Curiously, the space invader seen on screen here is the same saucer seen the previous year in Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World. Co-producer Irving Block, who also wrote the story and handled the f/x, was also working with Corman at the time, and used the same saucer in both pictures. Block’s effects can also be seen in Unknown World, Invisible Boy, Atomic Submarine, and many other features. He also worked on the respected and influential Men into Space television series. Director Neumann, who also helmed Rocketship X-M and several Tarzan pictures, went on to produce The Fly the next year.
Though cropped too tight on the sides, the widescreen transfer is great for showing off the production’s details. When I used to watch this flick on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of Sci-Fi Cinema, the cropped and blurry picture failed to convey a good half of the film’s production values, especially the well-photographed lab sets, and gave little indication of the robot’s destructive rampage. Like Image’s other DVDs in the “Wade Williams Collection”, the disc is handsomely packaged but lacks any supplements beyond the trailer.
Kronos borrows a bit here and there — most notably from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, It Came from Outer Space, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it achieved an epic quality few of its contemporaries could touch (for the money) and is the first giant robot movie in cinema history.