Even though the first time I saw Forbidden Planet was when I was about five or six years old on a medium-sized black and white TV with not always perfect reception and the film was rather horribly panned and scanned from what I recall, I fell in love with it and it’s remained one of my favorite science fiction films. I’ve since seen it countless times and it remains quite a fun film to watch thanks to everything melding together so flawlessly (including its handful of flaws).
I think it was also one of the first movies I actually remember looking at the music credits for and being surprised that two people composed the “electronic tonalities” that were buzzing my eardrums and pleasantly sinking into my brain’s recesses. Louis and Bebe Barron’s impressive score drove home right away that this was no ordinary 1950’s flick with a low budget and cast of no-names mugging it up for the camera. I’ll also admit to thinking director Fred Wilcox was a relation, but I think my mother or father pointed out that many people have the same last name who aren’t related at all (but I don’t think I believed her at the time). Flash forward a few years later and when I finally saw the film in color on a huge TV in its original widescreen format, I was even more floored thanks to the beautiful color palette and (mostly) still impressive visual effects. I was also a bit jealous because back in 1956, it must have been blowing audiences back in their seats to see this on a massive Cinerama screen with those sounds booming from multiple theater speakers…
Scripted by Irving Block and Allen Adler, the film is a futuristic re-imagining of elements from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is also one of those fine “America? We’re GREAT!” movies of the era because of how it displays the heroic crew of United Planets Cruiser C57-D right from the moment their stately, clean saucer glides into view. This is us at out most powerful: strong, square-jawed manly men in command of state of the art technology in a fresh, new century reaching out into the stars. Granted, it’s a rescue mission this crew is on, but my, what a sight they all make in that immaculate flying metal ship! Forget that Leslie Nielsen would go on to be a great comic actor as he aged. Here, he cuts a bold and no-nonsense figure as Commander J.J. Adams and with the exception of one comic relief character (Earl Holliman’s boozy Cook), everyone else follows his lead. Well, until they reach their destination, Altair IV.
The crew is there to discover what happened to the Bellerophon, an expedition ship thought lost some 20 years ago. Initially, the C-57D is warned off by a radio message from one Dr. Morbius, but Adams wisely decides to land anyway because you don’t travel 16 light years just to turn around and go back home. That, and there’s a mystery to be solved as to how the good Doctor is still alive and kicking and why he’s never tried to contact Earth in 20 years. Once the ship touches down and the outside air declared breathable, Adams steps out with a few of his crew and they’re met by A very speedy transport driven by an amazing looking robot with the non-amazing name of Robby. Even as a kid, I never liked that name, but I later realized that this was MGM marketing that awesome creation to younger viewers who’d probably never seen a friendly robot in a sci-fi flick until then.
Robby turned out to be pretty darn cool in the film with his fluency in 187 languages (“along with their dialects and sub-tongues”) and ability to create precious gemstones in record time (Star sapphires take a week to crystallize properly, would diamonds or emeralds do?”)and even replicate booze in massive quantities (“Quiet please. I am analyzing. Yes, relatively simple alcohol molecules with traces of fusel oil. Would 60 gallons be sufficient?”). His droll humor made him instantly likable and the way the other characters play off him makes every part of the film he appears in quite special. In fact, you could say that Robby almost steals the film from under the handsome space-men out to save the day… but then there’s the lovely Altaira.
As a kid I can recall seeing Anne Francis in that classic Twilight Zone episode, “The After Hours” and having her striking features imprinted into my memory. As Forbidden Planet was made a few years before that episode, I’d imagine this was the first time a generation of young boys (and girls) saw her and probably went head over heels for her fearless (well, for 1956) and innocent performance. Altaira’s total clueless nature as to how she affects men in the crew when they see her, her penchant for swimming in the nude (!) and overall curious nature made her immediately attractive as a character, although a wee bit too helpless in one scene when she’s about to be attacked. Adams seems to dislike her for a few reasons and she responds by having Robby make her a dress that’s “eye proof” (but isn’t at all), but they fall for each other quite predictably, adding romance and a threat into the film’s plot.
(thanks, Rinoa Super-Genius!)
Morbius comes off as direct, but somewhat shady as he reveals he and his daughter are the only survivors (his wife died after Altaira was born), the rest of the Bellerophon’s crew was killed by some unknown beast and the ship destroyed. Adams and company have no choice but to buy his story and head back to their ship to decide what’s next, but they’re about to have a night that sends them back to see the Doc and hear part of what’s kept him on the planet. It turns out Morbius has been studying an ancient alien race called the Krell, who called Altair IV their home before they vanished forever (some 200,000 years previously!). It’s here that the film shows some incredible visual effects as Morbius leads the away party into the massive Krell underground lab where never before seen technology hums and throbs away as the doctor impresses the men with all that lay before them.
Naturally, they now want Morbius and Altaira to pack up and come with them along with all of the Krell tech they can carry, but Morbius warns them off again, basically saying humans aren’t ready for this sort of huge leap in everything scientific. Another night visit from something unseen results in a dead crew member and a footprint that when cast, looks like nothing anyone has ever seen (expect if one has seen a massive hangnail of the foot of a rather large statue). The crew decide to arm up the camp around the ship with their state of the art laser fence and assorted guns for all, but when the invisible intruder returns, all their efforts to fight it off fail until it seemingly vanishes. This sequence for me, showed the film’s one odd flaw – the monster isn’t as scary as all that mayhem it’s causing makes it seem. Granted, the sequence is well animated, but the stubby-legged bipedal thing with the sort of lion face and loud electronic bellow made me laugh as a kid and I still chuckle a bit today at it. To each his own, I guess.
Anyway, Morbius gets confronted one more time, things come to a head on a few fronts (literally and figuratively) and the film races to its cerebral and necessary close as all is revealed and the fate of a few people and a planet are sealed. The era appropriate moralizing here fits quite well, but I know some who wished the film would have ended a bit differently and heroically than it does. For me, one of the best things about the film is you can see where every penny went. Forbidden Planet was and still is a gorgeous looking film and seeing it again just lit up my nostalgia meter. I remember reading articles about the making of the film and discovering what matte painting were as well as a few of the other effects techniques used in the film. I used what I learned as a mental reference when watching other sci-fi films for years afterwards, but most all of that went out the window when I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s outstanding 2001: A Space Odyssey some years later break many of those rules by coming up with many new techniques.
Of course, it was also a MGM film, so it was almost as if the torch had passed from one decade to another in terms of leaps in visual effects and storytelling. If you dare to compare the two, FP seems extremely quaint and outdated compared to Kubrick’s more mature masterwork. But then again, if you take both films as they’re meant to be (as products of the times in which they were created), both excel at what they did as they activated that sense of wonder we all have about the future and what’s out there waiting for us…
Hey! This review is part of the wonderful MGM Blogathon held over at Silver Scenes, so make sure to pop on over thataway and check out some of the other MGM reviews and appreciation posts. The lineup is killer so far and growing!