Forbidden Planet (1956)
03/12/2016 - Forbidden Planet is a legendary science fiction film directed by Fred M. Wilcox and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1956, making an impact that can still be felt today. The first movie having humans travelling at light-speed to another world, and set on some other distant planet in the galaxy, Forbidden Planet pioneered fantastic special effects for it's time, many of which still look incredibly believable. The story is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and references to philosopher Carl Jung's theory of the collective unconscious put this above expectations for a sci-fi flick of its time. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack from a script by Cyril Hume, the story and substance is deep and multi-layered, and while portions of it are certainly dated, it remains an intriguing and very enjoyable watch.
A glance at the movie poster suggests yet another B-movie sci-fi flick from the '50s, and it's partly an accurate assumption. There's enough goofiness to make you roll your eyes, or smile gleefully if camp is your thing. Robbie the Robot is as ridiculous as he is marvelous, the "electronic tonalities" as corny as they are eerie, the flying saucer as cliche as it is perfect. You might get different opinions of the film depending on who you ask; it might not be enough to hold the interest of those who aren't fans of science fiction or Hollywood's golden age. But for anyone willing to look past the peeling wallpaper and thread-bare curtains (or for those of us who adore such symptoms of age), Forbidden Planet stands on a solid foundation that will last well into the future.
Personally, I sometimes enjoy when "science" or "realism" gets brushed aside in favor of spectacle. Whiplash when slowing from light-speed? Necessary silence while Robbie processes the molecular structure of bourbon? A household disintegrator beam? Unlike the move towards more realism in science fiction film-making to come, Forbidden Planet puts entertainment and fun first, storytelling second, and shrugs off those pesky questions of astrophysics.
Leslie Nielsen - yes, that Leslie Nielsen - is the ever-serious and authoritative Commander John Adams of the C-57D, a flying saucer staffed by a dozen or so men sporting matching space outfits and modestly handsome haircuts. He takes his mission seriously and accepts nothing less than dutiful compliance from his men or anyone else, for that matter. He's even too focused on the mysteries of Altair IV to think much of Altaira (the stunning Anne Francis), at least not at first. Don't worry, he does eventually, and their relationship rightfully blossoms into a beautiful and unstoppable romance, but I suppose that's to be expected.
Altaira's character might actually be most dated component of this movie, which is saying a lot. She's naive, wears what might be the shortest dresses in the galaxy (ha!), sexually inexperienced yet delightfully flirtatious, and helpless in nearly every way. Far short of a giant leap for womankind, it's an ugly spotlight on how society viewed women in the 1950s. I'd never criticize a woman for being beautiful, nor would I grimace at a film for including seductive or even promiscuous women; but that the only female character in this mainstream "all audiences" film is a weak and misguided girl desperately needing the protection and affection of one man or another - that's a pretty damning critique of our history. Alright, rant over, let's move on.
Robbie the Robot is .... just way too awesome. A completely new approach to robots in 1956, he was rounded (not square!) and had a glass head through which you can see the busy inner workings of his mechanical brain. Robbie is an icon, quite possibly the most famous robot ever built; he might look silly to you, sixty years after his creation, but he's an important evolutionary link in how we see robots, or rather how we expect to see them. Also, he can produce a mountain of bourbon overnight.
But the design and execution of Robbie really sort of pales in comparison to the special effects in Forbidden Planet. Sure, there are sets that absolutely look like a sound stage; the hand-drawn animation of the Id is pretty flimsy and the props are obviously crafted from only the cheapest sorts of plastic. But, those shots of the C57-D in space are undeniably beautiful. Those massive underground caverns where the Krell's supercomputers live and self-maintain are stunning, and the landscapes and the skies and the stars seldom let you question their reality. The brilliant and pioneering effects work create a surprisingly believable setting for this film, and I'd challenge anyone not to be impressed.
The incredible and unmatched Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Edward Morbius, the mysterious yet highly intelligent scientist and father of Altaira. Morbius is absolutely obsessed with understanding the Krell (the original/extinct inhabitants of Altair IV) and preserving his role as curator of their knowledge and technologies. He peddles out information exclusively on an as-needed basis, but in great monologues that command your attention. He's a character you admire, yet he keeps himself distanced enough to never quite earn your trust. Pidgeon's performance is spectacular and would steal the show if the show itself wasn't well worthy of him.
I highly recommend seeing Forbidden Planet. I recommend owning a copy, keeping it on your shelf, and revisiting it several times. It's fantastic, the complete package: campy and beautiful, fun and a little twisted, aged but relevant. Even if I tried, I couldn't understate the importance of Forbidden Planet to film-making, both as an influence, and as a milestone from which we've come far.