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Forbidden Planet (1956)

Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Neilsen and Anne Francis star in this groundbreaking 1956 Science Fiction film. The crew of a United Planets Cruiser are despatched from Earth on a mission to discover the fate of a lost expedition from twenty years earlier. Upon arriving at the new planet they receive a less than warm welcome, discover a fantastic alien technology and meet the mysterious Dr. Morbius and his beautiful daughter, Altaira.

Introduction

This film has just about everything you could want: fantastic sets, a great story built upon an interesting premise, good performances from the cast, a musical score and sound effects that really seem to come from outer space, humour, romance and the coolest robot in motion picture history. This is the kind of science fiction film that even

Forbidden Planet - Commander Adams
Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) addresses the crew of the spaceship.
non-SciFi fans can enjoy - it is a million miles, or should that be light years, away from the mass of trashy monsters attacking earth films that were made in the 1950's. Forbidden Planet, along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, really set the bar for intelligent science fiction and without which future productions [sic] such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars and particularly Star Trek might never have happened.

Synopsis

A small crew of men, led by Commander Adams, are despatched from Earth to the far-off planet of Altair-4 to discover the fate of the expedition which hadn't been heard from since they left 20 years earlier. While orbiting the planet, fruitlessly searching for signs of life, the crew of the ship find they are also being scanned. Then they are contacted by the mysterious Dr. Morbius who warns them to leave Altair-4 and return to Earth. Commander Adams has orders to discover what happened to the expedition and, regardless of the warnings, he decides to land on Altair-4 - the forbidden planet. The adventure begins.

Plenty of atmosphere

The opening scene of the film begins with a vista of outer space with far off stars and planetary bodies accompanied by the alien sounding musical score and sound effects. Almost immediately a flying saucer comes from

Forbidden Planet - Spaceship landing
United Planets Cruiser C-57D lands.

behind the viewer and disappears in the distance to be replaced by the 3-D style graphics proclaiming "Forbidden Planet". Modern day audiences are probably used to seeing the sorts of images produced by NASA of far-off star systems and of the Apollo missions orbiting the moon or Earth but the quite realistic scenes from Forbidden Planet must have been a revelation for a 1950's audience.

Even though you know the backdrops have been painted everything feels very realistic and yet appropriately alien. Once seen the viewer will never forget the small-scale human characters walking around the giant Krell machine or the futuristic human habitation with Robby in attendance. Overall, the Forbidden Planet has a very expensive feel and it makes this film stand out compared to most of the pulp science fiction of the '50s. Close-ups of the ship, the uniforms and Robby himself all look very well made and convincing. In comparison, the original series of Star Trek, made a decade later, is very much the poor cousin. It is almost surprising that Forbidden Planet lost out to The Ten Commandments for the special effects Oscar for 1956.

"Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothin'. Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans."

Cook (Earl Holliman)

The impact the music and sound effects, or electronic tonalties as it is credited in Forbidden Planet, have cannot be underestimated. Every movement of the flying saucer, the pulsating of the Krell control centre and particularly the approach of the monster is accompanied by eerie and evocative sounds. Every sound seems outlandish but fits so well with the happenings on-screen that you perceive the two things to be one. I could imagine listening to the soundtrack, without the visuals, and easily be able to picture the story developing in my minds eye.

How many goodly creatures are there here

Of course, a visual and aural feast would mean little without the actors delivering a believable and engrossing story. The whole cast, and there aren't that many, are excellent. The leading actors stand out and are easily memorable but even the supporting cast create characters you can identify with. For example, Cook, played by Earl Holliman, looks like he might have just walked off the set of The Caine Mutiny but he fits right in with the rest of the ships company. Cook's role is to provide some light relief in the proceedings, ably assisted by Robby, but he also gets one of the best lines in the film. "Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothin'. Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans."

The stars of the film are Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Neilsen and Anne Francis playing the parts of Dr. Morbius, Commander Adams and Altaira respectively. There is one other, possibly unintended, star of the film but I will come to him in a moment. Walter Pidgeon has the mad scientist role though he has more of the appearance of a psychiatrist or perhaps a magician (a link to Prospero maybe). As a counterpoint to Cook Morbius has to utter one of the silliest lines in the film "Nothing less. The number 10 raised almost literally to the power of infinity". Many decades later Buzz Lightyear uses the similar "To infinity, and beyond" but he at least has the excuse that he is a cartoon character! Forbidden Planet does try to convey an aura of scientific realism, which it mostly achieves, but also doesn't want to miss an opportunity to sound fantastic.

Forbidden Planet - Altaira
Altaira or Alta (Anne Francis) makes her entrance in the film.

Anne Francis has a quite different role to play which is spelled out in capital letters from her first dramatic entrance into the film. Dr. Morbius and the three crew members are discussing what happened to the members of the scientific expedition when they are interupted by the word "father" and the camera jumps round to see the gorgeous Altaira approaching on the polished marble floor in a catwalk manner. She stops briefly allowing everyone to comprehend the minuteness of her dress before walking on to meet the guests. Meanwhile, the camera moves back to see the crewmen standing line abreast agog at the vision before them which is probably exactly what the studio hoped the male half of the cinema audience would be doing too. A great entrance. Throughout the film Ms. Francis has a glint in her eye and is never far from mischievous and works well as a counter to the much more straight laced character of Commander Adams. Leslie Neilsen playing it straight might come as a surprise to those viewers more used to his characters in Police Squad! and the Naked Gun films but it certainly works.

A Star is Born

As mentioned earlier there is one more star of the film though he didn't get top billing with the other three stars. The camera loves him, he has some of the best action scenes, some great dialog, has comedic timing and also has a

Forbidden Planet - Robby the Robot
Robby explains Dr Morbius is not to be disturbed to Commander Adams and Doc Ostrow

great dramatic entrance into the film. Seven years before Omar Sharif, in Lawrence of Arabia, the camera looks into the distance as a remote figure travels across the desert landscape throwing up dust clouds. Those watching the scene stand with some apprehension, hands on their weapons, awaiting the arrival of their visitor. The transport this time is a super fast buggy, rather than a camel, with Robby, the Robot, at the controls. Another scene to watch out for is the one where Robby deals with the monkey which is stealing fruit. It only lasts for a few seconds but the image will stay with you. The career of one of Hollywood's favourite robots had begun - R2-D2 and C-3PO eat your CPUs out!

In other discussions of Forbidden Planet I have read disparaging comments about the acting of the three leads and the quality of the direction but I think the whole package works very well. The film is only just over 90 minutes long and there isn't much time for character development considering the scope of other parts of the film. I think the parts of Commander Adams and Doc Ostrow were intentionally made stiff and formal because they were to deliver the serious message. Dr. Morbius, in the magician role 2, has to be more flamboyant (and he is) and Altaira has to be flirtatious and innocent at the same time (and she is). Robby, who steals every scene he is in, is universally admired and loved.

Science Fact

Sometimes science fiction films don't allow facts to get in the way of a good story and very often I have to agree that it is a good thing. After all, SciFi films are meant as entertainment not undergraduate teaching aids. However, a really blatant science or technology gaff can really break your suspension of disbelief. Rather than being engrossed in the film you are thinking "that can't be right?" The spell has been broken. Forbidden Planet takes the opposite stance - it tries to get the science correct. There is one scene at the start of the film when the starship is about to come out of "hyperdrive" to sub-light speeds. The commander and crew then start talking about "DC" or deceleration before stepping under a green beam which Scotty would recognise from his transporter room. Presumably, the beam is to prevent the crew from being turned into chunky salsa 1 as the ship slows down - not a bad concept and it looks good too.

Time Travel

Never mind the 23rd century does Forbidden Planet have any relevance in this century? Most importantly as a piece of entertainment it still works very well. I am sure anyone seeing it for the first time will be drawn into the fllm's story. Forbidden Planet has suspense, adventure, humour and even some romance. The characters are believable and the film has fantastic ambience greatly helped by the beuatiful sets, graphics and sound effects.

Forbidden Planet - Krell machine
Spaceship crew and Dr. Morbius walk around the Krell machine

The film was made with such high production values, for the period, that it ages well and still looks sumptuous today. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Robby.

The central theme, if anything, has even more relevance today than it had 50+ years ago. Consider the state of our own planet, Sun-3, we have over-populated it, polluted it and threatened nuclear armegeddon. We should worry less about rogue asteroids and alien lifeforms and instead recognise the threats we pose to ourselves just as the Krell should have done.

Anyone interested in SciFi has to see this film. It would probably not be an overstatement to say that Forbidden Planet was the progenitor of modern day science fiction films. Forbidden Planet was not the first but it was one of the most innovative SciFi films putting together a good story, characters and theme with great special effects. Had the film not been a commercial success (and I don't have sales figures for it) it is doubtful that any studios would have risked a similar venture for a long time to come. There is a lot of originality in the film too. For once it is the humans that are in the flying saucer not aliens from another planet. It is the humans who are really both the good guys and bad guys at the same time. Long before Stanley Kubrick became renowed for exploring Freudian psychology it was Forbidden Planet that made the Id a household name.

Forbidden Planet has so many things going for it that not only should you make sure you see this film but it easily bears repeat viewings. I guarantee that each time you see this film you will discover something new and interesting.

 

/ fitheach


1 Concept from The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss, Flamingo 1997

2 It is frequently stated that Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest by William Shakespeare. There are obvious parallels with the characters and the situation but I would argue the themes and messages of the play and the film differ.