- Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
- March 3, 1956 (Charlotte, North Carolina)
A ship sent to investigate the silence of a colony on a distant planet encounters something more dangerous than they could have imagined.
This is one of those early bits of science fiction that has since become a classic. Forbidden Planet was a bit of an anomaly when it came out. First of all it was a well-funded science-fiction film with quality production values for the era. The costuming looked good as did the sets. This was taken seriously by all involved. For a significant portion of film history science fiction was not taken seriously as a genre. It was treated as something just for kids or for low budget cash grabs. This was not that.
Robbie the Robot is quite possibly the best-looking robot to ever hit the silver screen prior to 1977. It was more than something boxy or just jokey looking. Robbie may look goofy these days (and some of you may best remember him only from the background of Gremlins as a bit of a punchline) but for the time he was serious.
Forbidden Planet was also one of the first serious efforts that depicted faster than light travel by humans in Earth built ships. These were not crafts that a kidnapped human stole after getting to the alien planet. It used the classic saucer shape but was not a vehicle from Mars.
Forbidden Planet is a little dated at points but as a whole still holds up in concept and execution. It is odd to see Leslie Nielsen in a dramatic role even though that is how he started out in his career. As Commander John J. Adams, leader of our group of heroes, he is rather serious and stern and just as effective in this dramatic role as he was in any comedic role. I admit he was a better comedienne than as a dramatic actor but he was no slouch in drama.
There are some interesting actors cast as part of the crew of the C-57D. Warren Stevens is Lt. “Doc” Ostrow. Stevens appeared in Star Trek in the episode “By Any Other Name” and other science fiction roles either as the villain or in sinister roles. Richard Anderson of the Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man shows stars as Chief Quinn. Earl Holliman of plenty of quality work over the decades is an unnamed cook. The one and only Rosco P. Coltrane of The Dukes of Hazzard fame James Best is an unnamed crewman. A few years later James Best and Anne Francis would appear in an episode of The Twilight Zone together.
The planet our intrepid crew is sent to, Altair IV, has only two living residents-Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). The colony they were sent to check on is all gone with them having died in an inexplicable accident when they decided to return home. Dr. Morbius (could they have picked a more evil sounding name?) is evasive and keeps his visitors at a distance.
As the story goes on it is revealed that the planet was once home to an incredibly advanced species called the Krell that mysteriously vanished centuries ago with all above ground indications of their civilization having crumbled away. All that remains is a series of underground complexes. Morbius has been studying one such facility and learning Krell history and understanding their technology. Morbius learns the Krell had advanced to the point of being able to control their technology with thought.
Tension builds during the course of the film. It turns out that the mysterious accident that killed the colony members is not so inexplicable. Morbius had wanted to stay and study the technology and everyone else wanted to go home. The darkness in the doctor reached out and killed them though he does not wish to believe that. The Krell with their thought technology were able to create or do with just thought and that allowed Morbius to subconsciously strike at them.
This leads to the theme of the film which is we have demons inside of us. There is darkness we may not even admit to ourselves about. The doctor certainly does not think about that. The Krell were destroyed overnight by their own dark sides that they believed they were above. Morbius reached out in anger and killed the colony and in his jealousy over having to share his special discovery subconsciously lashes out at Adams and his crew.
One standout in the film is the Id Monster. It is the personification of what is inside Dr. Morbius. This creature was created by veteran Disney animator Joshua Meador who was loaned to MGM for the project. Though I have never caught it there is supposedly a small goatee on the face of the creature when it is finally seen thus connecting it to Morbius. Multiple processes were used to place the barely visible creature into the movie. It was long and sounds laborious but the payoff for the viewer is so worth it.
Another thing that still holds up in my opinion is a distance shot they did showing an approaching vehicle. It’s a simple dust cloud effect with probably somebody off camera blowing an air wand as they moved back. It is a minor detail that I think most filmmakers of the time would have just not included.
As I said earlier the film is a little dated at times. The first thing that jumps out at me is the entirely Caucasian crew. They could not even shoehorn in a minority actor into a non-speaking role in the background. The future is so white with absolutely no shades. This is just an example of studio thinking and general biases of the time.
The second thing that jumps out at me is in the film after the crew starts talking to Morbius and meet his daughter Altaira things get a little creepy. The problem is they get a little rapey in their actions towards her. Admittedly in the story they have been trapped on a ship for a bit but calm down! They leer and the dialogue is extremely suggestive even by the times this was made. And weirder still is her dad does not seem too perturbed by their obvious creepy advances, but he is willing to slaughter everybody over some ruins. Priorities Pops!
Reportedly this film was inspired in part by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The characters and isolated setting have been compared to the play leading some to consider the film itself a loose adaption. I admit to my eyes glazing over in high school when we got to Shakespeare so I will take their word for it.
The dialogue is strong, and the acting is good even if some things are a touch dated. Pidgeon turns in a sophisticated performance as an unintended villain. Nielsen is more than stern hero. He is a think military man with trusted and capable subordinates. And we get something serious in concept as the basis for the events of the film.
Forbidden Planet is a very good early attempt at deep science fiction. It is not without its flaws, but it is a very good film. Watch it!