Welcome to the first of the 99 Science Fiction Films You Must See. This week we start with an undeniable classic and a film that set the standard for what science fiction films would become for decades, the influential and beautiful Forbidden Planet.
Forbidden Planet, made in 1956, is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and references psychoanalytic theory including Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind and Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious. So it was ambitious to say the least. It keeping with that ambition it was also one of the most expensive films ever made, almost quadruple the budget of other sci-fi films being made at the time; it was also considered a flop upon its release.
What It Is
The film follows the crew of C-57D as it reaches the planet Altair IV to search for survivors of an expedition that disappeared 20 years earlier. Upon arrival they receive a transmission from Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) telling them that everything is fine, thank you very much, please move along. The commander of the mission John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) insists on landing, Morbius says he cannot guarantee their safety.
After landing the commander, Lieutenant Farman (Jack Kelly) and “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens) are met by Robby the Robot, who takes them by transport to Morbius’s home. Morbius tells them about a mysterious “planetary force” that killed all the members of the original expedition. Only Morbius, his wife (who later died of natural causes), and their daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) were somehow immune and safe.
Altair, being very young and beautiful and Anne Francis, soon becomes the subject of the crew’s sexual advances and having only known her father is confused and intrigued by it. The only man she is not hit on by is the commander whom she bickers and argues with and, as everyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy of a sitcom knows, they are the ones who will eventually fall in love.
It is soon learned that Morbius is studying the Krell, a super advanced race that died out 200,000 before but whose technology is still working. Commander Adams demands that the Krell’s knowledge be turned over to Earth but Morbius refuses, citing the potential danger of it falling into the wrong hands.
That night the ship is attacked by an invisible monster and a crewman is killed. An energy field is put around the ship and armed guards are stationed. The energy field and energy weapons are of no use however as the monster attacks again (becoming partially visible in the barrage of blasts) and kills two more crewman.
After some investigation it is revealed that the monster is in reality a projection of Morbius’ mind, an ID monster, a manifestation of his fears and anger. It is a result of using the Krell “educator” technology and is what killed the Krell civilization in the first place. Morbius is forced to confront the creature in order to save his daughter and is killed.
The remaining crew of the C-57D along with Altair and Robbie escapes the planet and destroy it so that no one can ever again use its technology for evil.
Why You Must See It
Well first of all it’s beautiful. I watched this on the newly remastered Blu-ray release and it is simply stunning. The production design, the matt paintings and the special effects are all still impressive; quite a feat considering this is a film released nearly 60 years ago. I have to admit that I am partial to the retro-50s futurism style and it adds to the charm and appeal.
The cast is all very good and there is no real hamming it up that you normally see in sci-fi films of the time. Walter Pidgeon is menacing and has just the right smugness of someone who thinks they are smarter and superior to you. It’s always fun to see Leslie Nielsen in his early “straight” roles compared to his later Police Squad persona and Anne Francis is lovely full stop.
The plot is seemingly following the standard sci-fi tropes of other films of the era but is really rather inventive having the “monster” be the human psyche rather than a “bug-eyed” alien. Now I usually don’t care for the “scientist meddling in power beyond his control” trope but here it’s pulled off well and I can deal when it’s done with some nuance.
Also, some truly amazing choices made by the filmmakers as well. The spaceship is the typical “flying saucer” but manned by humans and it takes place entirely on another world making us the aliens. And the fact that we don’t actually see the Krell, we only see their technology and the architecture, and these are so full realized that we can imagine how they look. Science fiction is primarily “theatre of the mind” and I find this detail fitting and nice.
Also, a bit more subtle than everything else, was the notion of Altair’s “loss of innocence.” At the start of the film she can control and subdue the animals on the planet, a tiger for instance. This is a nod to how virgins could control unicorns in myth, but as her relationship with Adams grows her control over the animals lessens as her innocence does. Make of this what you will but it is a very mature idea for a 1950s sci-fi drama.
I guess I can’t finish this without mentioning Robbie. He is without a doubt one of the most iconic movie robots of all time. His design is a bit impractical, but come on he’s cool. I find his role in the film to be a little superficial, he’s there mostly for comic relief and convenience, but he adds the necessary “future” element to the proceedings. And he’s cool, did I mention that?
Are There Flaws?
Oh yes. The scenes with the cook and Robbie making alcohol are really broad comedy that seem rather unnecessary and for me drag the film down a bit. But that can be forgiven compared the outright sexual harassment of Altair.
I can usually brush this stuff off with the idea that it was a different time, different values, but in this film I just found it a little hard to take. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a father now, but all the cat-calls and groping and innuendo – in front of the girl’s dad! – was just a bit much. I find this aspect of the film hard to palette.
Forbidden Planet is considered one of the seminal works of science fiction. And I totally agree with that assessment. It is an amazing piece of work; it was influential and it is remarkable to look at. The thing is I’m not a huge fan. Oh I totally respect it and admire what it was able to achieve and convey; it’s just that I find it a bit boring. There I said it, one of the seminal works of science fiction and I find it boring. I’ll turn in my nerd card at the door on the way out.
I still think everyone should see it of course (it wouldn’t be on this list if it I felt otherwise); Forbidden Planet paved the way for decades of science fiction film and TV. There would not be a Star Trek if not for this film, that in and of itself makes it great. So see it, appreciate it for what it is and what it influenced.
If nothing else it has Robbie the Robot in it. He’s cool.