Should I Watch..? 'Forbidden Planet'
What's the big deal?
Forbidden Planet is a science fiction film released in 1956 and is considered to be the greatest sci-fi film of the Fifties. Loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film sees a starship sent to a remote planet to search for survivors of a lost colony only to be warned off by the colony's last surviving member. Starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen in only his second film appearance, the film also introduced audiences to Robby The Robot who would go on to become a cult sci-fi figure and appear in numerous other films and TV shows. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, the film was a pioneer of the sci-fi genre and even influenced Gene Roddenberry to create his own sci-fi TV series, Star Trek. Despite this, the film did not make much profit at the box office with earnings of just $2.765 million. Nevertheless, it was entered into the US National Film Registry in 2013 for being historically, culturally or aesthetically important.
What's it about?
Long after mankind has developed faster-than-light travel and exploration of the galaxy has begun, the crew of the starship C-57D travel to the remote world of Altair IV to investigate the disappearance of the Bellerophon and its colonists. As they approach the planet, they are contacted by Dr Morbius who warns them to stay away or else face dire consequences. Undeterred, the ship lands at co-ordinates provided by Morbius and they are met by Morbius' personal assistant, a highly advanced robot called Robby.
Escorted to Morbius' compound, Commander J.J. Adams and two lieutenants discover from Morbius that the other colonists were killed and the Bellerophon destroyed by some powerful creature that somehow spared Morbius and his wife, who later died of natural causes. Only Morbius and his alluring daughter Altaira remain on the planet and have no wish to leave their little piece of paradise. But when it emerges that repairs need to be made to the ship before they return to Earth, everyone's lives are put in serious jeopardy as they are stalked by an invisible, malevolent presence...
Dr Edward Morbius
Commander J.J. Adams
Robby The Robot
Lieutenant "Doc" Ostrow
Lieutenant Jerry Farman
Fred McLeod Wilcox
Release Date (UK)
14th June, 1956
Academy Award Nomination
Best Special Effects
What's to like?
For any fans of sci-fi, this represents Genesis - the first major sci-fi production that wasn't some B-movie shlock-fest but a serious and well-funded window into the future. And it doesn't disappoint as the film's quality becomes apparent very quickly. Yes, it's a flying saucer that faintly reminds viewers of Plan 9 From Outer Space but the interior, with its complex but well-thought-out sets and innovative technology, illustrates a rare level of thought going into the film. This isn't the sort of film with random flashing lights in the background because it feels as though everything you see has a purpose, even if we don't see it in the film. There is a depth here that I wouldn't associate with Fifties sci-fi.
Although it's strange to see him acting straight for once, Nielsen does well as the square-jawed American leader of this motley crew butting heads with this mad scientist and bumping uglies with his daughter (not that you'd ever see it but it's more than implied). But the true star is Robby, who obviously looks more comical these days but again, displays a personality of his own and isn't just some overly mechanical prop. The film was also the first to use an entirely electronic score which was so ground-breaking at the time that the composers, Bebe & Louis Barron, were credited for "electronic tonalities", an eerie and surprising score than further illustrates how far ahead of its time Forbidden Planet really was.
- The opening narration states that mankind landed on the Moon at the end of the 21st century - about 140 years after the release of this film. Of course, Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon in 1969 just thirteen years later.
- Francis' miniskirt was the first seen in a Hollywood picture and resulted in the film being banned in Spain until 1967. Francis' various costumes were designed by MGM's costumer Helen Rose.
- The original Robby The Robot was sold at auction in 2017 for $5.3 million (a record for a movie prop) to collector William Malone. It surpassed the previous record of $4 million in 2013 for a statue used in The Maltese Falcon.
- Stuntman Frankie Darro, who operated inside the Robby costume, was fired after nearly falling over in the suit (which cost $125'000) after he'd enjoyed a five-martini lunch.
What's not to like?
Naturally, for a film that predates the launch of Sputnik, the effects look somewhat clunky and comical these days although perhaps not as much as you'd think. The alien creature is animated, along with the laser blasts from the crew and the hilarious impracticality of Robby The Robot makes for some amusing commentary but the film also displays some genuine imagination such as the force-field generators placed around the ship (very much like the Star Trek ones) and I loved the footprints and bevelled steps going into the ship when the invisible beast climbs on board.
The film's biggest problem is with scripting and editing. The narrative lurches along unevenly and offers plenty of questions but not much in the way of answers while the editing is also quite stop-start in places as people noticeably jump from point to point. But in a way, they add to the film's charm - this is old-school sci-fi, not bothered with being an allegory in the way that Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was which was also released in 1956. With its archaic appearance, dead-pan delivery and imaginative use of technology, this film became the blueprint for every big-budget sci-fi film that followed. In its own way, it's every bit as ground-breaking as Metropolis and just as influential.
Should I watch it?
Not just for sci-fi fans and convention nerds, Forbidden Planet remains a highly enjoyable watch for anyone with a deep love of the movies. Its sense of escapism and mystery are hard to resist and combined with the iconic Robby The Robot, the film is a staple of the genre that the whole family can enjoy. In spite of its faults, this is pioneering cinema that broke new ground for sci-fi and paved the way for film-makers of the future to pursue their own visions among the stars.
Great For: sci-fi buffs, Fifties nostalgia, cinema historians
Not So Great For: Millennials, cynical teenagers
What else should I watch?
It's hard not to argue that without the success of Forbidden Planet, we would not have seen the likes of Star Wars, Avatar or Star Trek. However, I would claim Metropolis as the original source for many sci-fi franchises - its stark vision of the future with its repressed populace beneath the boot of an uncaring corporation provides the spark of inspiration for many diverse sci-fi standards such as the mad scientist Rotwang in his twisted laboratory and the golden Machine-man looking like a female precursor to C-3PO.
Many sci-fi films from the Fifties and early Sixties are now hailed as classic pieces of cinema such as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The War Of The Worlds and 20'000 Leagues Under The Sea. Of course, there was also a lot of cheaply-produced B-movies that made it harder for sci-fi to be taken seriously - how could anyone after films such as Night Of The Blood Beast and Attack Of The Crab Monsters?
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Benjamin Cox