Forbidden Planet

Year 1956

Walter Pidgeon as   Dr. Edward Morbius
Anne Francis as Alta Morbius
Leslie Nielsen   as Commander John J. Adams  
Jack Kelly as   Lt. Farman
Earl Holliman as   Cook
Robby, the Robot   as   Robby the Robot
Marvin Miller as   Voice of Robby
Director - Fred M. Wilcox
Screenwriter - Cyril Hume

If all you know about this movie is the line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that is, "Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet," then you don't know enough about it. Allow me to enlighten you because this is a watershed movie in the science-fiction genre. It's not an SF movie or a sci-fi movie, it's science fiction. Science fiction is all about "the human condition" from an individual's perspective. Inventions and trappings, like words, are tools used to craft the point of view of the author.

This may not seem obvious given Sci-Fy's infatuation with nonsense like sharknadoes.

But if you take a look at the giants of science fiction like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov, you'll see that thread of something more than, "It's a bug!," Zap! Zap!

Thoughtful pieces aren't as entertaining as shoot 'em ups, so you don't see many of them as movies. Back in the 50s when this movie came out, the only serious science fiction movies were The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) about the dangers of nuclear war and The War of the Worlds (1953) which sort of missed the point in the book about colonial exploitation. There haven't been a lot of though provoking movies since. Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, Rollerball (1975), and Soylent Green come to mind, but they're all about 40-50 years old. (Anyone who thinks that Star Wars is something other than space dust that makes money needs to get out of the shallow end of life and get more than their feet wet.)

So, what's this movie about? Believe it or not, it's been called a retelling of Shakespeare's play The Tempest which is about people marooned on an island being manipulated by the local sorcerer. Forbidden Planet superficially has the same set-up. In the movie, a space ship being captained by Commander John J. Adams (Nielsen) is out to find survivors from a mining mission to Altair. They are warned away by the sole survivor of the earlier mission. Landing anyway, they come to find out the sole survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius (Pigeon) has a daughter and access to incredible knowledge left by the planet's extinct inhabitants. He's crafted a paradise. The problem? He loves the planet and knows that anyone who does not is torn limb from limb by some invisible force. It's up to Adams to fight the invisible thing that starts killing his crew as well as fall in love with Dr. Morbius' daughter Alta (Francis).

That last part is almost Biblical and Alta's slow loss of innocence is part of the theme of the movie. Oh, she's still a virgin and all, but she falls in love and quits being 100% pure. You've heard that love hurts and love stinks. In Forbidden Planet, love taints.

So what is the source of the invisible monster? That's the grand explanation at the end. It's convincingly explained, too, which is nice because the concept is a little esoteric. Let's just summarize it by saying that no matter how smart someone is, there's still a part of them that's ancestral.

I mentioned that this is a watershed movie. Not only was it a serious movie using a Shakespearean template, it did not make up a bunch of fake science. If something wasn't scientifically plausible, it didn't make it into the movie. Think the lack of sound in space in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, this film did well enough at the box office to all movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey to be made. If Forbidden Planet had tanked, you can bet that Godzilla (the English dubbed version also came out in 1956) knock-offs would have been the only type of sci-fi movies that Harpywood would have made for decades.

The special effects influenced the "Star Trek" franchise and you can't tell me that the trip to the power station in Forbidden Planet wasn't lifted for Star Wars.

The actors, although not unknowns, were languishing in relative obscurity. Leslie Neilsen was a romantic lead on television. He now had the opportunity to become a romantic lead in movies for a few years before drifting back to TV. Anne Francis was another one who made good use of the exposure. Her star was already rising, but Forbidden Planet made it rise faster. Anyone remember "Honey West" from the mid-sixties? Jack Kelly became one the Maverick boys (Bart) a couple of years after Forbidden Planet, which was a great gig for him. Earl Holloman? Well, even though he didn't immediately do great things, this movie didn't hurt.

Then there's Robby the Robot. This was the first role for the contraption. After that, you could see it in movies like Hollywood Boulevard and television shows like "The Twilight Zone". Sometimes he spoke with the voice of Marvin Miller and sometimes without. (Marvin Miller narrated Gerald McBoing-Boing! Now that's a trip to my early youth! Gerald was also one of my first Halloween costumes.)

Walter Pigeon, one of the icons of the avuncular, chews the scenery well and is barely over the top. He's like an even more urbane version of Vincent Price. That's high praise indeed.

The special effect range from barely servicable (the landing of the spacecraft) to really good (the single appearance of the monster). For the most part, the gizmos and gadgets were working theatrical properties (a.k.a. props) and this added immensely. Animation was done by Disney artists on loan to the producers for the making of the movie, so there is a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feel to the movie. This works and help turn Forbidden Planet into a sort of fairy tale.

What's wrong with the movie? The "music" is "futuristic" to the point of being nearly annoying. The musicians' union didn't like the idea of the sounds being called composed music, so it's called "electronic tonalities".

The movie's kind of slow in spots. As a child, the times that I watched as the monster ran rampant on the screen were fear inducing. The single time that monster became visible is unforgettable. The plaster cast of the monster's footprint is so detailed it also gave me shudder. But these moments are not the bulk of the film, so it does get slow.

The love story, although believable, is a bit too cookbook in its presentation. It's like a soap opera vignette but matches the general style of the movie.

Anne Francis' beauty mark has always annoyed me.

There is a lack of pathos for the killed crew members. Their deaths are noted and forgotten in favor of the next problem. This works for a parable but is not realistic.

There are a few scientific quibbles, but nothing blatant. For example, everything around the spaceship is rock but supposedly the planet is teeming with life. There's a continuity issue regarding this as well. Sometimes the ship is surrounded by rock walls and sometimes it's on a dusty plain. Nothing to mar the message of the movie, though.

There aren't any obvioius plot holes. (My way of saying that I didn't notice any but someone else might.) No profanity, nudity, or blasphemy. It's not an, "It's a bug!," Zap! Zap! type of science fiction movie and it does have a human race question posited. Chick flick potential is about average, which is a good thing.

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