Whereas the Freudian and Shakespearean cocktail of Forbidden Planet is a great example of sci-fi filmmaking – if not of great overall filmmaking – the other film in the package, The Invisible Boy, a black-and-white production directed by Herman Hoffman and based on a short story by Edmund Cooper, is a cute little movie that has moments as silly as Robot Monster, but that also offers some intriguing concepts that predate later sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus: The Forbin Project, and The Terminator series.
Like Robot Monster or Invaders from Mars, The Invisible Boy may all be the dream of the title character, for so much of it is propelled by a young boy's boredom – and fails to make any sense. The title is based upon the invisibility Robby accords to ten-year-old Timmy (Richard Eyer) to gain vengeance on a bully. The boy must also stop a super computer bent on world control. The computer in question has been built by Timmy's father (Philip Abbott), who works at a supposedly super-secret lab where his son can inexplicably roam around unhindered.
Apparently the film is set in the 1980s, for the supercomputer – the typical room-sized models of that era – has slyly encoded seven wrong answers over 29 years to somehow gain consciousness. But it would have to be conscious in order to plan such a thing, no? Then there are 1950s type scenes, in which Timmy's dad longwindedly tells him that a computer would have to be larger than Jupiter to be as good as a human brain, or when he looks at his wife while explaining that being a man – rather than a boy – has its 'compensations.'
No one notices or cares that Timmy has built Robby, supposedly from plans that were brought back in time by a mad scientist who had traveled to the future (and this is all treated with a shrug by the scientists) when the United Planets Cruiser C-57D returned home with Robby from Altair IV. The dim parents even believe Timmy's invisibility is just a phase devised to 'get attention.'
Despite its narrative flaws, The Invisible Boy is, generally speaking, a technically well-made film, especially in its use of rear projections and matte paintings. As for the absurd adult reactions to Timmy's and Robby's exploits, it borders on Dalian surrealism. Even so, it's clear that the filmmakers had no sense of the sublime nonsense the film conjures, for it's played straight – thus making it even funnier.
And as for the main feature? Well, Forbidden Planet deserves all its kudos. It's not a perfect film, but it's a great way to spend a couple of hours. It is also far better than Star Wars, which, though made twenty years later, seems much more outdated and juvenile. Only 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien and Aliens, and the first two Terminator films, have really equaled or surpassed this classic in depth and effects.
It's worth pointing out that despite Forbidden Planet's 'happy ending,' there is the possibility that the MOTI is still dormant inside Alta. After all, she is her father's daughter, and had an even more vivid nightmare than her father when the MOTI attacked the ship a second time. Also, the film wisely only 'shows' the MOTI once, and never shows the Krel, for the imagination can always conjure greater scares than the best special effects. Additionally, Forbidden Planet makes good use of narrative ellipses to condense the tale, something that far more realistic art films often fail to do.
Unlike other sci-fi films that are rather obvious Cold War allegories, Forbidden Planet is one of those rare productions that both define and transcend their era. Watch it and you'll agree – though you'll sleep a little less easily afterwards.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Academy Award Nomination
Best Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Ries, Wesley C. Miller