When one thinks of 1950s science-fiction films, one thinks of the sort of schlocky black-and-white B movies that were parodied on the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show. Yet, while there were a whole lot of films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster, the 1950s did have some truly good sci-fi movies, among them The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The War of the Worlds, and The Thing from Another World.
For its literacy and production values, the best of the bunch was undoubtedly MGM's first big foray into A-level science-fiction, Forbidden Planet, released in 1956. The 98-minute color film directed by Fred M. Wilcox features state-of-the-art special effects and is endowed with Cyril Hume's solid screenplay from Irving Block and Allen Adler's screen treatment “Fatal Planet,” which adapted sections of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Upon its release, Forbidden Planet drew raves for its Oscar-nominated special effects, its electronic music score by Louis and Bebe Barron (though credited as Electronic Tonalities, to avoid music guild fees), vivid matte paintings inspired by Chesley Bonestell, and the famed Monster of the Id (MOTI), which was animated by Joshua Meador, on loan from the Walt Disney studios.
Even more famous was the appearance of Robby the Robot, who would be featured in The Invisible Boy – included as a bonus on the Forbidden Planet DVD – as well as in several 1960s sci-fi TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and Lost in Space (with whose robot Robby is often confused). A couple of decades later, Robby had a cameo in Gremlins (1984).
As for its plot, Forbidden Planet offers a simple but elegantly constructed tale filled with humorous asides that leaven the forced “love story” aspect in the film.
In the 23rd Century, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D – a flying saucer led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen, long before his Police Squad days) – is en route to the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to the crew of the Bellerophon, sent to that planet twenty years earlier. After a year's journey, they encounter the lone survivor of the party, Doctor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a philologist and Prospero stand-in; his gorgeous blonde daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), or Alta, the Miranda character in a pre-1960s miniskirt; and Robby the Robot, the domestic servant who is the Calibanian counterpart.
Morbius warns the crew of a mysterious force that killed the Bellerophon party in their first year, even though he was immune to it. After a midnight attack that kills one of the ship's men, Adams confronts Dr. Morbius, who explains that below his home is a machine – 7,800 levels high, and powered by 9,200 nuclear reactors – the only remnant of the extinct Krel race, which perished 200,000 years earlier in a single night after a million years of high culture.
In the meantime, Adams and his number two, Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly), vie for Alta's affections. And MOTI attacks again.
Forbidden Planet, as literate and well acted as it is, would not be such an iconic film without Robby the Robot, who can speak 188 languages, including dialects and sub-tongues. Robby steals every scene he's in, whether telling Adams, who comments on the planet's high oxygen content, that “I rarely use it myself, sir. It promotes rust,” or zapping a little monkey who tries to steal fruit from a bowl.
There are also some interesting claims regarding technology. As an example, Forbidden Planet opens with the statement that mankind did not reach the moon until the end of the 20th century. Additionally, many of the ship's devices run on clearly antiquated atomic energy, there are no wireless communicators, and many of the technologies are gobbledygook, such as the use of “quanto-gravitetic drive” to travel in hyperspace.
On the other hand, many of the other devices found in Forbidden Planet seem plausible. Unlike the large industrial technology in later sci-fi films, the sleek, minimalist designs of much of the ship's equipment mirror technology getting smaller and better. The film also follows Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, a bonus for sci-fi fans as it has had an obvious influence on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.
The 50th Anniversary Edition Forbidden Planet DVD comes on two discs. Disc one has the film in a great new transfer. Included are seven science-fiction film trailers, an excerpt from the 1950s TV series The MGM Parade with Walter Pidgeon appearing with Robby, in addition to Robby's role in the “The Robot Client” episode of the Thin Man TV series (starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk) that originally aired on Feb. 28, 1958. Unfortunately, there is no audio commentary for this terrific film – and that's a major oversight.
Disc two has The Invisible Boy, a solid 1957 B movie that was Robby's first post-Forbidden Planet appearance, and three documentaries:
- The hour-long Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us, with appearances by current blockbuster sci-fi filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott. The fact that it was written and directed by Time magazine critic Richard Schickel explains many of its flaws and omissions, e.g., no mention of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
- The making-of featurette, “Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet,” with Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Warren Stevens, Earl Holliman, and Richard Anderson providing reminiscences about the film. There are also special-effects experts, such as Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, who discuss the making of MOTI's invisible footprints.
- “Robby The Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon,” which documents the robot's creation and his life after Forbidden Planet.
The disc also offers deleted scenes and “lost” footage.
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. Also, this Forbidden Planet review was initially posted in January 2007.
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). Dir.: Fred M. Wilcox. Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Robby the Robot, Warren Stevens, Earl Holliman, Richard Anderson, Jack Kelly, George Wallace, Robert Dix. Scr.: Cyril Hume; from a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler inspired by William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
1 Academy Award Nomination
Best Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Ries, Wesley C. Miller