IT’S OUT OF THIS WORLD!
The 1950s saw plenty of exciting, original and intelligent genre films, but Forbidden Planet truly became the symbol for the thinking man’s science fiction movie (at least until Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky made 2001 and Solaris). When writing their space saga, Irving Block and Allen Adler had the unusual idea of looking to William Shakespeare for inspiration; his play “The Tempest” and its portrayal of the sorcerer Prospero could easily be transferred to an alien planet. The greatest danger facing our heroes becomes the monsters of the mind.
Exploring other worlds
The story takes place in the 2200s when astronauts in flying saucers are exploring other worlds. A crew led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is sent to the planet Altair IV to learn what happened to a previous expedition. As they prepare to land, Adams is contacted by someone on the planet. It is Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a member of the expedition, who tells the Commander that everything is fine on Altair IV but if he chooses to land his ship he and his crew will be in grave danger. Adams ignores Morbius. After landing and disembarking, the crew is approached by a sophisticated robot that introduces itself as Robby and tells them that it is there to transport them to Dr. Morbius. Adams and two of his lieutenants (Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly) reluctantly agree to board Robby’s vehicle.
They are transported through a barren desert landscape to Morbius’s house, a modern villa with a beautiful, green garden and wild animals roaming freely. The doctor welcomes his guests and explains to them that all the other expedition members died from a mysterious illness, but that he has created a calm, rich life for himself and his lovely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and needs no help from Earth. Adams and his men are highly suspicious and tell Morbius that they can’t leave the planet just yet. The longer they stay the more they realize that Morbius is not telling the whole truth and that they are indeed in grave danger.
A haunting quality
The film is leisurely paced and has a haunting quality; even though it partly looks like a B movie (with aging special effects, wooden acting and many silly technical details), the script and its depiction of the potentially destructive powers of our brains, not least in a time and place where anything is possible, fascinates. The issue of an otherworldly race of superintelligent beings that doesn’t have mankind’s flaws is also typical of the genre.
Director Fred McLeod Wilcox and his team capably create tension that increases as the “id monster” makes itself more known. The environs of the planet and the matte paintings are vivid enough to make you believe that you are in a very foreign place; the groundbreaking electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron makes that feeling stronger. It’s easy to see why Gene Roddenberry named this film as an inspiration for Star Trek. The crew looks like it belongs on the Enterprise (especially their comfortable uniforms), the intelligent story could easily have played out in a Star Trek episode or movie, and there is the thrill of discovering new worlds.
The film also has a certain degree of humor, mostly thanks to the presence of Robby the Robot (who became an iconic figure that would reappear in many other movies and episodes of TV shows) and Earl Holliman as the cook.
The monster stays mostly invisible (except in a scene that points to the truth behind the mystery), which only makes it more intriguing – and frightening. We fear what we cannot see… and the horrors conjured by our imagination.
Forbidden Planet 1956-U.S. 98 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Nicholas Nayfack. Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox. Screenplay: Cyril Hume. Story: Irving Block, Allen Adler. Cinematography: George J. Folsey. Music: Bebe Barron, Louis Barron. Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Edward Morbius), Anne Francis (Altaira Morbius), Leslie Nielsen (J.J. Adams), Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Richard Anderson.
Trivia: Additional music by André Previn. Robby the Robot’s voice was provided by Marvin Miller. The attack of the “id monster” was designed by a Disney animator.
Last word: “Walter Pidgeon was the golden gentleman, and he was without a doubt the most charming man I have ever met. I used to play checkers with him; he was a very fine checker player, so he always used to whip me, but we had witty exchange, hopefully. We were sarcastic with each other, but playing always on words. At a certain point, when we were moving, I made reference to the size of his feet. Now in making reference to his feet I had stepped over the line; it was no longer wit, it was becoming crude. He said, ‘That’s uncalled for, Leslie.’ And I said ‘Oh, you’re quite right, Walter. I apologize.’ He said, ‘Accepted.’ Just like that. He was very easy to take; you wanted to be in his company.” (Nielsen, Indiewire)