|Forbidden Planet (1956)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Earl Holliman, Richard Anderson, Robby the Robot
Director: Fred McLeod Wilcox
Category: Science Fiction
In that hazy period of the distant past that’s so often referred to as “back in the day,” Leslie Nielsen was a dramatic actor. No, seriously. It’s often hard to remember it, what with all his work with the Abrahams / Zucker camp (the “Naked Gun” franchise, not to mention “Airplane!”), but in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and even through the ‘70s, the majority of Nielsen’s resume was dedicated to work on dramatic work, both on movies and in television pictures…and one of his first major films was as the lead – the romantic lead, no less – in “Forbidden Planet.”
Based loosely on William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “Forbidden Planet” is rightfully considered one of the definitive science fiction films of all time, one to virtually all of the so-called “space operas” owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. Taking place in the 23rd century (the same era in which the original “Star Trek” series was set…and probably not coincidentally), the film begins with the United Planets Cruiser C-57D being sent to Altair IV to find out what happened to the expedition that was sent there over twenty years ago. Upon their arrival, they reach Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) via radio, who informs them that he cannot guarantee their safety if they land and instructs them to leave orbit immediately; alas, Commander Adams (Nielsen) has his orders and cannot contradict them, so he lands the ship and leads a landing party to find the doctor. Fortunately, the doctor proves conducive to conversation, introducing the commander and his team to his robot assistant, Robby, as well as his gorgeous, mini-skirt-wearing daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius explains that he’s the last survivor of the expedition, his wife having died several years earlier, and that he and his daughter are the only humans on the planet…but, of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re alone!
There’s a certain presumption that the special effects in any science fiction film made before “Star Wars” are going to be laughable by today’s standards, and, to be fair, there are a whooole lot of B-movies out there to support that theory, but “Forbidden Planet” was essentially the first time a movie studio had gone out of their way to make a grade-A sci-fi flick. If the results aren’t up to par with what’s being churned out nowadays, they still make for fascinating viewing. Gorgeous matte paintings are used for many of the backdrops, and the sets that were actually built for the film do indeed succeed in achieving an otherworldly look; many of the special effects – laser blasts, the monster that’s created from the id of Dr. Morbius, and so forth – were created with the aid of animation, and, by God, Robby the Robot actually looks like he might work. (You know how, when you were a kid, you always wished you had your very own R2D2? Trust me, if you’d grown up in the ‘50s, you’d’ve dreamed of waking up to Robby saying, “Good morning, sir, and might I fix you a hot breakfast?”) Indeed, the effects proved impressive enough to score the film an Academy Award nomination. Also of particular note was the soundtrack, the first in cinematic history to consist solely of electronic music; its writers, Louis and Bebe Barron, ended up being credited for “Electronic Tonalities,” reportedly due to an uproar with the movie industry’s music guild over the lack of “proper” musicians.
“Forbidden Planet” was definitely the first time Hollywood successfully captured the feel of the sci-fi stories that had been appeared in the pulp magazines like “Amazing Stories.” Morbius provides a grand tour of the technology left behind by the Krell (the now-extinct race who once populated Altair IV), as well as the various facilities they’d built in their time, director Fred McLeod did a remarkable job of making the buildings look hugely spacious and expansive; as far as the technology…well, let’s just say that most of it is a damned sight more impressive than the salt and pepper shakers that Dr. McCoy used as medical equipment on the USS Enterprise.
There wasn’t another science fiction film that could touch this one ‘til the release of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but, as most film buffs know, that flick wasn’t anywhere near as much fun as “Forbidden Planet.” Even half a century down the line, this movie remains a masterpiece of its genre.
50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition Review:
How do the words “loaded to the gills” grab you? It seems like a lifetime ago since Criterion released the laser-disc version of “Forbidden Planet,” but many of the items from that set have been in limbo since then. This 50th anniversary set retrieves the deleted scenes and lost footage from the film that had been included on the laser-disc, but it adds far more. There’s a documentary from Turner Classic Movies entitled “Watch the Skies! Science Fiction, the 1950s, and Us” in which “Forbidden Planet” features heavily, an all-new half-hour doc called “Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of ‘Forbidden Planet,’” and a new featurette about the creation of Robby the Robot. And since Robby began such an iconic figure via this film, we also get his next film – “The Invisible Boy,” a quaint kids flick from around the same time – as well as his appearance on an episode of “The Thin Man” that aired about two years after “Forbidden Planet.” There’s also a fun collection of ‘50s sci-fi trailers, including “Them!” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” The only surprising omission from the set is any sort of audio commentary, which seems like it would’ve been a gimme, given that famous film buffs and sci-fi geeks alike love this film. Oh, well, maybe for the 60th anniversary.