We’re all part monsters in our subconscious. ~ Leslie Nielsen as Commander Adams
I couldn’t help but recall Han Solo’s line about the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars in response to Luke’s derision. After giving his pride and joy an affectionate pat he defends her reputation like so, “She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts.”
It seems fitting that the line is used to commend Forbidden Planet because this is the film that in many ways made science fiction what it is today. It’s almost too easy to trace the line from this film to the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek and a plethora of others. But today we’re so used to the canonical worlds of established sci-fi that Forbidden Planet might come off as quaint and a bit outmoded. Still, the film has it where it counts even today.
Forbidden Planet was also unprecedented in its day because this was no B-picture. This was A-grade entertainment and that was almost unheard of at the time for science fiction, a historically low budget genre. Leslie Nielsen is given his first starring role while Walter Pidgeon plays the scientist who greets the explorers on the surface of the planet that they were sent to investigate.
But the band of expeditioners who came before them was all but decimated by some unknown force leaving only Dr. Morbius alive (Pidgeon) along with his pretty daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who has no grasp of what life on earth is like. Commander Adams (Nielsen) is intent on staying on the planet until receiving further instructions from earth.
Still, something doesn’t sit right. There’s something off about Altair IV. A silent, invisible adversary is oftentimes more engaging than a visual one especially when it dwells very close to home and that’s precisely what presents itself moment by moment as the narrative progresses.
From their very first touchdown, this is an incredibly eery picture which manages to carry the audience’s attention for a great deal of the movie. In fact, if this was Star Wars they would have said, “I have a bad feeling about this” at least a couple times. But equally crucial is the subsequent development of the landscape around us that’s at times utterly entrancing.
The key to the film is that everyone plays it straight and serious and in this particular case it doesn’t come off as camp. There’s a gravity to it all that’s mesmerizing even in its bits of antiquity because the world is full of grand endeavors in creativity.
The electronic instrumentation provides what is purported to be the cinematic world’s first fully atonal electric score and even today each note is unnerving to the core. Whereas the theremin has somehow entered into the realm of parody these notes still seem resonant and they perform far better than any traditional score might have in the same circumstances.
At times Forbidden Planet showcases a very simple, even austere mise en scene and other times expands to almost labyrinthian proportions. The sweeping palette photographed in Eastmancolor with CinemaScope certainly adds to its allure straight out of the 1950s while still managing to take cues from stories from centuries prior, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, being the most obvious inspiration.
While not necessarily prophetic or correct in all its assertions about space travel (as far as we can possibly know) there’s a commitment to the world and a specificity to its inner workings that makes the Forbidden Planet into a fairly immersive place — a world alternative to our own that we are able to explore and I think that’s part of its unique status as a pioneering film. Because now we are so used to worldmaking and fantasies outside the realm of Earth whether it be Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
Here we see it too but it comes out of a time where most stories were human stories planted on earth or at the very least had the semblance of the reality that we know to be true here. And yet here was a narrative that dared transplant our human shortcomings to the other end of the universe in an entirely different paradigm while showing how man is his fallen nature can still make a mess of life even there. It’s a fairly powerful statement full of human psychology as much as it is about conquering new frontiers.
Robby the Robot (designed by Robert Kinoshita and the team at MGM) stands as a landmark among cinematic robots since he is his own entity as a standalone character. Far from turning on man, he’s about as useful as we might possibly think — even creating gallons of whiskey for the thirsty cook (Earl Holliman). The film was also a trendsetter in describing space travel in increments of light while miniskirts far from being a thing of the future still made a splash with 50s audiences as worn so provocatively by Anne Francis.
Through its final credits, Forbidden Planet is a special picture and that uniqueness goes far beyond its rightful place as one of the seminal explorations in science-fiction. The only thing left to say seems to be despite the iconic nature of its film poster, it has absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Still, it makes for a good piece of advertising. It must be if someone as oblivious as me is talking about Forbidden Planet over 60 years later.