50’s Sci-Fi Feature #4 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

ForbiddenplanetposterForbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Written by: Cyril Hume (story by Irving Block, Allen Adler)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Forbidden Planet’s oddball send-up to the likes of Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare is far and away the most fantastic of the 50’s Sci-Fi features we’ve taken a look at thus far during our marathon.  Taking place light years away from the planet earth and featuring a very small cast of characters, the science fiction extravaganza paved the way for future massive franchises like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Doctor Who.  Forbidden Planet was a trailblazer in a variety of ways, being one of the first motion pictures to take place outside of the planet Earth, showing humans travelling faster than light speed, featuring a believable talking robot as a fully-fledged supporting character, and scored entirely electronically for the first time in film history. These features may not seem like much in 2016, but they all had a part in making science fiction and fantasy film-making what it is today.  Director Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is without a doubt the most successful film in the filmmaker’s short filmography, elevating him from being a mere footnote in film history.  Forbidden Planet stars Academy Award nominee Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Morbius, the lone human inhabitant of the planet Altair IV.  Alongside the veteran Pidgeon are television star Anne Francis as Dr. Morbius’ daughter Alta, eventual comedic legend Leslie Nielsen as Commander John Adams, leader of the expedition to Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius’ highly advanced robot.  Production of the film took place for a little over a month in the Spring of 1955, and believing that Forbidden Planet would have mass appeal, the filmmakers were given a budget of nearly $2 million to work with.  The “Robby the Robot” prop itself cost more than $100,000, and continued to be used for decades in television and films in various capacities.  Upon its initial release in March of 1956, Forbidden Planet was a modest box office success, earning more than $2.7 million from general audiences.  Though the film’s box office performance didn’t exactly change the game or set the film world ablaze, its success ultimately led to the mass production of space-set science fiction movies for decades to come.  Its critical success saw it nominated for an Oscar, and today Forbidden Planet sits in the prestigious National Film Registry.  It is remembered by audiences to this day for being a truly daring and visionary picture that dared to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

The film is set in the distant 23rd century, and takes place entirely on the planet of Altair IV, where a mission is underway to discover the fate of an expedition from two decades earlier.  Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is seemingly the only expedition member still in contact with the ship, and he warns the ship not to set down, as he cannot guarantee their safety.  Throwing caution to the wind, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land on Altair IV to investigate the situation.  The crew is greeted by Robby the Robot (Marvin Miller), a technical marvel built by Morbius.  Robby the Robot has been programmed to never harm human beings, more or less following the Three Laws of Robotics established by famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.  The advanced robot leads the crew of the ship to Dr. Morbius, who shows tells them the fate of his crew from 20 years earlier, and shows off his technical prowess by explaining Robby the Robot’s programming to never harm human beings.  Morbius’ daughter Alta (Anne Francis) is soon introduced to the ship’s crew.  It is immediately apparent that there’s something very peculiar about the way Dr. Morbius and his young daughter have managed to survive and thrive on the apparently hostile Altair IV.  Overnight, the crew’s ship is sabotaged by an unknown force, and Dr. Morbius is confronted by Commander Adams.  He denies any involvement and shows Adams ancient technology discovered by the former inhabitants of Altair IV.  The next night, a crew member is killed by the unknown force, and further alarms are raised by Adams and his crew.  Can Commander Adams convince Dr. Morbius to let them take highly important ancient technology back to earth for study, or will the lone inhabitant of Altair IV do what he can to maintain his intergalactic paradise?  Find out in 1956’s game changing Forbidden Planet!

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Robby the Robot and Cook (Earl Holliman) in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Having heard little about Forbidden Planet before seeing it, I had always assumed it was an early ultra low budget, Roger Corman-esque production.  This assumption proved very wrong indeed, as I quickly found out that Forbidden Planet has a lot more to offer than just being a schlocky and disposable science fiction flick.  What it brings to the table is genuine intelligence and charm, more so than I ever could have expected from such an early Hollywood venture into outer space.  From the very first minute of the film, Forbidden Planet is colorful and visually interesting in almost every frame.  Though the planet of Altair IV feels very earth-like in many ways, the planet still manages to be different enough to be constantly intriguing.  Despite his relative lack of big budget experience, the film’s journeyman director (Fred M. Wilcox) manages to make the film visually interesting with tight framing and a wandering camera.  It helps that Wilcox is working with a solid screenplay by writer Cyril Hume, who effortlessly blends hard science fiction concepts with expository scenes.  Hume’s script never sacrifices its quality to explain concepts directly to the audience, instead going for a more subtle approach using elements of traditional sci-fi and horror films, mixed with dry wit and a Shakespeare inspired story structure.  Forbidden Planet’s script is partially inspired by The Tempest, following the same general story arc and hitting many of the same milestones along the way.  This inspiration helps to elevate Forbidden Planet’s story from silly science fiction fantasy to a legitimately unique and inspired tale.  The story never pauses long enough to become dull or overstay its welcome, instead constantly introducing new ideas to the audience.  As soon as you think you know a character like Dr. Morbius or Commander Adams, their characters are turned upside down and new elements of their personalities are uncovered.  I found myself actually caring about the three principle characters in Forbidden Planet, something that hasn’t happened during the course of our ongoing 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The pacing of the story alone is a sign of how strong Cyril Hume’s writing is, and helps the movie remain engaging even six decades after its release.  While I wouldn’t exactly call it the perfect science fiction film, I very much appreciated everything it was able to bring to the table, and the tremendous influence it had on the medium.  The introduction of Robby the Robot alone was very forward-thinking and progressive for the time, giving an artificial life-form a degree of autonomy, as well as a somewhat human personality.  By the end of Forbidden Planet, you can’t help but wonder what science fiction would look like today if the film had never been released.

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Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet laid the groundwork for the next sixty years of science fiction films, and captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.  The colorful and interesting visuals, solid direction, and excellent script form an incredibly engaging tale of interstellar exploration, thirst for power and knowledge, and the search for answers.  The film was far ahead of its time, and its influence on the genre simply cannot be underestimated by viewers.  While some elements don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains an interesting case study for what science fiction films can be, and a reminder of how simple the genre was before the film’s release.  Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended.

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