Forbidden Planet (1956) dir. Fred Wilcox
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Warren Stevens and introducing Robby the Robot
By Alan Bacchus
There’s no doubt the impact of Forbidden Planet on science fiction cinema. In fact, the accompanying featurette on the brand spanking new Warner Blu-Ray edition features some of the most revered science fiction filmmakers lauding the MGM spectacle piece for influencing them to get into filmmaking – John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis to name a few. I’ve seen it a number of times, this viewing the first time in 10 years or so, but my reaction is the still same. Admiration for its magnificent production design, admiration for its influence on sci-fi series Star Trek, acknowledgement for the filmmakers’ attempt to incorporate metaphors to real world themes and issues which exist on this green earth and a few giggles at the b-movie sensability which ultimately shines through all other purported redeemable qualities.
The story, which was refashioned from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, seems like a narrative template for a Roddenberry-era Star Trek episode. Commander J.J. Adams (Nielsen) commands a earth-born flying saucer into the deep reaches of space to make contact with the planet Altair IV and look for survivors of a lost expedition some 20 years prior. Once there, Adams, despite warnings from the only survivor of the previous mission, Dr. Morbius, his crew lands and explores this strange new world. Other than Morbius the only other inhabitants are his comely and impressionable daughter Alaira and Morbius robo-companion/servant Robby.
Morbius seems a little off, and his story that he and his daughter were immune to the unknown phenomenon which killed the rest of his crew, is a little fishy. Adams explores the planet and learns about exitinct previous inhabitants the Krell who all died off suddenly despite their great advancements in technology. The unknown phenomenon eventually rises up again attacking Adams’ crew, the effect of which forces Morbius to examine and reconcile his own culpability in the disaster.
Thematically the film’s greatest strength is it’s commentary on man’s voracious and often misguided and hasty desire for technology and knowledge, with the Krell serving as the metaphor for man – a society which advanced itself too quickly that ultimately destroyed itself by it’s own creation. The final line in the film which Adams says to Altaira, ‘We are, after all, not God” hit this point home not-so-subtley.
The revered production design by Cedric Gibbons, who was worked on many of the great MGM pictures (Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris), is indeed a marvel. Gibbons brought the same kind of spectacle MGM put into their musicals into the design of this new planet, fabulous colours, spectacular sets and painted backdrops are rendered with great details, which shows that good old fashioned sets instead of green screen scenery can look as good if not better than the overly processed CG effects of today.
The character of Robby the Robot actually gets a credit in the film and on the poster. His popularity is well documented, one of the first robot companions in cinema, a benevolent character rendered under Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Unfortunately Robby’s narrative influence in the film doesn’t go beyond comic relief, and though painstaking work was done to design it, with today’s eyes it still looks like a man waddling around in a sumo-suit.
Prior to Airplane Leslie Nielsen was a very serious actor – a Canadian actor, whom Marlon Brando once called the best actor Canada has to offer. He’s very serious in this role, which might also be a direct influence on the character of Captain Kirk, or least fellow Canadian William Shatner’s dramatization of it. Unfortunately there’s little in Adams’ character beyond the masculine authority figure Nielsen portrays. He’s exclusively a reactionary character, almost completely inactive to the events which befall him.
Morbius is a classic delusional madman, with his sinister-looking goatee reminds us of the moustache-twirking Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, again portrayed by a Canadian, Walter Pidgeon. Morbius’ daughter (Anne Francis) arguably was ahead of the curve as well, dressed in suggestive miniskirts and characterized as so sheltered she’s willing to swim nude in front of other men and presumably go to bed with them at will.
There’s a lot which doesn’t translate well to today. Along with the uninteresting and rather dull hero character, Wilcox’s direction (production design notwithstanding) is as pedestrian. There seems to be so much attention to the sets and backdrops that every shot is a flat two-shot. The camera rarely moves beyond this two-dimensional plane, resulting in a rather stagey theatrical feel.
So while the film can get aggrandized and made bigger than it is doesn’t mean it’s overrated. It’s one of the great event films in the long history of science-fiction and the reason why a Hollywood remake has been floating around for years – a story which no one as of yet seems to have been able to crack.
Forbidden Planet is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video