I love old sci-fi movies.
I cannot say exactly what it is about them that fascinates me, but it is probably somewhere between the imagination that went into them and the kitschy helplessness of the production. They are fun to watch and sometime the more stupid they are the better I like them.
“Forbidden Planet” ticks the first two boxes and fortunately not so much the third one. This being the second fifties sci-fi flick on the List I must say that the editors have pick the less stupid of the lot and I guess that is a good thing. Then I can always pick something up off list to hoot at.
The movie take place a few centuries into the future where mankind is flying through space in flying saucers (yup, those UFO flying saucers people keep seeing are probably just future humans flying back in time) and the spaceship C-57D is sent to the planet Altair IV to look for survivors of the Bellerophon mission that disappeared there twenty years ago. Headed by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) the C57D finds only one survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira Morbius (Anne Francis).
Morbius is a most reluctant host believing that the crew is in danger of whatever horror killed the rest of the crew of the Bellerophon, yet he has no need to be rescued. He is immune of that horror he claims. He has also found the treasure left behind by an ancient species called the Krell, including a brain booster and technology enabling him to build a robot called Robby.
The doctor’s greatest asset however is his daughter. Alta is a most innocent blonde knock-out totally devoid of inhibitions and wearing a skirt not suited for bending forward. Her impact on a crew locked up in a spaceship for years is quite predictable.
Commander Adams dilemma is that he cannot just leave the doctor and all that treasure behind, yet the doctor do not want to be saved. Also there is Alta. So he stays put and soon after his expedition is attacked by a mysterious monster, leaving a wake of death.
“Forbidden Planet” is both in color and Cinemascope and some of the sets are quite elaborate, but otherwise this is definitely a B production. Back then sci-fi was not the big expensive productions they are today. Compared to A productions of its time this movie has a lot of problems. Acting is an issue, only Walter Pidgeon was star material at the time. Leslie Nielsen later developed into one of the funniest actors in Hollywood, but in 56 he was just a TV dude. The rest of the cast are miserable actors and the direction is not much better. The script is a hoot. If you love Star Trek techno-babble then this is a treasure trove and the lines fed to the actors are often hilarious.
Yet “Forbidden Planet is a lot more than that. Even at surface value you can see that a lot of imagination went into this one. The Krell laboratory looks like “Metropolis” and “Frankenstein” in color, it is huge and very elaborate. Robby, the robot may look antiquated today, but at the dawn of computers he is quite exciting and certainly more robot material than Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (though he certainly had a more demonic side). There are also interesting special effects when the monster attacks the space ship and is held back at the fence by the ray guns of the ship crew. It may look quaint by today’s standard, but for 56 it is quite spectacular. As is the fully electronic soundtrack with eerie sounds and blips made on custom made electronic devices.
For the most interesting aspect of “Forbidden Planet” however we need to dig a slight step deeper. Science fiction is always most interesting when it hold up a mirror to ourselves and let us take the view from a different angle than we are used to. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” did that and so does “Forbidden Planet”. The message here is that the human subconscious holds the seeds for our own destruction. That without reins we are terrible beings. (Spoiler alert!) The Krell technology has enabled Morbius’s subconscious to take physical form and it is not pretty, yet he seems completely unaware of this. Where normally humans save their demons for their nightmares and keep a lid on things through a layer of civilization and behavioral codes, the Krell technology removes all those barriers.
Robby is another such example. He is just a machine, but the space crew project theirs fears and desires on him and he simply returns them. He is not evil, he is what you make him do. Alta as well. She is harmless, but she triggers instinctive reactions in the all-male space crew. Only the discipline of the commander prevents a disaster, but he eventually falls in love with her himself. All three, the Krell machinery, Robby, the robot and Alta can unlock the human potential for atrocity and disaster.
This is a pretty advanced theme and it is not always presented elegantly, but even in crude form it is quite impressive.
Then there is the heritage of “Forbidden Planet”. Just try to Google it and you get an immense amount of hits. This is a movie that has influenced pop culture and scores of movies since then. Not bad for a 1956 B-movie.
I had a lot of fun watching this movie. It may be toe-cringing in the beginning, but that wears off. Instead I got exactly what I hoped for with “Forbidden Planet”.