I watched again the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet and I am still struck by how advanced it was for its time period.
The story is now a fairly standard trope of a human exploration vessel sent out to track down and determine what happened to a ship lost in space. The crew and passengers of the Bellerophon, a colony ship sent some sixteen light years from Earth to a planet orbiting the star Altair, is the focus of the story. Leslie Neilsen plays Captain JJ Adams of the United Planets cruiser C57-D (he is a prototype Captain Kirk and his ship a precursor to the Enterprise) playing the role with an enduring dead-seriousness not usually found in the B-movies that littered the cinemas of the 1950s. His crew are all capable and for the most part well educated. They arrive at their destination armed and ready for what they assume will be a regular rescue mission. Instead, the voice of Dr. Morbius, a trained linguist from the doomed prior mission, calls out to their ship warning them not to land on the planet due to circumstances fittingly vague as to be ignored by the captain in orbit.
During the entire first portion of the movie, the viewer is struck by the quality of the special effects and the unique and eerie all electronic music score (a first for a motion picture at that time) the background mattes and model work are of extremely high finish. When the cruiser lands on Altair 4, the ship radiates a type of electric field that appears to be adjusting the vessel as it descends, distracting you spectacularly from the obvious wire-works above the ship. The animation and use of color, especially in the deep green of the sky and strange rock pillars that make up the planet’s surface, speak to the film’s original production design as well as the Technicolor saturation and Cinemascope presentation that are used to create an enormous and effective sense of scale.
Upon arrival of our intrepid explorer/soldiers comes a strange vehicle piloted by a large satin-black robot. The robot introduces himself as Robbie and explains to the startled men that he has been sent by Dr. Morbius to bring them to his home. Robbie the Robot was of course a man in a suit, but the suit itself is stunning! Articulated arms and gripper-like hands with his whirring antennae and blue lights that cascade up and down when he speaks, assured him immortality in the eyes of movie goers as the defacto robot. The quality of the robot’s design is just one small part of the overall vision that the movie succeeds in putting over; that you are watching events take place on a world trillions of miles from home and peopled with strange machines and men whose visions are theirs alone.
The robot takes some of the men to meet Dr. Morbius at his ‘Palm Springs Moderne’ hacienda nestled amongst strange purple and tan trees and surrealist lumps of bush and wildly divergent flowers. The men enter the home and meet the elusive Morbius. Here, Walter Pidgeon plays the role as a highly educated gentleman crossed with a goateed Dr. Strange, he radiates mystery along with his friendly overtures to the visitors from far away.
At this moment in the film, time is taken to explain that Robbie is unique in the sense that he is unable to harm humans, or as Dr. Morbius states any “sentient” being. It is clear that Robbie is following a (albeit abbreviated) version of the Three Laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov outlined in his I Robot novel and associated short stories. Here, displayed on film, was a mechanical man following a non-threatening conception that allowed him to become a beloved character as opposed to the “robots run amok” theme that was common in lower grade sci-fi and comic books during the mid-50s. It is after this moment of explanation of robot behavior that we meet the only woman present in the story, Altaira played by Anne Francis.
She appears at first to be the quintessential 1950s female love interest: not much personality, not particularly curious, and definitely innocent to the ways of men. In fact, however, she ends up upending this status quo by showing that she is actually rather smart (extremely well educated by her genius father) and mentally in tune with the Earth-imported life forms that live on Altair with her.
She is emotionally normal despite being raised alone and shows considerable interest in the mission of the men, even though she knows that her father does not approve. It is even implied that he has told her that Earth is not a very nice place and that human colonization was a way out, not just a chance to homestead in the stars. Her defiance of her father indicates a strong will to understand. She also provides some comic relief in her sexual explorations with the Earthmen, remarking after the Captain kisses her for the first time that she could now compare his style to all the other crew, having made the rounds on her own volition.
As events unfold the men realize that the passengers and crew of the Bellerophon are, except for Morbius and daughter, dead. The need to replace delicate system components ends up delaying their return to the Sol system. During repairs a mysterious event occurs which further damages the ship requiring an even longer stay, which gives the captain and the ship’s doctor time to talk to Dr. Morbius and allows him to explain that the planet was once inhabited by a race of highly evolved beings called the Krell.
Morbius explains that the Krell reached the absolute pinnacle of technological progress and in an attempt to perfect their species, ended up destroying their civilization, wiping out all evidence of them from the surface of their world. He takes the two men underground to explore the subsurface labs and energy facilities that are still fully functional after millennia. This sequence is very impressive for the use of large scale models to represent the Krell fusion generators and the thousand level underground platforms upon which you see the three men walking along. Everything about these scenes is surprisingly animated, from bolts of energy flying to and fro, moving elevators going up and down the dizzying space, and other unidentifiable pieces of alien technology pulsing and whirring around them. The compositing of live action with the models is seamless.
The Krell are a species much anticipated but never shown The only references being in how Morbius describes their architectural design; in comparing their triangular doorways to our square ones, and by the large scale of a mind-enhancing device that is placed on the cranium of the user. Morbius tells his visitors that humans are mental infants compared to even an adolescent Krell, but that he had figured out how to use the mental enhancing powers of their abandoned technology that he had discovered. We soon learn that the mental enhancements he received had also unleashed a dark force that will endanger the lives of everyone on Altair 4.
The crew returns to the C57-D to protect it against the invisible visitor that sabotaged the ship before. This time it leaves behind large footprints that are analyzed as belonging to a creature that did not result from selective evolution, its constituent parts a chimera of different features found in a variety of already existing animals. This scene always makes me smile because it’s refreshing to remember that there was a time when using evolution in its proper scientific form was not considered “controversial” or glossed over as a “theory” like it is in most American media today. The crew erects a series of electronic fences around the ship and arm themselves with laser cannons and handheld guns.
The onslaught of the monster is probably the most exciting point in the movie. The beast is only visible because the electronic fence causes it to glow red in outline where it’s terrible gaping mouth and claws are seen menacing the crew. Here the animators created a very fluid effect keeping the creature transparent and allowing the laser cannons to highlight portions of its anatomy. The humans that are dumb enough to run over to it are picked up and thrown or chomped by its sharp teeth. The onslaught only ends when back at the Morbius house, Altaira awakens her sleeping father and the connection between the good doctor and the monster is discovered.
It is at this point in the picture that the pace of events increases dramatically. We discover that Dr. Morbius, via his “enhancement” by Krell technology, has also enhanced the darkest parts of his psyche, allowing the high energy photonic projection systems of the planet to make his nightmares real. This monster is none other than a version of Morbius’s Id and the deaths of the people that came to this world with him as well as those of the C57-D, are his responsibility. When he is confronted and shown the error of his ways, Morbius, near death apologizes and sets the fusion reactors of the planet to ‘meltdown’. He tells the captain and Altaira to leave the planet as it “will explode in 24 hours.”
The last scenes of the film include the captain and Altaira watching the planet explode on the view screen of the ship, and of making Robbie the astrogator of the ship, were he expresses gratitude by saying its “A genuine privilege, Commander.”
It’s a clean and simple ending, but leaves open in the imagination of further adventures of the crew going on to explore the vastness of the galaxy.
Forbidden Planet set the bar high for future sci-fi features, which was only rarely met by a handful of movies such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine; before 2001: A Space Odyssey came along and proved that science fiction movies could be as good and as intellectual as the books they tended to be based on. The concepts in the movie including the United Planets, a concept that was copied to great success via Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets and the special effects inspired Kubrick with his 2001 and Lucas with his Star Wars. The use of intelligent robots as a companion for humanity (as opposed to an enemy) is also unique to this movie, later echoed in Silent Running’s Huey, Dewey and Louie maintenance bots, which of course in turn, are reflected in the androids C3PO and R2D2. I believe that Forbidden Planet is the most accurate version of the Asimovian vision of a robot, and its need to follow the first and second Laws which are set up as an important plot point in the film.
The music, called “electronic tonalities” due to the musician union bias against anything untraditional, went a long way to enhancing the sense of ‘alien’ and ‘future’ that was so beautifully done visually. The modern synthesized soundtracks found in major releases today owe a great deal to it.
This movie is truly a monument of science fiction filmmaking and is as fresh and inventive today as it was almost sixty years ago.
I recommend you fire up the blu ray player and enjoy.
all images are copyright WB/MGM Pictures