#431) Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbiddenplanetposter

#431) Forbidden Planet (1956)

OR “Tempest in a Spaceship”

Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox

Written by Cyril Hume. Story by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Kinda sorta based on “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Class of 2013

The Plot: In the early 2200s, a team of astronauts led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is sent to the planet Altair IV to find the survivors of an expedition that disappeared 20 years earlier. They find the sole survivors: Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). The two live peacefully in exile, their needs met by their servant Robby the Robot (Himself). Despite pleas from Adams, Morbius refuses to return to Earth, opting instead to study the highly advanced technology of the Krell, the planet’s native race. But an invisible monster that’s been attacking the crew might change everyone’s mind in one of the biggest sci-fi films of the era.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it no less than “one of the seminal science-fiction films of the 1950s”, praising the film’s cultural impact, special effects, score and cast. There’s also a loving essay by film professor Ian Olney.

But Does It Really?: “Forbidden Planet” is not the greatest science fiction film ever made, and is bogged down by some ‘50s trappings, but it is just as iconic a film (and therefore NFR worthy) as any of its contemporaries. Hell, Robby the Robot is enough to get this movie on the list. “Forbidden Planet” stands on its own piece of ground as the rare sci-fi film of the era with an actual budget, with impressive visual effects that fill the CinemaScope screen. Its open sexism and antiquated politics may doom the film for future generations, but the story of Hollywood sci-fi would be incomplete without “Forbidden Planet”.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the film’s major creatives (including director Fred Wilcox and screenwriter Cyril Hume) were longtime MGM utility players, and “Forbidden Planet” was another assignment. Wilcox also directed fellow NFR entry “Lassie Come Home”. Also making their sole appearance is producer Nicholas Nayfack. That name again: Nayfack.

Wow, That’s Dated: You mean besides the frequent sexism hurled at Anne Francis? Like many a ‘50s film (sci-fi or otherwise), “Forbidden Planet” is chiefly concerned with our abuse of nuclear power, and treating the one woman in the cast as a sexual plaything. I am not looking forward to the 2200s.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon its release, “Forbidden Planet” received one well deserved nomination for its Visual Effects, losing to the equally impressive miracles of “The Ten Commandments”. Couldn’t there have been a tie?

Other notes

  • “Forbidden Planet” was MGM’s first foray into science fiction since the late 1920’s, and they pulled out all the stops. Up until then, sci-fi was delegated to B-picture status, but MGM made it an A feature with a budget of 1.9 million dollars (roughly 187 million today). Robby the Robot alone cost $125,000 (over 1 million today).
  • In lieu of a traditional score, “Forbidden Planet” opted for an electronic soundscape by New York avant garde artists Bebe and Louis Barron. Like its massive scope and budget, the score aids in the film’s unique status among sci-fi films. Due to a complaint from the Musicians Union (of which the Barrons were not members), their credit reads “Electronic Tonalities” rather than Score, therefore making their work ineligible for an Oscar.
  • Although “Ransom!” was released first, this was Leslie Nielsen’s first film! His youthful appearance helps differentiate this performance from his later parody work. Surely, he can be serious.
  • If nothing else, this film is saved by getting to hear the rich tones of Walter Pidgeon. Even listening to him spout off techno babble is a treat.
  • Robby the Robot was voiced by an uncredited Marvin Miller, a prolific narrator and announcer throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. The person operating the suit itself was originally stuntman Frankie Darro (one of the “Wild Boys of the Road”), but he was fired after coming back from lunch under the influence.
  • Anne Francis is doing the best she can with what she is given. She handles Alta’s naiveté quite effectively, but it’s still overshadowed by every man on the crew lusting after her. That’s no way to treat Honey West!
  • I will admit, in terms of future technology, “Forbidden Planet” does predict quite a bit. Not only is Robby the Robot the first 3D printer, but the Morbius family seems to own the first Alexa-type AI assistant.
  • Morbius’ shuttle appears to take riders through the last scene of “2001”.
  • I bet that invisible creature is just Elliot the Dragon up to his old mischief again. Also, an invisible monster? They must have run out of the effects budget.
  • The film’s animated effects (including the Id monster) were created by Joshua Meador. Meador had been an effects animator for Disney for over 20 years, fresh off his successful work on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and is one of the rare Disney employees to ever be loaned out to another studio. Yes, the animation sticks out a bit, but it’s still an impressive feat of movie magic.
  • Wait, when did Alta choose Adams? Did I miss something?
  • “It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.” That’s what this whole movie was working towards? Seems kinda late to bring theology into all of this.

Legacy

  • “Forbidden Planet” has been a major influence on practically every piece of sci-fi in film and TV since 1956. As the Olney essay stresses, every big-budget sci-fi movie owes a debt of gratitude to “Forbidden Planet”.
  • Gene Roddenberry cited “Forbidden Planet” as one of the inspirations for “Star Trek”. So…live long and carry on, or whatever the hell they say.
  • Always out to save money, MGM reused the props and costumes from “Forbidden Planet” many times over the years. Look for Robby the Robot in “The Invisible Boy” and several episodes of… “The Twilight Zone”.
  • On a related note, Robby designer Robert Kinoshita also designed the robot from “Lost in Space”, which explains why I always get those two mixed up.
  • “Anne Francis stars in/ ‘Forbidden Planet’/whoa-oh-ah-oh-oooohhhh” See? “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” gets it.
  • Here’s a weird one: the musical “Return to the Forbidden Planet” is part “Forbidden Planet” leaning more on the “Tempest” parallels, and part ‘50s jukebox musical. Odd, but it did play Off-Broadway. And the West End production won the Olivier for Best New Musical of 1990!
  • “Why? Why was I programmed to feel pain?”

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