Second Viewing: Forbidden Planet (1956)

I know I saw Forbidden Planet many years ago and I vaguely recall it was sort of interesting. There must have been more compelling science fiction film options at the time, because it did not make much of an impression. My wife always admired the film, so when it showed up at my warehouse superstore in Blu-ray format for $12.99 I decided to buy it on impulse. Shown in theaters at a time when I was gestating in my mother’s womb, I knew it could not be that good. And yet seeing it again after so many years, particularly in HD, brought renewed appreciation for a film that is justifiably a classic.

Forbidden Planet was at least a decade ahead of its time. It was a groundbreaking film that changed the genre. Watching the movie as a middle-aged man, I could see that so many of the science fiction movies and TV shows that followed it were in some ways imperfect clones of Forbidden Planet. Lots of science fiction authors had tackled travel to distant suns, but Forbidden Planet was the first to do it in a way that looked plausible instead of cheap. Fifty-five years later when you see Forbidden Planet with modern eyes you have to marvel at how good it is.

In fact, about the only thing that disappoints in the movie is the acting, which is Grade B. While disappointing, it is not unexpected. Old movies are, well, old. Expectations for actors, most of who were on contract with a studio, were minimal. Hollywood was populated by B actors. It was a time when actors mostly didn’t bother to act, perhaps because in the 1950s we wanted our characters to be stereotypes instead of real people. In Forbidden Planet we get Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Mobius, the slinky Anne Francis as his daughter Alta and the impossibly young Leslie Nielsen as Commander J.J. Adams (“Skipper”, as they usually call him) of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D, basically a large flying saucer. None of these leads, or the actors portraying its crew, does much in the way of good acting.

Once you get over this deficiency, you quickly realize that Forbidden Planet is an interesting movie in spite of this. Right off the bat you know Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) must have seen the movie, because the United Planets sounds suspiciously similar to the United Federation of Planets, because they have Hyper Drive which must have been Warp Drive, version 1.0, and because they have these hyper drive decelerator platforms, which at least look a lot like a transporter platform when in use. The producers of Lost in Space obviously modeled their robot on Robby, the robot in this movie, except frankly Robby is a lot more interesting and at least has a name.

The plot, to check up on the crew of Altair IV, a spacecraft that landed there twenty years earlier and had not been heard from, hardly matters. What we get instead is the first plausible portrayal on screen of life on another planet. We also get special effects that are actually special and absolutely amazing for its time. Today they would not be worth mentioning, but in 1956 showing “blasters” delivering force rays, or depicting a planet with multiple moons in the sky, or creating an invisible monster literally from the id outlined by a force field was amazing stuff. In fact, all these years later, it’s still admirable and a bit frightening. This was made in an era where the height of technology was the vacuum tube. Yet they created a plausible robot, a world of a vanished but highly advanced alien species (“The Krell”) as well as broke a few social taboos. No, there were no women on this spaceship, just horny guys too long alone with each other. You have to assume the Catholic Church thought the movie was sinful, for Morbius’ nineteen year old daughter Alta played by Anne Francis spends much of the movie dressed in a very high miniskirt that looks more like a negligee than a dress. Perhaps Forbidden Planet invented the miniskirt. Unquestionably, Anne Francis looks great in one.

The plot matters little except that it is a thinking person’s movie, genuine science fiction instead of cowboy-western science fiction that predominates the genre. In the Blu-Ray format, it is stunning. It is hard to believe the movie is older than I am. Pull back its science fiction veneer, however, and readers of classic literature will discover they have seen this plot before, at least if they read William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

In short, even given its faults, Forbidden Planet was a landmark film of its day, a film that largely defined science fiction on film, both classy and expensive. It is one of two movies that became pillars of early science fiction, with the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still being the other (and earlier) film.

However, The Day the Earth Stood Still was an earth-bound movie. Forbidden Planet reached for the stars, found them and delivered them to us on the screen, arguably the first movie to do it right. I am glad I gave the movie a second chance, because it was much more than I remembered.

One response to “Second Viewing: Forbidden Planet (1956)”

  1. First saw this film sixty years ago, on a black and white TV with rabbit ears. Which means a snowy signal and mono sound.

    Many decades later I bought this movie on DVD, it was the first time I had seen it in color. The funny thing is, with the much much better resolution when watching the scene with the krell metal door melting I could now clearly see the face and arms of a stagehand poking it the “molten” blocks of metal with broom-handle. Love it.


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