Here’s another in the subcategory of movies that are actually really great and I want to write about. You know, you can’t just watch garbage all the time; you have to have some filet mignon mixed in with your top round, or in some cases, butt flank.
It is said nothing ages faster than a vision of the future, which explains most of science fiction. One’s idea of what’s to come is inexorably linked to the world they live in and it’s always far grander and more extravagant than what actually transpires. Once it became clear that rocket propulsion could work, and indeed does work, fiction was chock-a-block with stories of people traveling the stars to strange, distant planets and of the terrible things they might find once they arrive. In every case, though, despite the immense imagination it took to concoct these stories, the actual science of the piece was only as far as current understanding. This explains why every sci-fi movie made in the 1950s seems so out of date now, even though they’re set far in the future. I find something wonderfully quaint yet beautiful in these Rocket Age pictures, like a movie version of Disney’s Tomorrowland, although not like the actual movie of Disney’s Tomorrowland that’s being made currently. Innovative Anachronisms, I like to call them.
What is considered the pinnacle of this genre is 1956’s “Forbidden Planet,” directed by Fred M. Wilcox and based loosely, though not incredibly loosely, on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What immediately stands out about this film is clearly a lot of money was spent. It’s in glorious Technicolor, uses Cinemascope, and boasts four credited members on the special effects crew. The film opens with a brilliant model shot of a flying saucer spinning through space. One would expect it to be full of hostile creatures from another planet, traveling to invade Earth, but the movie tips that trope on its head. Inside the saucer are humans, Earthlings, who are on a mission to the distant planet Altair IV to find what became of the Bellerophon, a ship sent to explore the planet 20 years earlier. The Commander of the saucer is J.J. Adams (Nielsen), an all-American hero type, though the word “America” is never spoken.
As the ship and crew near the surface, they are contacted via radio by Dr. Morbius, a member of the Bellerophon, who tells them that everything is fine and that they should not land. Adams is suspicious and has direct orders and so they resolve to land on the planet anyway. Altair IV is a colorful, rocky, desert-like planet with no visible signs of life. It is here when one of the first instances of 1950s thought permeated what is supposed to be a 23rdCentury story. The saucer lands and the crew disembark wearing uniforms and hats. Today, knowing what we do about space travel, there’d be the obligatory scene of the crew in elaborate breathing apparatuses checking the planet for atmosphere and pressure and the like, but in 1956, it was just assumed that any planet would be habitable and thus Altair IV is.
The crew is met by a large robot that we later learn is called Robby. Robby acts as Dr. Morbius’ friend, butler, and all around loyal servant. The design of Robby is also indicative of Rocket Age robots, in that he has a lot of spinning and flashing pieces that look fantastic but don’t serve any purpose. It’s remarked that nothing as sophisticated as Robby exists on Earth, which again illicits a chuckle since even now we have robots that are more physically impressive, though none still have functional artificial intelligence. Robby takes Adams and two crewmen to meet Dr. Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon. Morbius tells the men that some terrible, mysterious tragedy befell the Bellerophon’s people and only Morbius himself and his wife survived, though she died not long afterwards. Morbius has been living on Altair IV for the last 20 years with his daughter, Altaira, played by Anne Francis, who is now 19. Altaira’s appearance complicates things for both parties, since Morbius did not want her to meet the strangers and Adams is worried about how the crew of lonely men will react to such an attractive young girl. Both of their fears are justified as Altaira, book smart but ignorant to the ways of humans, kisses all the members of the crew, save Adams who scolds her for wearing such revealing outfits in front of the sex-starved men. Naturally, Adams and Altaira fall in love; it’s a 50s movie after all.
The most intriguing part of the film’s story comes at about the midpoint. Morbius is very cautious about the men being on the planet, both because he doesn’t want them to disrupt his pleasant life and because he’s worried the thing that killed his own crew might return, which of course it does. Several members of the crew begin to die mysteriously and Adams and Doc, the ship’s physician, decide Morbius must be somehow behind it. They go to interrogate Morbius and find a great deal of his research regarding scientific discoveries. Morbius returns and begrudgingly tells the men about the Krell. The Krell were the original inhabitants of Altair IV that had suddenly disappeared, leaving only their far superior machinery behind, which Morbius has been trying to understand every day for 20 years. Among the pieces of equipment is a device that can read a person’s thoughts and create a physical manifestation of it, though the Krell had infinitely higher cognitive capacity and any attempt by humans to use the device has ended in catastrophic failure, with the exception of Morbius who barely survived the procedure, but as a result doubled his intellectual abilities. Morbius then takes the time to show Adams and Doc a number of the other Krell inventions, each with a specific purpose.
It’s this scene, making up about fifteen minutes of the film’s 98 minute running time, which I find the most fascinating. The writers had the foresight to come up with strange alien inventions and explain in detail, via Dr. Morbius, how each of them worked, yet they didn’t think maybe the gravity would be any different on the planet or that it might be frozen solid. It never occurred to them, nor really should it; they were operating at a 1950s level of understanding but a 2250s level of imagination. Scenes like this are what make sci-fi movies of the era so indelible. They entirely put wonder and discovery ahead of everything else, accentuating the “fi” much more than the “sci.”
Another wonderful aspect to Forbidden Planet is its score, or more accurately, its sound effects. This was the first movie that had its entire musical track performed by electronic instruments. Louis and Bebe Barron concocted tones and whistles that make up the omnipresent otherworldly sounds. They at once unsettle and entice us as the action unfolds. The influence of this type of scoring was felt on a number of science fiction movies and television shows that followed, not least of which including Star Trek and Doctor Who. The sounds today have become synonymous with the period and genre.
I also quickly want to mention the production design which was the uncredited work of Irving Block (the story writer) and Mentor Huebner. As was typical at the time, the entire film was shot in a studio, but there’s a richness to the sets and props that make them feel both authentic and archaic. There are also extensive matte paintings done of the Altairan landscape and the Krell laboratory which look like they came right out of Fritz Lang’s dreams.
More can be said, but I feel like it would dilute the impact of the film on a first time viewer, as I wouldn’t want to have the film spoiled for me by an overzealous reviewer. Needless to say, Forbidden Planet is a landmark in the science fiction genre and deserves all the acclaim it gets. While watching it, I wondered to myself why no one had attempted to remake it, given its imaginative story and characters, and was intrigued and then disheartened when I learned it has been on the docket for a remake for years. I hope that whoever does get around to remaking the film gets the mood and the heart of the original and not simply try to imbue it with state-of-the-art, hollow special effects to try to appease a jaded movie-going audience. Like a vision of the future, nothing dates faster than a movie made for a quick buck.