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October, 2008 : Feature:

Don't Call Me Shirley

When I show my students Forbidden Planet, one of the first things I tell them is to remember that the fact that it stars Leslie Nielsen doesn't mean it's a comedy. The actor today best known for his numerous spoofs like Airplane and Police Squad was once considered a serious mainstream player. In Forbidden Planet, he is the hero of the story who saves the day and wins the girl—without a hint of irony in sight.

The more one learns about the movie, the more it becomes clear that this, more than any other film, is the crown jewel of the "Golden Age of SF movies." There are other films that endure from the 1950s, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There are others that are historic landmarks, like Destination Moon and War of the Worlds. However, Forbidden Planet is on the short list—along with later films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Blade Runnerthat can be said to have been pinnacle of SF movies for their era. More importantly, it had tremendous influence on what came after.

Start with the fact that this was an MGM production at a time when that studio was still considered the most prestigious of the Hollywood majors. Although not considered an A-list film by the executives, just the fact that it was being made at MGM meant that the movie's production values would be a cut above anything else out there. Walter Pidgeon, who played Morbius, was not the star attraction he had been in the 1940s (in movies like How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver), but he had matured into a leading character actor, having just appeared in Executive Suite in 1954. Putting Pidgeon in the movie was a signal that this was no schlock production, but a film worthy of serious attention.

Having a "name" actor in the cast freed the filmmakers to cast young up-and-comers for the rest of the film. Morbius's innocently sexy daughter was played by Anne Francis who would become TV detective "Honey West" in the '60s and continue to work in TV in the decades to come. Warren Stevens, cast as the doctor, continues to work steadily, mostly on the small screen. Jack Kelly, who played Jerry, would enter the TV pantheon as Bart Maverick, a role he would reprise several times in a long career before his death in 1992. However, besides Leslie Nielsen, for many viewers of a certain age the most recognizable face in the cast is probably Earl Holliman, playing the comical cook. He later found his niche as Angie Dickinson's partner in the '70s TV hit "Police Woman."

To showcase this cast, MGM gave the movie the sort of polish that could only be dreamed about by other SF filmmakers of the era. As is well known, the writers looked to Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for their inspiration. The similarities may seem superficial, but they're there. Instead of shipwrecked sailors landing on an island run by the wizard Prospero and his daughter Miranda, a United Planets cruiser makes a landing on Altair IV, where a colony of Earth settlers has gone missing. All that's left is Professor Morbius and his daughter Altaira. Instead of the magical sprite Ariel from Shakespeare we get Robby the Robot, living proof of the late Arthur C. Clarke's axiom that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The misshapen beast Caliban becomes the film's "monster from the Id" that nearly destroys them all.

Having adapted the structure and some of the characters from Shakespeare to their own purposes, the writers developed their own story of the lost civilization of the Krell and how Morbius's growing mastery of their technology unleashed his own inner demons, killing off the other colonists as the Krell once self-destructed. This is a prime SF trope: there are some things that Man—or Krell—are not meant to know. Yet "Forbidden Planet" is clearly in love with technology as well, taking every opportunity to show off not only the alien tech but also what humanity has achieved on its own. This is a universe of interstellar space travel, where United Planets can be seen as a peaceful force that is the precursor to Star Trek's Federation. When Morbius gives Captain Adams and Doc Ostrow a tour of the Krell facility, everything is meant to impress us with its power and vastness. Robby, whose technology we're told is "child's play," can produce parts for the space cruiser as well as sixty gallons of bourbon for the cook simply by collecting and combining available molecules. So should there be limits on knowledge, as Morbius argues when he tells Adams he will dole out information from the Krell archives as he deems humanity is ready for it, or should we be racing into a fantastic and amazing future, as nearly every frame of the film seems to suggest?

Although the crew's ray guns seem like a cheesy special effect now, much of what we see is still impressive. Robby, complete with circuits that prevent him from harming humans, is one of the screen's great robots. The Krell sets and the space cruiser also continue to amaze. (One of SF film's great mysteries is what the Krell must have looked like given the equipment we see and, especially, those odd triangular doorways.) Credit goes to veteran MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and his crew for constructing a set to act as the surface of the planet rather than simply go on location to the desert and hope some exotic props and lens filters would do the trick. That included a 350' x 40' cyclorama surrounding the spaceship, creating the illusion that one could see for miles around it.

Special effects being what they were at the time, MGM decided to farm out some of the most difficult work to another studio. Animator Joshua Meador was brought over from Walt Disney Pictures to animate some of the effects, most notably the shots where the Id Monster is caught in the force field. Most of the visual effects, like the disintegration of the tiger that attacks Altaira or the sparks when Robby is short-circuiting, included Meador's animation. Also brought in were Louis and Bebe Barron, who created the eerie electronic score used in the film. In order to avoid any conflicts with the Musicians Union, the landmark compositions were billed as "electronic tonalities" rather than "music." Nonetheless, no other '50s film comes close to making an SF film's music as an integral a part of the movie experience.

If it was simply that MGM put more money and effort into an SF film than other studios did at the time, it might not have been enough. For the studio, after all, this was still only a B movie. It's the fact that all this effort resulted in a film that rewards careful viewing that makes this a film still worth seeing more than fifty years later. Just two years before, Universal had attempted to make an expensive SF film, resulting in the lavish but vapid This Island Earth. In Forbidden Planet we not only get the ongoing debate on the limit of knowledge, but an equally interesting—if unspoken—discussion of human sexuality. Why is Morbius so jealous of the men attracted to his daughter? Note that when we see the miniature of Altaira—as she appears in his own thoughts, Morbius explains—it is in a most revealing outfit. We also note that after she makes clear that she welcomes the men's attention, even if she doesn't fully understand it, the tiger that was previously a tame pet to her turns into a wild beast. Forbidden Planet is among the few '50s SF films that can be said to have a rich subtext. Indeed, it quickly becomes obvious that the Krell technology isn't the only thing being repressed on Altair IV.

Forbidden Planet would point the way for future media SF in a number of ways. From Robby the Robot's numerous appearances in subsequent movies and TV shows to the special effects—from Star Trek to Star Wars this is a film that continues to influence the genre. It's a film that showed more than fifty years ago that a science fiction movie could succeed with wit and intelligence, indeed, even with Leslie Nielsen playing it straight.


Copyright © 2008, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Oct 7, 05:27 by IROSF
Express your opinions of this movie here.

Article is here.
Oct 7, 19:15 by Bridget McKenna
Thanks, Daniel, for bringing it all back to me, as I'm actually old enough to remember seeing this one in the cinema as a child, with my mother - another fan of SF films, books, and short fiction. And while The Tempest would be expected to stand the test of time, the surprise for me as an adult was that Forbidden Planet does too, in its way - even the spooky theramin music which would become cliché over time, but was still mysterious and new on that day.

I can still remember gazing up at the screen when the creature from the id was first illuminated in all its death-dealing horror by the security field. It was a transfixing, never-to-be-forgotten (appparently) moment. My favorite "future-that-was-never-to-be" moment was when the ship's captain identifies a noise he hears inside the Krell machine as the sound of bazillions of electrical circuits opening and closing. Of course the Krell's future might have been slightly clunkier, like their doors.
Oct 7, 22:59 by Jim Frenkel
Like Bridget McKenna, I'm technically old enough to have seen this on the big screen when it was first released, but I didn't. However, I did see it on a big screen in 1969, when the Stony Brook SF Forum had a screening of it in front of a crowd of several hundred eager students. We didn't have a great sound system, but the music, the visuals and the sense of wonder that the film evoked in us was all enormously exciting, even after 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember, however, thinking that the sexual subtext wasn't very subtle. It was very clear, I thought, to the point of being about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Pidgeon as the over-protective father . . . I kept wondering if he was over-protective, or if there was a darker element in his protectiveness.
And yet, that in itself was in its way a good thing, because the film never went beyond that thought. It left unanswered the question of whether Morbius would have been so violently protective if he hadn't tapped into his "monster from the id" via the power of the Krell's mind-enhancing machine. We're left with the thought that perhaps if he hadn't meddled with that which "we are not meant to know," the other colonists would have survived and lived peacefully, or as peacefully as people can live.
It really was a landmark SF film. I wouldn't put it above The Day the Earth Stood Still. While the special effects of Forbidden Planet are clearly superior to those of the black-and-white Day, the script of the earlier film, not quite so nuanced but very effective, had a lot going for it. Perhaps it's Michael Rennie's performance as the visitor, or Patricia Neal's turn as the concerned mother and then unwitting participant in the climax of the film, but that film, despite its blatant preachiness, remains to my mind one of the other great landmarks in SF filmmaking of the twentieth century.
But none of that diminishes the importance of Forbidden Planet. Among other things, it actually had humor--in the comic relief of Holliman's role as the moonshiner gone to heaven, as it were, and in some of the byplay among various crewmembers, and also the banter of Altaira and the captain. Comedy is hard--no less so in a thriller like Forbidden Planet--and it was a significant achievement in many regards, as noted by Mr. Kimmel.
Oct 13, 20:37 by Dotar Sojat
Back in the early 80s my parents got a video disc player (not a laser disc, a video disc, the wax cylinder of the video era) and one of the first movies they got for it was Forbidden Planet. I think they might have seen it on the big screen back in the day. I was impressed, although it had a lot to measure up to.

The long-term effect, though, was how not-impressed with other 50s sf movies I was after seeing Forbidden Planet. I guess I started at one of the high points and they all seemed a little wane in comparison.

Mar 19, 21:30 by Paul Schilling
I remember when I first saw that movie I kept seeing Star Trek all over it instead of Shakespeare. I guess my education is reversed; I've been watching everything in the wrong order.

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