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—
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—
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—
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—
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.