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Forbidden Planet (1956)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Written By: Cyril Hume, Irving Block (story), Allen Adler (story) Directed By: Fred M. Wilcox

The Short Version

Do you love sci fi, especially “Star Trek”?  You owe Forbidden Planet a debt of thanks.

This film goes for something deeper than “bug eyed alien” alarmism.

It’s also got a budget, and given the day, it shows.

Why yes, this is the motion picture debut of Robby the Robot.

This classic flick is required viewing.  Period.  See it.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

It’s just plain good.


Pairs Well With...

GENUINE ANCIENT ROCKET BOURBON.

“Quiet, please.  I am analyzing.  Yes.  Relatively simple alcohol molecules with traces of fusel oil.  Would 60 gallons be sufficient?”

“Another one of them new worlds.  No beer, no women, no pool parlors; nothin'.  Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans.”


All right, guys.  I suppose it’s time for us to have “The Talk.”

You’ve seen so many spin-offs and reboots already, and you know about the conventions.  Maybe you’ve even been to some on weekends when you told the rest of the world that you were really in your room studying.  So yeah, I guess that I should finally get around to answering that age-old question:

Where did “Star Trek” come from?

The long answer is: Shakespeare.  (Haven’t you noticed how many episodes make references to Shakespeare?)  No, really.  I’m not talking about the whole “only seven real plots and Shakespeare exemplified them all” thing that some English Lit professors try to buy their tenures with.  I mean that the last play that he wrote was called “The Tempest,” and a few centuries later, some Hollywood types did a little “adaptation magic” and transformed it into a screenplay for a science fiction film called Forbidden Planet.

And by Gene Roddenberry’s own admission, Forbidden Planet was the direct inspiration for “Star Trek.”

The story is set with the following bit of narration:

Space, the… oh, sorry.

“In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon.  By 2200 AD, they had reached the other planets of our solar system.  Almost at once, there followed the discovery of hyperdrive, through which the speed of light was first obtained and later greatly surpassed.  And so, at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.  United Planets Cruiser C57D, now more than a year out from Earth Base on a special mission to the planetary system of the great main-sequence star Altair.”

Their five year mission: to explore… oh, sorry.

Their mission: to investigate the disappearance of and if possible provide relief for a scientific expedition that was lost on the planet Altair IV twenty years earlier.  You’d think that any survivors would be happy for some human contact after a couple of sparse decades, but when Cruiser C57D makes radio contact with Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, The Gateway of the Moon), who claims to be the sole survivor of the lost expedition, the crew are surprised to hear him suggest (rather strongly) that they turn back.  Needless to say, the crew of Cruiser C57D has no intention of turning back, to which Morbius basically says “on your own heads be it.”

Gosh, do you think that there might be something sinister happening down on the surface of Altair IV?  Or is it just that Morbius is really protective of his “never seen another man” daughter, Alta (Anne Francis, Blackboard Jungle)?  Does this need to be an “or” question?  Just sayin’…

To anyone who has ever seen an episode of the original “Star Trek” series (or even, to a different degree, any one of its spin offs), the magnitude of this movie’s influence on Gene Roddenberry is plain to see.  From the physical set designs – be they working spaceship interiors, living space interiors, alien planet exteriors, etc. – to the characters to the structure of the story, all of the pieces are there.  Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen – yes, that Leslie Nielsen, who started off as a dramatic actor before capping off his career as a comedian) is obviously Captain James T. Kirk.  (Or Christopher Pike, for that matter.)  Alta is obviously every top billed female guest star the original series ever had.  But even more than any of these unmistakable cosmetic and character lifts, the main thing that Roddenberry took from Forbidden Planet is a respect for the human story.  Both Forbidden Planet and the vast majority of “Star Trek” episodes willingly (and reverentially) use all of the fantastic elements that science fiction has to offer as tools, but never lose sight of the fact that by the time the credits roll, it’s not about the space ships and ray guns: it’s about the people.  To me, that respect is why both Forbidden Planet and the popular sci fi institution it inspired have endured for so lo long.

But say you don’t like “Star Trek,” or at the very least couldn’t care less about it.  Does this mean that Forbidden Planet belongs on the “skip” list?  Not if you love any science fiction at all, it doesn’t.  There’s much more to this movie than just one man’s inspiration; and indeed, this movie certainly went on to inspire thousands.  It is, in fact, one of those movies that gets classed as “essential viewing,” not just for sci fi fans, but for movie fans of any stripe.  It’s that important, and it’s that good.

Remembering the period, the lead acting is first rate across the board.  Hardly the affable buffoon later generations of fans would come to think of him as thanks to movies like The Naked Gun, et.al., Leslie Nielsen is an incredibly effective and charismatic leading man, and on the flip side, Walter Pidgeon plays the mysterious Dr. Morbius with such conviction that he owns the screen whenever he’s on it… including when he’s standing next to Robby the Robot, whose iconic bulk could normally upstage anybody.  (And yes, this is Robby’s screen debut.  That alone should convince you to see Forbidden Planet.)  And remembering again that this is the 1950s, Anne Francis has spunk as Alta, taking the penned role of the naïf and giving her far more strength and personality than the printed page does on its own.  Beyond that, I must say that I was also pleasantly surprised by Earl Holliman (Police Woman), whose character of the ship’s cook is obviously written in for the sole purpose of comic relief, but who never goes overboard with the comedy, allowing Forbidden Planet to retain its steady, dignified atmosphere even while he’s making liquor jokes.  (If you’ve seen enough of these films, you know that’s a feat.)

The special effects are also very well realized for the period; some would even still hold up by today’s standards.  The alien laboratory and underground machine room are incredibly well done, and the rotoscope animation for the laser fence sequence is a true wonder for the day.  It’s said that MGM wanted to make a good impression with its first foray into sci fi; thanks to this effects crew (which included an animator imported from Disney for the aforementioned rotoscope effect), they succeeded.

But in terms of “futuristic” appeal, with the exception of Robby the Robot – a sci fi icon who can’t be topped – what really makes Forbidden Planet stand out from the crowd is the work of Bebe and Louis Barron, an avant garde couple who just happened to be discovered working the club circuit in Greenwich Village one night, and whose chance discovery just happened to change everything.  They are responsible for the “electronic tonalities” that the unions and the film industry at large refused to consider as music, which, given the absence of any standard orchestral cues, officially makes Forbidden Planet the first film of the “talkie” era to not have a musical score.  Today, these “tonalities” are considered the first electronic soundtrack, and the sounds that it consists of have come to be regarded by modern audiences as automatic cues for “old school science fiction.”  As one watches the film, these sounds come across as completely naturalistic, but the moment one consciously realizes that there’s no orchestra here… well, they’re far out.

And yet, for all of the film’s game-changing elements and bits of avant garde inspiration, director Fred M. Wilcox makes sure that Forbidden Planet stays a steady course the whole way through, and that the audience survives the journey with intelligence fully intact.  Yes, there are pretty lights and they make interesting noises, but as noted above, in the end, it’s all about the story, and Wilcox never loses sight of that.  He’s just out to make a damn good movie, and at that task, he succeeds.

Bottom line, along with being the inspiration for “Star Trek,” Forbidden Planet stands as one of the true classics of mid-century cinema.  It’s not just a great sci fi film: it’s a Great Film, period.  As such, it deserves to be seen by everyone at least once, and if you’re any kind of sci fi fan, it belongs in your permanent collection for repeated viewings at will.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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