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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Forbidden Planet

This is THE big science fiction movie of the 1950s. While the genre was becoming cluttered with low-budget B movies, Forbidden Planet (FP) was MGM's no-expense-spared A-level production. Sci-fi had hit the big time. FP has a grand epic quality. It has thoughtful writing and lavish production which set a very high bar for sci-fi movies for decades to come. Each decade seems to produce its own benchmark sci-fi epic. The 60s had Kubrik's 2001, the 70s had Star Wars. For the 1950s, it was Forbidden Planet. The narrative structure: a quasi-military crew in a space cruiser (with hyper-drive) encountering strange adventures (and lost advanced civilizations) on distant planets, would form the basis for Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek and many other sci-fi movies. In fact, the pilot for the first Star Trek series bears many resemblances to FP. Star Trek, in turn, had a powerful influence on later sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The United Planets Star Cruiser C-57D traveled (with hyper drive) to the distant planet Altair IV to check on a scientific expedition which had failed to report in for almost 20 years. Once in orbit, an ominous voice warns them to stay away. (hence the title) They land anyway and find Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his 19 year old daughter Altaira ("Alta", Anne Francis), the only humans on the planet. All of the others were killed by some mysterious force on the planet 20 years ago. Morbius has created an amazing robot named "Robby". Morbius refuses to leave Altair IV. While Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is awaiting new orders from earth, several of the ship's officers are smitten with lust for the attractive, and highly naive Alta. A mysterious invisible beast damages the cruiser, then in another attack kills one of the officers. Morbius tells the commander about the Krell, an advanced civilization which flourished on Altair IV 2000 centuries ago, but were mysteriously wiped out in one night. He had been studying their texts, learning a little of their secrets, and using some of their mind-tool machines. Eventually, the invisible beast attacks the ship again. It is caught in a force-beam fence, and blasted with every weapon the crew had, but this simply enraged it. The beast kills a few crewmen, then leaves. Back in Morbius' lab, the Doctor tries the brain enhancer machine but is mortally wounded. Before dying, he tells the Commander that the invisible beast is Morbius' "id" -- his dark side come to life and with limitless power. Alta wants to go to earth with the Commander, but Morbius objects. The Id Beast attacks the house. The Commander, Alta and Morbius run deep into the Krell lab. The Id monster eventually begins to melt through an impenetrable door. Morbius tries to disown the beast, but cannot. It is him. For a moment, the beast is stopped when Morbius swoons. Exhausted, he tells the commander to arm a planetary self-destruct device. He tells the Commander to take Alta off the planet. He would remain with his Id Beast to keep it distracted. The survivors fly off and watch the planet explode. The Commander waxes eloquent about the future of mankind, with Alta in his arms. The end.

Why is this move fun?
FP is simply an excellent movie. There's action for those who love action. There's gizmos for those who love gizmos. There's even a lot of cerebral depth, for those who like movies that make them think.

Cold War Angle
FP is devoid of the usual Cold War allegories. It is, instead, a space drama on a Wagnerian scale. There is a background message about technology being potentially dangerous, but this has only a loose connection to the Cold War.

Shakespeare in Space? -- It is often repeated that FP is based on Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest." This is only partially true. Some of the main characters have close parallels, but the overall plot line is too different for any claim to have been based on it. Similarities: Morbius, the sage and powerful father, a conjurer who learned ancient "arts", lines up well with Shakespeare's Prospero. Altaira, his lovely and naive daughter, lines up well with Miranda. Robby the Robot somewhat corresponds to the sprite Ariel, though this is a weak comparison. The "Id monster" could be seen as Caliban, but this is almost too much of a stretch. Morbius and Altaira living alone on their planet matches up with Prospero and Miranda marooned on their island. Then there is the coming of the ship that brings the strangers, one of whom the daughter falls in love with. Differences: Shakespeare's Prospero was marooned on his island, Morbius chose to stay there. Prospero caused the storm that wrecked the ship, bringing his rival to the island. Morbius did not want the strangers to land. Prospero's whole plan was to get even with his rival (who exiled him) and reclaim his throne (Duke of Milan). Morbius does not wish to return.

Robby, the RoboStar -- The robot in FP almost steals the show. Most movie robots were crude "tin men". Robby's form is highly designed. His apparent mechanical brain was very high-tech for his day. (Computers were mechanical 'difference engines' in the 50s) He would become a pattern for many other sci-fi prop robots to come. He even got his own sequel The Invisible Boy the next year, in which he plays a co-starring role. He would be featured in several TV show episodes including a Lost in Space episode. Audiences took quite a shine to Robby. No other sci-fi movie prop, by this point, had such fame.

They're NOT After Our Women -- The movie's poster uses the stereotyped image of the robot/monster carrying off the swooned voluptuous babe. The artist even suggested angry "eyes" with the little gyro wheels. Such suggestion sold tickets, even if it was a lie. This scene never occurs in the movie. Robby is the benign helper character, not the monster. He was NOT after anybody's women.

Saucer Men -- It is interesting to note that advanced space ship of earth's future will be a flying saucer. By the mid 50s, the saucer was becoming iconic of "advanced civilizations." So, it was natural enough that MGM has the United Planets Star Cruiser C-57D be a stereotypic saucer. This time, however, the saucer was piloted by earth men.

Navy in Space -- In the post-Vietnam era, it may seem a bit odd that the crew of the Star Cruiser was so overtly military. The ranks and jargon was thoroughly Navy. The comic-relief character, Cookie, was a blatant lift from WWII movies. While things military fell out of favor after Vietnam, in the 50s, the military still had an heroic aura to it.

Power of Purity -- A little plot feature almost lost in editing, is the notion that Alta has some semi-mystical nature powers because she was untainted by sexual feelings. A deleted scene involves Doc and the Commander talking about the myth of the unicorn and the power virgins had over them. Alta had a sort of Eve-in-Eden relationship with animals -- even an otherwise deadly tiger. Her implied virginity or purity, was the source of this power over nature. Commander Adams, in the role of the serpent, aroused physical lust in her. Once he had, her mystical bond with nature was gone. She was a fallen, normal, human like the rest.

Fallen Man -- Another subtle plot feature dealt with the inherent fallen (sinful) nature of man. Morbius had imagine himself from an Arminianist's point of view -- that is, essentially free of mankind's sinful nature. Confronted with the Id Monster -- the manifestation of his own evil thoughts -- he came to realize that the Calvinists were right. Man always carries inside him, a dark side that is not simply primal, but inherently evil. The Krell, likewise, had fooled themselves into believing they were essentially good, only to discover that their own dark side, given sufficient power, was stronger than their good side.

50s Moderne -- Morbius' house exudes the "international style" that was ultra "modern" in the mid 50s. The echo of Art Deco (such is often seen in "50s" diner styles) was stuff of the prior generation. The spartan, open and airy look would linger on in popularity until the late 60s, when an inward-looking and darkish neo-tudor style replaced it.

Bottom line? FP is the pinnacle of sci-fi movie for the 50s. It clearly inspired much that came after it. It is well worth watching -- and owning.


Ben said...

Wow! Fantastic Blog. (I just stumbled upon it)
I have a big place in my heart for the sci-fi movies of the 50's and early 60's.
Forgotten Planet is one of my faves.
It's worth watching just for the weird eerie electronic score. This,
along with War of the World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
The Thing from Another World and the original Godzilla movie are must watches for any sci-fi fans.
Some of the newer sci-fi movies have better special effects and probably better acting but these movies are the inspirations for those same directors who were kids during that era.

Brian Bartlett said...

Forbidden Planet stays at the top of my list for best classic sci-fi. I am amazed at how good the special effects are in this movie, considering the year in which it was made.

Anonymous said...

Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah" recaptures many of the elements of this film with Flint taking the role of Morbius, Rayna taking the role of Altaira, robot M4 for Robby. An isolated house on an uninhabited planet. Yes, the stories lose much of the commonality, but not totally.

wcw43921 said...

I have to take issue with this paragraph--

"Navy in Space -- In the post-Vietnam era, it may seem a bit odd that the crew of the Star Cruiser was so overtly military. The ranks and jargon was thoroughly Navy. The comic-relief character, Cookie, was a blatant lift from WWII movies. While things military fell out of favor after Vietnam, in the 50s, the military still had an heroic aura to it."

The movie was made in 1956--eight years before the Tonkin Gulf incident drew America into the war. Until then the average American couldn't find Vietnam on a map, let alone know there were Communists fighting to take over the country. Forbidden Planet was definitely not post-Vietnam.

Nightowl said...

I would dare say most American still could not find Vietnam on a map. But, where's the problem in the paragraph? Yes, the Vietnam War had not yet taken place in '56. It was a pre-Vietnam-Era film. I did not say FP was a post-Vietnam movie. It was PRE- So, audiences were okay with the WWII (post-WWII) view of the military.

In the post-Vietnam-Era, producers, writers and maybe audiences were decidedly anti-military. (at this writing, I'm in the movies of the early 70s). In those films, things military are -bad-, not noble or quaintly humorous, as in FP. For instance, I just got done watching Planet Earth 1974. The bad guys are dim-witted "mutants" who wear jumpsuit uniforms, helmets and call each other "soldier."

If FP were remade post-Vietnam it would probably not get the same crew dynamics it had in '56.

Thanks for writing.

Unknown said...

Howdie Moviegoers,

I have seen this movie maybe twenty times.

Let's see:

Plot line is excellent.

Acting is superb.

Special effects could stand up fairly well today, let alone in the fifties where they are fantastic.

The pace of the film never lags.

The sound effects/sound track by Louis and Bebe Barron are great.

Did I leave anything out?


thingmaker said...

About the military and "Forbidden Planet" and "Planet Earth"... It's interesting that the descendant of FP, "Star Trek", is a paramilitary setting with ranks and some version of naval discipline... And "Planet Earth" is a product of the same Gene Roddenberry who conceived "Star Trek"... Those military mutants in "Planet Earth" seem to bear some relation to the Klingons of Star Trek even to the extent that the Klingons of "Star Trek TMP" had the same spinal ridge continued over he crest of the head. Anyway, it seems that by the time of "Planet Earth" Roddenberry, who used to direct the writers on "Star Trek" to keep the command structure on the Enterpise more formally military, Gene had decided to make his paramilitary (PAX) heroes less military and the villains more so.
It's odd but just as I read the first Star Trek book by James Blish before I ever saw an episode (I was about 10 at the time and my family had no TV from '63-'60) I also read the "Forbidden Planet novelization before seeing the film. It's a very decent novel.