Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
This month (March 3 to be exact) one of the most iconic Sci Fi films Forbidden Planet celebrated its 65th anniversary. Set in the 23rd century, the film sees the crew of the United Planets starship C-57D investigating the planet Altair IV where an Earth expedition arrived two decades earlier. Instead of a thriving colony they find a mysterious scientist, his beautiful daughter and an advanced robot named “Robby”. The plot has been compared to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When it was released back in 1956 it accomplished several firsts: first movie to depict humans travelling in a faster-than-light starship; first set entirely on an alien planet; and first to present a robot with a personality.
I recall being entranced by this movie when I first watched it and the film still held up pretty well when I rewatched it today. So you know what that means? Retro review time! With a monster-sized SPOILER ALERT here is my review of Forbidden Planet in three blasts:
Blast #1 Strange New World
The first thing that strikes the viewer (well at least this viewer) about Forbidden Planet is the look of the film. The production design is simply extraordinary. While the saucer shape for the ship is not exactly innovative everything else here shows a great deal of thought and imagination. From Altair IV’s desert plains to its idyllic, Eden-like forests to the imposing machine complex of the Krell alien civilisation, everything here makes you feel transported to another world. And man do I love that.
Robby the Robot is such a marvel of practical effects that it’s no surprise he was included in the opening credits (as himself no less) and placed front and centre in the posters. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer knew that old Robby would be a major draw and put him squarely in the spotlight. He remains an icon of science fiction to this day. The visual effects of the creature and the blasters would seem dated by today’s standards, but I can imagine them being revolutionary six-and-a-half decades ago (hence the Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects) and they still work today.
Blast #2 New Life
While I can heap praise upon the film’s visuals I must be a bit more sparing when it comes to the characters. Walter Pidgeon delivers the best performance here as Dr Edward Morbius. There is a reserved brilliance to the character paired with an unsettling and secretive manner. You know something is not right and he is hiding something, and there is always an aura of danger around him. Sure the acting does get somewhat over the top in the climax but it is still a very solid performance.
Pidgeon was a well-renowned actor at the time of his casting, having received Academy Award Best Actor nominations for Mrs Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943). He also starred in 1941’s How Green Was My Valley which racked up ten Academy Award nominations and won five including Best Picture, famously beating out arguably the best movie of all time Citizen Kane.
Pidgeon’s Forbidden Planet co-star Anne Francis also does a good job as his curious and highly naïve daughter Altaira “Alta” Morbius. Francis is gorgeous and the costume work by Helen Rose only serves to accentuate her luminous features. The image of Alta in those super short and tight dresses will remain engraved in viewers’ minds for some time to come. The writing for the character, though, is not the best. The scene where the horny Lt Jerry Farman tricks her into kissing him repeatedly is played for humour and may have worked back then but it just feels wrong today, especially with Alta’s almost child-like nature. And when Alta tells Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) she has been kissing other crewmen it feels even more wrong. And when the Commander gets angry at her and tells her to wear less revealing clothing around his pent-up crewmen it feels super wrong (though in fairness he does apologise about his behaviour afterwards). So yeah, this aspect of the film has not aged well at all.
Nielsen, who is more than two decades away from breaking into comedy with parody classic Airplane!, plays the dashing and steely commander well but he lacks chemistry with Francis. And in-film the two seem to get together simply because of physical attraction, which is not the most romantic of set-ups. The Commander and Lt “Doc” Ostrow both suffer from a lack of backstory and development which would have helped with understanding their motivations and making the audience care about them more. As it is, they are just kind of there. Because of this when Doc (and even horny Jerry) dies there is little to no emotional impact.
Blast 3 To Boldly Go
One element of science fiction I love is the mystery element, and this is used very well in Forbidden Planet. From the moment Dr Morbius warns the starship they will be in danger if they land and they should turn back the mystery begins. If this was an 80s slasher movie the ill-fated scientist would be the crazy drunk guy warning the oversexed teenage campers. And then the mystery only continues after Morbius explains that the crew of the starship Bellerophon was killed by some “planetary force” when they attempted to return to Earth. What is this planetary force? How were Morbius and his late wife immune to it? And why has it not attacked in 20 years. The mystery and tension continue to build (aided by a trippy electronic musical score by Bebe and Louis Barron) until the force begins attacking and killing people (using some pretty great for the time visual effects), adding a thriller element to the film. Kudos to director Fred M. Wilcox for crafting the film’s unsettling atmosphere.
The tension is broken with some lighter scenes like the Commander/Alta romance and the comedy of the booze-loving cook arranging for Robby to produce gallons of alcohol for him. I am pretty sure if he drank all that by himself he would be a dead man. The pacing also slows somewhat with Morbius’s tour of the Krell complex. It is very, very exposition heavy and while necessary for the plot it does feel like it goes on a bit too long.
Thankfully things do pick up with the creature attacking the ship and later attacking Morbius’s home in the climax. After Doc fries his brain with a Krell device and says “monsters from the id” before dying, the Commander deduces that it is the doctor’s own subconscious that has been killing people. Now that was some clever, innovative writing for the time and remains so to this day, though the direct correlation between Morbius’s feelings and the creature’s attacks could have been more firmly established.
But despite any flaws Forbidden Planet remains a dazzling and seminal Sci Fi experience. And its legacy and influence lives on in franchises like Lost in Space and Star Trek. As a diehard Trekkie I will forever be grateful for that.
Editor Jules’s Score: 7.5 out of 10
So are you a fan of Forbidden Planet? How would you rate it? For my retrospective on the Peter Cushing Doctor Who films you can click here. Or for my Ray Bradbury Five-Film Tribute you can click here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville. And to stay on top of all Redmangoreviews articles you can like and follow us on Facebook here.