Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On: #18, The Forbidden Planet
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
My rating: Class B (2/7, a very hot blue-white star). Really, I suppose I’m being a bit of a jerk in giving this only a Class B, since it is one of the true classics of the genre with an enduring influence, amazing look and feel, unique music, and some stellar performances. There are a few poor acting jobs, though, and the effects are somewhat dated now, but other than that, this is THE movie that put science fiction in the movies.
With characters, a setting and some plot elements that hearken to the Bard‘s The Tempest, a science fiction movie had better have a thoughtful and intriguing storyline and some strong performers, or it’s going to be a disaster. Fortunately, The Forbidden Planet has a thoughtful storyline, with some action and danger, as well as romance and comedy, thrown into the mix. Some of the performances are stellar, and even the weak ones are still fun.
The movie brought a lot of firsts to the screen: the first science fiction film by MGM, the first science fiction film set off Earth, the first movie with humans traveling in their own starship, the first movie with an electronic score, and the first appearance of Robbie the Robot (who would go on to appear in movies and television into the first decade of the 21st century).
The Forbidden Planet was a commercial success, earning about $23.5 million on a budget of just under $5 million; it ran from April to September of 1956 in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Subsequently the film has been lionized by critics and gained a substantial following. It also had a tremendous influence on later science fiction, informing television’s Star Trek in several ways (Gene Rodenberry stated that the film was one of his inspirations for the series), showing up as an episode of Dr. Who, and giving The Great Machine to television’s Babylon 5 (while the show’s creators were not conscious of the parallel, the special effects crew who created the visuals were).
Setup: Earth Cruiser C57-D is on a mission to Altair IV to discover what happened to the crew of the Bellerophon which was to make landfall there. After thirteen months in transit through space, they transit to speeds below that of light and begin to look for the thriving colony they hope to find. It isn’t there, but the sole survivor of the Bellerophon, Dr. Morbius, radios them and warns them to stay away from Altair IV or he cannot be responsible for the consequences. But orders are orders, and so the cruiser sets down some distance from Morbius’ home. They haven’t been down long when a ground car driven by Robby the Robot arrives and offers to take three of the crew to Morbius. Once in his home, Morbius tells them that he’s the last survivor of the Bellerophon, the crew of which was killed off by some mysterious “planetary force” which vaporized the Bellerophon when the survivors tried to escape. He also unwillingly introduces his daughter Altaira to the men. She is fascinated by them, and they by her, while Morbius warns the men that he is afraid of what will happen now that people not immune to the planetary force are on Altair IV. And the stage is set!
Short summary: Morbius is a philologist, a scientist who studies languages, and what makes Altair IV interesting to him is that it was the home of the Krell, a race of god-like creatures who were intellectually and morally superior to mankind. In a single night, however, the Krell race was mysteriously destroyed, and Morbius studies their remaining technology in order to figure out how it works. He reveals this information only grudgingly, and after the Earth cruiser is sabotaged in some unknown manner—perhaps indicating that the mysterious planetary force is once again stirring. In the meantime, Altaira is fascinated by, and exerts considerable fascination over, the crew of the cruiser.
And that, my friends, is all you’re going to get. If you haven’t seen it, the story is sufficiently interesting, and the plot’s development depends on surprise, that you really do need to see it. And of course if you have seen it you don’t need the summary!
The production history of the movie begins with a script for Fatal Planet, a science fiction B movie aimed at children and written by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Somehow, Block and Adler wound up pitching the film to MGM, a decidedly non-B-movie studio. MGM elected to film the movie at a budget of $1 million dollars, a relatively small budget, but something strange happened along the way: MGM brought in the novelist and screenwriter Cyril Hume (a descendant of the philosopher David Hume who gained fame by writing Tarzan scripts) to rewrite the script, and somehow the movie acquired gravitas and depth. MGM doubled the budget when they realized that they had a potential hit on their hands. Still, MGM was uneasy about the film, particularly its electronic score, and so they sneak previewed the movie to test audiences before the editing was even finished. Audience response was so positive that MGM decided to release the film as it was—so in a sense the movie that made it into theaters was an unfinished one. That roughness shows in some places….
This movie is in color, so it represents something of a departure for 1950s science fiction. It must have been a big budget film in its time—the $5 million it took to make it in 1956 would be about $40 million in 2010 dollars. That money shows in a lot of ways; Robby the Robot was a $125,000 investment in a single prop, for example. But the movie makes good use of all that money in creating vistas of an alien planet, a futuristic home, and the still-functioning remnants of a high-technology civilization, including labs and power stations. The entire movie was shot indoors on sets at MGM’s Culver City location, with exterior shots simulated by some of the best matte paintings of the time.
One of the key visual effects is the monster—you can’t have a science fiction story called The Forbidden Planet without a monster, now can you? The monster was created with animation, using the work of Joshua Meador, an accomplished animator from Disney Studios. The fact that the monster is animated is all too obvious, but then it’s not a material being, which is clear almost from the outset. To modern eyes, the effect is not wholly successful, but it is pretty good…. It helps, of course, that the animated monster moves quickly and is seldom on the screen for too long—though details such as the monster’s goatee (an important visual clue as to what’s really going on on Altair IV) slip past on a first viewing as a result.
The music, while ambitious and interesting, is not wholly successful—though it is one of the most eerie soundtracks I’ve ever heard. The first electronic music soundtrack in movie history, it is definitely unique. Electronic music pioneers Francis and Bebe Barron put together the film’s “electronic tonalities” to create a unique, and historically unusual, soundtrack for the film. Their score preceded the invention of the synthesizer by some eight years, and used unique electronic circuits for each sound—circuits which would often burn out during the process of sound generation, making the actual sounds difficult if not impossible to reproduce exactly. Additional effects such as reverberation, delays, reversals and speed changes were added to the taped sounds.
In the sleeve to the film’s soundtrack, the Barrons stated that
We design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically. In scoring Forbidden Planet—as in all of our work—we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a “voice”. We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in The Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.
It has been reported that during the preview of the film, when the Earth cruiser lands on Altair, the audience broke out into spontaneous applause due to the film’s electronic music. Since the Barrons were not members of the Musician’s Guild, their work could not be considered for an Academy Award in either the soundtrack or sound effects categories, and that is why they were credited with the film’s “electronic tonalities.”
There are three major characters in the film: Leslie Nielson’s Commander John J. Adams, Anne Francis’ Altaira ”Alta” Morbius, and Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Edward Morbius. Nielson turns in a relatively understated performance, a military man who is going to do his job no matter what. He’s also protective of not just his men but all the people around him, and he resists his growing feelings for Altaira until they overwhelm him. It is a strong performance, and Nielson’s chops as a leading man are much in evidence. Francis, in the meantime, portrays the seventeen year old Alta with a believable naivete as she meets men to whom she is not related, and growing confidence as she steps out from her father’s forbidding shadow. Francis’ performance is the lynchpin of the film’s plotline, and she really excelled in the role’s comic, romantic and dramatic elements. Finally, Pidgeon does a solid job. His character must provide the relatively soulless exposition necessary to the film’s story, and his character echoes the intellectual precision and emotionlessness of the Krell he idolizes. The character is also arrogant and willful, and these qualities come through in spades. It is important that the character’s repressed emotions break free, however, during the development of the plotline, and it is here that Pidgeon is not wholly successful. There is a certain stiffness to his emotional outbursts, almost as if they were choreographed rather than natural, and that stiffness robs the film of some of its emotional punch. On the other hand, the repressed Morbius is an intellectual, rather than emotional, intelligence, and perhaps Pidgeon’s performance is intended to evoke those characteristics.
Some of the other performances are well worth noting. Robby the Robot was operated by Frankie Darro, and his voice was provided by Marvin Miller—though the film does not specifically credit the actor. Miller’s stentorian, deep-voiced tones convey a dry wit, and Robby, the analog of The Tempest‘s Ariel, has a definite personality which comes through loud and clear. Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, as well as the name Robby, also inform the robot’s character—and the former is a significant element of the plot. Two secondary characters—Warren Stevens’ Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow and Jack Kelly’s Lieutenant Jerry Farman—are of considerable importance to the film, and the actors give strong performances. Kelly, in particular, gives an appropriately smarmy and sneaky tone to the Farman character, though Farman is also redeemed before his arc is finished. Stevens does a strong job, even delivering the line “Monsters from the id!” with considerable aplomb.
One performance in particular hits a sour note: Earl Holliman’s ”Cookie.” The role is intended to provide comic relief, and it does, but Holliman’s performance is forced rather than natural. Another actor, Richard Anderson (he plays Chief Quinn), is primarily of note because he later played Oscar Goldwin in television’s The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman—though his performance is certainly good enough in this film.
The plot line is not strictly derivative of The Tempest. Instead, the fallen civilization of the Krell is without parallel in cinematic history. The mystery of their technology, and the relationship between that technology and the Krell’s destruction and the “planetary force” which destroyed the Bellerophon and its crew, is central to the film and one of the more imaginative and well-conceived science fiction plot lines. In addition, psychology and mankind’s essential nature play as much of a role in the plot as do science.
Thematically the film upends and updates its progenitor The Tempest, with alien super-science substituting for The Tempest‘s magic. The Tempest’s self-aware self-references to the magic and illusion of the theater itself perhaps hide the idea that Prospero uses a rational and academic sorcery (contrasted to the evil of Sycorax’s black magic) to good ends and effect—an idea which would have been taken quite seriously in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when witches were still burned at the stake and alchemists still worked to find the philosopher’s stone. In the place of magic, however, The Forbidden Planet offers us the super-science of the Krell, a race of god-like rational beings who were intellectually and morally one million years in advance of humanity. And that super-science, combined with the essentially animal nature of mankind (and before us, the Krell themselves) wreaks destruction and tragedy.
The anti-science, anti-scientist theme of the film could have been (at least in part) a reaction to the development and public announcement of the first hydrogen bomb in 1953. Between the horrors of nuclear warfare and the beginning of the Cold War, the idea that science—and by extension, passionless scientists who failed to see the full implications of their work—could destroy humanity must have been a chilling, and relatively new, idea. That idea informs The Forbidden Planet in no small way. Set against the ideals of science, the film instead offers a warmly human relationship between Alta and Commander Adams, a relationship that is directly threated by the super-science of the Krell as wielded, albeit unknowingly, by Morbius.
The Forbidden Planet is a truely classic film, of interest not only to science fiction fans but also to fans of cinema. It proved to be hugely influential, and was one of the first science fiction film which had real depth and story to it, along with a compelling scientific mystery the secret of which was integral to the plot. It is well worth watching in its own right, however, because it is tremendously entertaining on several levels. Add to that some interesting scientific speculations, as well as ground-breaking music and interesting philosophical underpinnings, and you have a movie which is simply fantastic. Do yourself a favor—the next time it comes on TNT, sit down and watch it.
Other Takes on the Film:
- A Forbidden Planet Remake?
- Conservapedia’s Forbidden Planet Entry *
- Turner Classic Movies Article on The Forbidden Planet
* No, I don’t often read Conservapedia, being rather more liberal personally, but I often find opposing viewpoints interesting and worth looking into. In addition, this is a fine, if somewhat limited, analysis of the movie with a unique viewpoint. Jump back to the blog.
- Retro Movie Poster: Forbidden Planet (shouldbee.com)
- Ben Burtt on Star Wars, Forbidden Planet and the Sound of Sci-Fi (wired.com)
- Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Sci-Fi (le0pard13.com)
- ‘Forbidden Planet’s Warren Stevens dies (bulletfame.wordpress.com)
- Vintage Interview: Leslie Nielsen (mrmovietimes.com)