Movies to See Before You Die: “Forbidden Planet”
A quick search of Flickchtart for science-fiction films released in the 1950s shows more than 150 titles. To put that in perspective, Flickchart shows only 130 films in the western genre that were released in the same decade. Though the 1960s are generally regarded as an era of change, one could make the argument that the 1950s were a major cinematic turning point, the point where teen viewers suddenly mattered and studios started looking to the future instead of back to the past. Shining brightly amidst the decade’s plethora of intergalactic flicks is a film that might have been too introspective for the teen crowds – Forbidden Planet.
Twenty years after an expedition goes missing on the distant planet Altair IV – because really, those people stranded on another planet CAN WAIT – United States Planet Cruiser C-57D is en route to investigate. Led by no-nonsense Captain John J. Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen, who would dabble in nonsense later in his career), the ship ignores warnings from a voice below and lands anyway. Upon their landing they meet the one who warned them, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, who nearly assassinated Hitler in the underseen classic Man Hunt). Morbius appears to be living happily in his a Jetson-esque estate where he is kept company by his daughter (Anne Francis) and a subservient and friendly robot named Robby.
Forbidden Planet vs. ’50s Sci-Fi
I mentioned earlier that Forbidden Planet is more “introspective” than most science fiction films of its era, which is a vague term that I must explain. Looking back, it’s easy to see that a large portion of that era’s sci-fi films were designed to make audiences fear an attack from the outside. These films range from those that feature spectacular invaders – for example, the 1953 adaptation of War of the Worlds or the cheesy goodness of Invaders from Mars – to those that feature parasitic or humanoid invaders – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Plan 9 From Outer Space. (Did I really just bring Plan 9 From Outer Space into this discussion? Yeah, I did.) In most of these cases, the message appeared to be “there are forces out there that can destroy us”, and humanity was generally depicted as a helpless victim of circumstance. Of course, the majority of these films actually surmised that AMERICAN humans were the victims; films like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers closely paralleled the communist “Red Scare” that dominated the news for part of the decade.
At this time in cinema’s history, few sci-fi films dared to touch on how dangerous us humans can be. The most obvious example might be Gojira (or Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in the U.S.), which directly implied that use of the hydrogen bomb created a gigantic killing machine that was beyond our control. But if we want to stick with the “Watch the Skies!” warning that The Thing From Another World hammered home early in the decade, my eyes turn to two films that dared to remind audiences that we could be a danger to both ourselves and the forces that surround us.
One of those films, obviously, is Forbidden Planet. The other is Robert Wise‘s original The Day The Earth Stood Still. While the films have major differences – heck, one of them takes place on Earth and one takes place on Altair IV – both warn that there are problems in how we deal with the world around us, and both seem to know that our drive for knowledge and destructive tendencies could be our undoing. Wise’s film keeps things tangible by discussing the threats humans pose due to their actions, but Forbidden Planet takes a different approach – by insisting that our desires could lead to destruction without us knowing it. Forbidden Planet also seems to be a little more accessible to younger audiences, even if they may not understand its commentary on “Monsters from the Id”, due to the use of special effects and the comic relief via Robby. While The Day The Earth Stood Still is probably a better warning to society – there’s no denying Michael Rennie‘s final speech is a knockout blow that few films have matched – Forbidden Planet‘s mixture of science, psychology, and spectacle helps it carve out its own spot as one of the most essential sci-fi films of its era.
Forbidden Planet vs. The Future of Sci-Fi
While science fiction films had been going into space since 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, limitations in special effects and the lower budget of films in the early age of cinema led to most science fiction made before the 1960s being set on Earth. There were outliers before Forbidden Planet, like the 1950 spectacle of Destination Moon and the 1955 hit This Island Earth, but Forbidden Planet certainly was a game changing film when it came to what travel through space could look like. With custom made sets (that would be re-used for years by The Twilight Zone) and what appeared to be a whole new planet (thanks to some great effects and matte paintings), Forbidden Planet‘s unique vision of what sci-fi could be has directly been noted as an inspiration to Gene Roddenberry as he created Star Trek.
While Trek would be the next sci-fi standout that would visually emulate Forbidden Planet, it would be about ten years before big screen sci-fi would consistently follow the film into the depths of space. The most notable example of this would be 2001: A Space Odyssey and its psychological approach to sci-fi and the dangers of what man creates. One could argue that infamous computer HAL-9000 represents some of the same principles that the diabolical Krell stood for on Altair IV, as both films recognize that we may lose control of our scientific advances with time. The film’s visual style was also evident in films like Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and the camp classic Barbarella. Sci-fi of the ’70s – led by Star Wars and Alien – would take our perception of foreign planets in a different and more realistic direction, but the impact of Forbidden Planet still shines through in sci-fi features today.
Forbidden Planet vs. Robots
While there are a lot of seriously great things to love about Forbidden Planet, I have to admit that all it really takes to make me love the film is Robby the Robot. There are a lot of fantastic robots out there in the cinemaverse, but Robby is perhaps the most memorable. Created by artist Robert Kinoshita – who had created the similar Tobor The Great in 1954, and later created the robot for Lost in Space – Robby stands out to me for being a unique creature that is partially humanoid yet partially machine. While others like C3-PO and R2-D2 would generally look either like a man or a trash can, Robby pairs arms and legs with gears and knobs, and there’s something about that see through dome that just gets my mind racing. I remember diving into a book about how everyday machines work as a kid and – even though I quickly gave up at trying to understand scientific advances like toilets – that experience has always made me a little excited to see the innards of machines as they work. I know, it sounds kind of sick, but it’s something I dig.
Robby would become a full fledged celebrity after the film’s release, going on to star in 1967’s The Invisible Boy and appearing in countless TV shows and other films. The list included The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, Gremlins, and The Simpsons, among many others. Most recently, Robby has appeared in Futurama animated features, and his legacy as a god among robots should carry far into the future.
Forbidden Planet definitely represents an age of sci-fi that has passed us by, but it’s still a charming and fun film that is a great place to start while looking at the sci-fi of the 1950s. Modern audiences may struggle with its outdated psychology and the seriousness of Lieutenant Drebin, but should still be able to see that this is a fantastic example of interstellar cinema at its finest.