If the notion of “fiftes science-fiction films” conjures up pictures of scantily clad women defending their virtue against rubber-suited aliens, it is not for want of exceptions. MGM’s Forbidden Planet remains the most remarkable of these, a glossy, relatively high-budget production from a major studio made during a decade when “quality” and science fiction seemed to be mutually exclusive. While occasional sleeper successes like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be more memorable because they work from modest beginnings, Forbidden Planet represents one of the first combinations of serious expression with class-A special effects.
Based on a screen treatment entitled “Fatal Planet” by Irving Block and Allen Adler, the film also takes at least equal inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The film might have ended up just another “B” movie quickie, as laughable as most of its contemporaries, had it not been for the interest of producer Nicholas Nayfack. Nayfack, working at MGM, interested the studio in the story. The involvement of MGM’s top art department insured a higher level of special effects expertise than was previously available to most makers of science-fiction films.
With the help of MGM’s special effects wizards, the wonders of the Krell world unfold before us. In visible feet leave portentous footprints in the dirt; a “plastic educator” miraculously visualizes a man’s thoughts; men cross over level upon level of self-repairing factories, stretching into seeming infinity; a mischievous monkey gets playfully zapped by an ever-attentive robot. In fact, the special effects department even contributed towards the creation of the film’s most memorable character, Robby the Robot. Robby’s charmingly superior manner, part Gentleman’s Gentleman, part Shakespearean clown, part pot-bellied stove, influenced scores of imitators, from the Michelin man to C3PO.
Booming and twanging along with Robby’s clicks and whirs is the music by Louis and Bebe Barron. Al though electronic music had been used before, and it’s commonplace now, Forbidden Planet was the first film to have an all-electronic score. The music works in perfect counterpoint to the film’s otherworldly images, one of those rare scores that seems completely a part of the film, rather than mere dramatic heightening of it.
The dramatic situation centers on Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), living on the barren planet Altair IV. When a rescue mission arrives, led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), it’s warned away by Morbius, who insists that the lives of the ship’s crew are in peril. His warnings prove prophetic when, one by one, members of Adams’ crew succumb to a grim, violent death.
If Forbidden Planet is The Tempest, it’s Shakespeare crossed with Frankenstein and a good mystery story. For at the core of the movie is an enigma, the Krell. The Krell remain the great unknown in the dramatic equation of Forbidden Planet. If Morbius’ description of them as a “mighty and noble race” is correct, there’s still a nagging doubt—if they were so mighty, why did they disappear? And as the achievements of their civilization are revealed, that doubt deepens.
Viewers familiar with the genre will recognize several ingredients: saucer-shaped spaceships; Man in a united federation, exploring the galaxy; hints of a lost civilization with super-human powers; a supercilious robot serving as dry-witted chorus to the human action; casual interplay between a stern ship commander and his more relaxed officers. But to catalogue these familiar moments increases Forbidden Planet’s stature, since most of these elements appeared here first.
In hindsight we recognize a classic, but Forbidden Planet was a risky venture for the people who made it. In 1956, there was little precedent for an expensive bit of speculative fiction. Happily, the film made a profit in its initial release. But while the film continues to fascinate and influence, its greatest accomplishment was to prove that science fiction was a genre worth taking seriously. If there had been no Forbidden Planet, there might not have been a 2001 or Star Wars or Close Encounters. It’s gratifying to see that the film that helped make them possible still holds its own with the best of them.