These days, when we talk about Forbidden Planet, we seem to focus on the same things. “Hey, Leslie Nielsen was in a drama!” Yes, but he was in many dramas before his career reboot as a comic actor.
There’s Robby the Robot! And he’s more than just a bleep-bloop robot! True, but he’s not much more, really. (Though he does have the best joke: “Sorry, miss. I was giving myself an oil job.”)
Then there’s The Tempest! Forbidden Planet is The Tempest! And Freud! And Jung!
Yep. But mostly, Forbidden Planet is really, really fun. And even though it’s set on a distant planet, far in the future with sci-fi underpinnings, it’s actually one big head game. After all, this is a movie about going to the far reaches of space and finding out that for all the technology at our disposal, we’re just creatures ruled, in the end, by the basest of our desires.
Refresher, from the clunky opening set-up voiceover: “In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon.” (Remember, Forbidden Planet came out in 1956.) “By 2200 AD, they have reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.”
But not the conquest of the Id! (I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Commander JJ Adams (Nielsen) and his crew are going to Altair IV, where a group of colonists have been living 20 years without communicating back to Earth. On Altair IV, Adams and the crew discover that Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), are the only survivors of attacks against the colonists by an unseen evil force. Morbius explains that he and his daughter must be, in some way, immune. Convenient.
Later, Morbius explains that an advanced species called the Krell lived on the planet 2000 centuries before the colonists arrived, and he’s been using their equipment to become smarter. Morbius used the Krell’s technology to build Robby, who can create completely accurate reproductions of anything he analyzes, from food to metal to clothing.
Problems arise when the crew—all men—starts to feel all funny about being on a planet with one woman after being trapped in space for more than a year. It’s in this plot development that Forbidden Planet’s 1950s origins creakily announce themselves; the sexual politics of the movie is downright primitive. (Not that we’ve come so far in 57 years. When Adams lectures Altaira about her wardrobe, try not to think of Steubenville or the recent headlines about military sexual assaults.)
The sexual politics fade into the background—or maybe the collective unconscious—when an invisible monster shows up to wreak havoc on Adams and his crew. There are some truly dazzling special effects as the monster is trapped in a fence the crew has built as a safety device. And even though the monster is somewhat quaint, imagine what it looked like in 1956.
It’s pretty easy to get caught up in Forbidden Planet’s story if you go with it. By now, the bloops and bleeps and wobbles of the electronic soundtrack (reportedly performed without theramin) are old stereotypes, but they’re remarkably effective in creating an atmosphere of dread.
That’s another thing at which Forbidden Planet excels: Dread. From the moment the ship arrives on Altair IV, there’s mounting tension; we all know things will turn bad, it’s just a question of when. It’s impossible not to see the influence Forbidden Planet had on Gene Roddenberry, Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott, to name a few. The use of silence in the movie is particularly adept.
So sit back, relax and munch some popcorn as Adams et al try to battle the Id. And try not to notice there’s no way all those people and equipment could fit in a ship the size of United Planets Cruiser C57-D.
Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox
With Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen