Or perhaps what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the 1960s.
Even fifty-five years after its theatrical debut, Forbidden Planet still impresses, and on some level even terrifies, in significant degree due to the eerie “electronic tonalities” of the score devised by Louis and Bebe Barron.
The film’s mostly-invisible villain, “The Monster from the Id,” is one that is still well-known by name in the pop culture lexicon.
After all, when man reaches the stars he will still be man, and his decisions and wisdom (or lack thereof) will always spark the most invigorating of dramas. Awe-inspiring special effects are one thing (and Forbidden Planet certainly deploys such effects brilliantly), but a story that connects to us, here and now, on an emotional level trumps such technical achievements every time.
On approach to Altair IV, Adams and his ship are warned away from the planet by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who insists that he won’t be responsible for the outcome should Adams ignore his counsel.
The grave, serious Morbius is the last surviving original member of the Bellerophon expedition and reports that “some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force” killed the other humans on his crew. However, he has been safe and secure in the intervening nineteen years, living alone on the planet with just Robby (his construct; something he “tinkered together“) and his beautiful if naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).
In fact, the Krell were so advanced that they visited Earth before man even walked the Earth, and brought back samples of the planet’s wildlife, including tigers and deer.
Alarmingly, Morbius also reports that the Krell civilization vanished in one night, on the eve of an almost divine achievement: the creation of a device that could render unnecessary all forms of physical instrumentality.
As if in response, the terrifying invisible foe returns again and again, night by night, growing ever stronger…and ever more murderous.
Importantly, also residing on Prospero’s island is Caliban (think cannibal): a monster who utilizes magic for much darker purposes. In the end, Prospero renounces magic and Ariel is set free from servitude, while Miranda and King Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, are free to marry.
Here, technology — alien technology — replaces magic or the occult. Robby is not a “fairy” or “spirit” like Ariel, but rather a thinking machine created from super-advanced technology; Krell technology. Just consider Clarke’s third law, of 1961. Advanced technology — machines beyond our understanding — appear as baffling as magic, right?
On the contrary, Morbius explicitly shuns such visitors while the cruiser is still in orbit. This act separates him rather dramatically from his literary predecessor, Prospero. In the denouement of both works, however, the non-human servant (Ariel/Robby) is freed from his master and takes part in the navigation away from the island/planet. In Forbidden Planet’s final scene, we see Robby at the controls of C-57D, having adjusted rather nicely to his new environs.
On the contrary, Forbidden Planet plays its story completely straight, sometimes even underplaying moments so as to more fully erect a sense of complete, overwhelming reality about the film’s universe. Again, the idea at the root of the film is not a comparison of magic to art, but a comparison, rather, of future technology to more current events, circa the mid-1950s.
In the Atomic Age, a literal Pandora’s Box was opened thanks to the creation of The Bomb, and many people feared what could happen when mankind “tampers in God’s domain.” That’s the explicit fear of Forbidden Planet and the lesson to draw from the unfortunate, god-like Krell. The film is about achieving a technological awareness that our species is not yet emotionally ready, not yet wise enough, to countenance. No one man can possess such great power, and possibly use it wisely.
Even the (unseen) demise of the Bellerophon space ship in Forbidden Planet seems to harken back to the myth. Morbius describes how, during take off, it was pulled back and “vaporized,” in flight. Were the colonists going to share the secrets of the Krell with the outside world? Were they reaching for Mount Olympus when they were downed?
Consequently, no earthbound locations are featured — redressed or not — in Forbidden Planet, and nor were the film’s makers able to rely on our modern digital technology (CGI). Instead, a vast sound stage is converted into the expansive landing area of the C-57D, and some of the most impressive matte paintings you’ve ever seen are deployed, along with exceptional miniatures and some opticals, to diagram the world and scope of the Krell technology.
Morbius’s house represents a splendid vision of what homes of the future might look like, from the inclusion of a “household disintegrator beam” disposal unit, to metal shutters, to an architectural scheme that incorporates both natural rock and plant-life right into the home’s hearth.
Although the C-57D’s familiar “flying saucer” design may seem antiquated to some viewers, the interior of the ship is constructed in full, and in laborious detail: a multi-level affair with a central control station, hide-away bunk beds, and a “deceleration” post for braking (after light-speed). And the impressive scene in which this craft lands on Altair — and ladders descend and crew disembark — plays as absolutely real, in part because so much of the craft’s exterior has also been constructed to scale.
Late in the film, Morbius takes Adams and Doc Ostrow on that extended tour of “the Krell Wonders” and this portion of the film is nothing less-than-awe-inspiring because of the visualizations, successfully living up to Morbius’s high-minded description of a “new scale of physical values.” Morbius’s matter-of-fact lecture during this tour only serves once more to effectively ground the film in a very substantial form of reality. This is literally a tour, with a sort of teacher relating to us information about energy usage, power systems and more. It might seem dry and lifeless to some, but the technical dialogue and professorial delivery actually serve a terrific purpose. This approach enhances the believability of the enterprise.
This tour — which plays as educational and real — is a powerful contrast to the film’s most visceral, memorable scene: the Monster from the Id’s sustained attack upon the landed cruiser by night. This particularly riveting sequence, with blazing laser weapons, crackling force-fields, and some unique wire-work (utilized to express the visual of spacemen caught in the grasp of the invisible monster) is still awe-inspiring and terrifying. The famous monster is visible only sporadically — an animated energy beast — and thus terror is rigorously maintained. The electronic tonalities I mentioned at the outset of the review also help out in maintaining the horror. This planet and its monstrous denizen not only appear alien, but sound alien as well. The monster’s unearthly howl is not easily forgotten.
Some of the film’s vistas also nicely eschew technology human ana alien for more natural settings. There’s an almost poetic shot and matte painting of the grave yard where the Bellerophon dead are buried. Another shot evocative of the best pulp space art involves Altair at night, with two luminous moons hanging low in the black sky.
In terms of design creativity then, Forbidden Planet is right off the charts. Even today, science fiction films visualize holograms, force-fields, lasers and robots in much the same fashion as those concepts are crafted here. Certainly, robots today are a little more streamlined than the wonderful Robby, but he remains quite impressive (and oddly lovable). The New York Times’ reviewer’s words about him still hold up too. He called Robby “a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What’s more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman’s gentleman. He is the prettiest piece of mechanism on Planet Altaire.” Easy, then, to detect why this robot has been beloved for several generations now.
In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Forbidden Planet should feel remarkably flattered. Star Trek adopted the film’s “United Planets” template lock, stock and barrel, the captain/doctor relationship, and the Chief Quinn character (a Scotty-like miracle-worker) as part of its core, while Star Wars’ C-3PO — another robot of many languages — and Lost in Space’s B9 certainly owe much to Robby in concept and design. We call this homage, of course.
In the annals of cult television history, even The Tempest-like tale of a father and daughter living alone on a distant planet together has been oft-repeated, in Star Trek’s “Requiem for Methuselah” and Space:1999’s “The Metamorph” to name but two. It is also said that Dr. Who’s serial “Planet of Evil” derives from Forbidden Planet in name and concept. It’s a story of a scientist’s good-intentioned overreach and devolution into a monster on a faraway world.
Forbidden Planet is a product of its time, and that means, among other things, that no racial minorities are featured in the film at all, which today may likely trouble some folks. Also, Alta is defined in the film largely by her reactions and relationships with the men in her life. She goes from being an obedient daughter, to being an obedient romantic partner. She’s not the independent spirit we might expect in today’s cinema.
But of course, the film was created in 1956, not 2011 and so was a projection of the future that included the America of that era as the foundation of everything. Despite such concerns, Forbidden Planet remains a terrific and sometimes startling example of what traditional Hollywood can achieve in the genre when equipped with a good budget, a strong and literate script, and the most imaginative effects and production design possible for the day.
Forbidden Planet isn’t a movie that was just “tinkered together” and nor is it “an obsolete” thing. Contrarily, it’s a sci-fi masterpiece that both inspires and warns us about our trajectory heading out there, into the Great Unknown.
From Prospero in the 1600s to Dr. Morbius in the 23rd century, the human condition, it seems, remains a fragile, mysterious, and magical thing.