Movie Review: Forbidden Planet

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It doesn’t get much better than “Forbidden Planet.”  Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it pushed special effects technology to whole new levels, and set the stage for Science Fiction to come, especially and particularly Star Trek.  This wasn’t, as so many other 50s movies, about a rocket ship to the Moon, or even a first voyage to Mars.  This was set in a future where those things had already long been accomplished.  This was the sort of future history Asimov and Heinlein were writing about, where Humanity was living among the stars, finding all sorts of marvelous things.

Our crew of 50s military types, led by a slightly stuffy Leslie Neilsen, take their flying saucer past the speed of light, out into the universe.  There they are tasked with finding the fate of a long lost space ship, Belerephon.  The only survivors are a scientist and his daughter, who are less than welcoming.  The mystery of the Belerephon’s crew and their fate, as well as the secret of Dr. Morbius and his daughter’s success, and their robot servant Robby, make up a large part of the film.  That, and the nature of a strange killer that hunts Neilsen’s crew upon arrival.  Technologies that seem far in advance of what Morbius should have hint at something deeper going on.

The make-up of the crew, the general look, and the future setting where some faceless organization sends ships out on missions of discovery would all serve as inspiration a decade later for Star Trek.  There’s even a bit of the triumvirate, the Executive Officer, the Doctor, and the Captain, going off to explore while the rest of the crew stays behind.  Walter Pidgeon is hostile, yet charming as the good Doctor.  He’s perfectly civilized, if unhappy for visitors.   Anne Francis is cute as heck as his young daughter, Altaira, who is desperately hungry for experience with new people.  It’s still the 50s, so there’s obligatory drunk humor involving the ship’s cook, and awkward, somewhat rapey romantic fumbling on the part of the crew when they meet Altaira.  Lieutenant Farman out skeeves the worst Kirk pawings by a mile.

    Once the first death happens, things get rolling pretty fast.  Ancient civilizations, strange monsters, budding romance, and some cool super-tech.  And that’s where the special effects really shine.  Deep under the surface of the planet are vast complexes brought to life in an excellent mix of model work, animation, and live action.  Few science fiction pictures before this grasped at anything like the scope.  “Things to Come,” maybe.  But not much else.  I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing it in the theater on its first run.

The production design is amazing, with cool sets, beautiful backdrops and mat paintings, and good costume work.  No surprise Robby became an iconic movie robot.  He’s quite striking.  And the weird electronic music gives the movie an otherworldly flair.  This is one of the big ones.  You have “Metropolis,” “Things to Come,” and “Forbidden Planet.”  There were other Science Fiction films, like “Woman in the Moon,” “The Time Machine,” etc.  But when it comes to tectonic shifts, I think it falls on the former.  Until everything changed with “2001,” they were the top of the line.  I love that it creates a universe with a history, without ever explaining most of it.  Who were the Krell?  While the question is central to the film, it is never really revealed, only implied.  Part of me thinks they were amorphous, the Lovecraftian in me hopes they were cephalopodish.  But who can say?

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