A seminal film which transformed science fictions films forever
The 1956 film, “Forbidden Planet”, was a cinematic watershed. A culmination and refinement of the science fiction films that came before, it set a new benchmark in the genre, influencing just about every sci-fi film that came afterwards. It was the bridge between the previously seen giant insects, costumed aliens, and rickety spaceships, and the super realistic science fiction films of today. You can clearly see its influence in landmark productions such as the original “Star Trek” TV series, and the “Star Wars” films (and the creators of both have cited this film as inspiration). “Forbidden Planet” was cutting-edge in just about every way, including its Academy Award nominated special effects, and its electronic score. This classic film is fun, mesmerizing, and thrilling - everything you would want from a sci-fi film.
“Forbidden Planet” is very much an MGM film. MGM was Hollywood's biggest studio, and was known for producing films with polish and glamour. This was their first foray into space, and they traveled there with their distinctive style and flair. In a genre previously regulated to B-list actors, scripts, sets, and budgets, MGM took it warp-speed to a whole new level, and created the first A-list science fiction film since the silent era. The film is in color, wide-screen cinemascope, stars an A-list actor, and had an A-list production and budget - all a step-up from the then sci-fi norm. The spaceship, electronic music, and opening titles immediately let 1950s audiences know they were in for something special.
The best 1950’s science fiction films often posed questions or statements about humanity, examining who we are and where we are going. Frequently cautionary tales, their plots were often metaphors of the fears and paranoia of the times (the cold war and threat of nuclear war). You can read more about that in my “The Day the Earth Stood Still” entry. Aside from its technical wonders, “Forbidden Planet” was a sci-fi film with a substantial story and an intelligent and complex theme - something also new to this genre. Loosely based around William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, it is the story of a deep space crew lead by “Commander John J. Adams”, sent to a distant planet to learn the fate of the scientists who were sent there on a mission years before. They discover only one survivor from the mission, “Dr. Morbius”, along with his teenage daughter, “Altaira”. The two are the only inhabitants of the planet, as the others from the mission were unexplainably killed by something unknown. “Dr. Morbius” is obsessed with the teachings of the planet’s native race, the “Krell”, who were one million years ahead of man in their technology (they even abolished sickness), yet they mysteriously vanished before his arrival. The bulk of the film uncovers all these mysteries, and in the end “Forbidden Planet” delivers a thought-provoking statement about man and technology, and how man is not equipped to handle it. An interesting question to ponder in our social media driven, internet powered, divided world.
The technical aspects of “Forbidden Planet” are stellar. A star of the film is undoubtedly the art direction and set design by Arthur Lonergan, overseen by Cedric Gibbons. You can learn more about Gibbons in my “The Good Earth” and “The Wizard of Oz” entries. “Forbidden Planet” was the first film to take place completely off the earth, and Lonergan and Gibbons’ conception of a futuristic planet is something to behold. The colors, sets, landscapes, spaceship, and imaginative props place the viewer into a gorgeous 1950s vision of a future world that is completely believable and alien at the same time. And “Altaira’s” garden even evokes the magic of “The Wizard of Oz” (and evidently some of the props from “Munchkinland” were used to create it). A combination of stop-motion, miniatures, matte-paintings, and animation, the film’s special effects were revolutionary in their refinement, and remain marvelous even today. MGM hired one of Walt Disney’s leading animators, Joshua Meador, to work on this film, and his contribution is priceless. I’ll mention a bit more about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below so as not to spoil anything. Another groundbreaking technical aspect of “Forbidden Planet” is the film’s electronic score. Electronic music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron created the atmospheric, unearthly soundtrack, producing something audiences had never heard. It was cinema’s first entirely electronic score. Because no conventional musicians were used, and neither of the Barrons belonged to the Musicians Union, they are credited in the film for “Electronic Tonalities”, rather than “Film Score” (and thus, didn’t qualify for an Oscar). Their work literally sets the tone for the uneasiness and otherworldliness that makes “Forbidden Planet” so compelling.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Robby the Robot”! He has personality, humor, and all the bells and whistles which make him look like a technologically endowed robot - another first in sci-fi films. His final design was created by Japanese-American engineer and MGM draughtsman and mechanical designer, Robert Kinoshita, who also designed two other iconic robots, “Tobor” (from the 1954 film “Tobor the Great”), and “Robot” from the classic 1960s TV series, “Lost in Space”. The seven foot tall “Robby” is so beloved (and considered the real star of “Forbidden Planet” by many), he’s since become a genuine sci-fi icon. He’s made appearances in more than two dozen films and TV shows, including a quick cameo in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace” in 1999. He was auctioned in 2017 by TCM-Bonhams Auctions, and sold for $5.3 million dollars, setting a record as the highest selling film prop (that wasn’t automotive) in auction history. This film, and “Robby” are so popular that loads of merchandise have been created featuring both, including models, toys, figures, lunchboxes, pins, and more. More evidence of the tremendous love people have for “Forbidden Planet”, is that in 2012, an original US movie poster for the film sold for $29,875.00 at Heritage auctions.
Walter Pidgeon stars as "Dr. Edward Morbius”, a character who describes himself as “a simple scholar, with no ambition”, and who has dedicated his life to learning all he can about the “Krell”. He is a complicated man with the best of intentions, and Pidgeon the actor has the benevolence and gravitas to pull it off. This tall, deep-voiced movie star was an A-list actor who brought weight to the film, letting audiences know to take “Forbidden Planet” seriously. An actor with well over 100 film and TV credits to his name, “Forbidden Planet” is one of a few for which he is best remembered. I wrote more about Walter Pidgeon (and his co-star Anne Francis) in the “Funny Girl” post, where he portrayed “Florenz Ziegfeld”.
If you watched “Funny Girl”, you previously saw Anne Francis as the Ziegfeld Girl “Georgia James”. Here she plays “Dr. Morbius’” book smart yet innocent daughter, “Altaira ‘Alta’ Morbius”. She is the only female in the cast, and it's no wonder she is the object of several of the crew’s desires. She runs around primarily in “pre” mini-skirts (they would become a trend in the 1960s), and swims naked in a pond (although if you look closely when she leaves the pond, you can see she’s wearing a flesh colored costume). Her miniskirts resulted in the film being banned in Spain for just over ten years. Francis perfectly depicts the beauty, purity, and naiveté of “Alta”. Her childlike character reminds us today that “Forbidden Planet” is very much a 1950s film, embodying that decade's spirit and look, as well as its sexism. You can learn a bit more about Anne Francis in the “Funny Girl” post.
Leslie Nielsen is perfect as the tough but fair “Commander John J. Adams”. He combines the fieriness of a youthful skipper with the good looks of a romantic lead. Audiences today probably know him best from his comedy spoof films such as “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” series. Born in Canada, Leslie Nielsen started his career studying radio and working as a DJ. He received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and moved there, where he studied acting and performed in theater. He later studied at the Actors Studio, and quickly began appearing in television starting in 1950. After extensive work in TV, he landed his first film role in 1956, "The Vagabond King”. “Forbidden Planet” was his second film. He would go on to accumulate over 250 acting credits, over half of which were in television. Some of his other notable films include "Beau Geste", "The Plainsman", "The Opposite Sex", "Dracula: Dead and Loving It ", "Nuts", “Creepshow", "Scary Movie 3”, and as the captain in "The Poseidon Adventure". Later in his life he found a niche with deadpan comedic roles, hitting new heights as a star in the 1980s. His aunt and uncle were Via and Jean Hersholt, two very prolific actors, the latter for which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award” is named. Nielsen was legally deaf, wearing hearing aids for most of his life. He was also known to be a practical joker. He married four times. Leslie Nielsen died in 2010 at the age of 84.
I also want to mention Earl Holliman, who plays the “Cook”. Holliman brings much of the film’s humor, with his somewhat awkward machismo. He would become a very well known character actor, specializing in macho characters whose brains were not their leading characteristic. Earl Holliman began acting while serving in the US Navy, in their theater productions. After he served his time, he moved to California and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and UCLA. He began appearing in small, uncredited film roles in 1952, quickly landing larger roles including “Cook”. An early breakthrough came with the 1956 film, “The Rainmaker” opposite Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, which gave him much acclaim (he is wonderful in that film), and a “Best Supporting Actor” Golden Globe award. He began appearing on television in the late 1950s, and would work in film, stage, and mostly TV, until the year 2000. He is probably best remembered for appearing opposite Angie Dickinson on the 1970s classic TV show, "Police Woman”. In his film career, he primarily appeared in dramas and westerns, including several classics such as "Giant", "The Sons of Katie Elder", "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral", "Broken Lance”, "The Bridges at Toko-Ri", and "Sharky's Machine”. He was an animal-rights activist, and was president of “Actors and Others for Animals” for over 25 years. He retired in 2000, and never married. As of the writing of this post, Earl Holliman is 92 years old.
“Forbidden Planet’s” enduring cinematic leap forward helped make it a cult classic and the Holy Grail for many sci-fi aficionados. This film has the magic to stimulate the mind and imagination, and to leave its viewer with the feeling that anything is possible. Enjoy “Forbidden Planet”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As mentioned before, “Forbidden Planet” was made during the beginning of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war, when the US was filled with fear and paranoia. This film is a metaphor for the fear of nuclear annihilation, and a cautionary tale of man’s relationship with technology. To protect man from machine, even robot “Robby” has a built-in safety mechanism. “Forbidden Planet” is unusual as people aren’t the villains, it’s the technology. At the film’s end we learn that the monster is the manifestation of the primitive, savage, instinctive part of “Dr. Morbius’” subconscious, or as Sigmund Freud would say, his ID. As “Dr. Morbius” is a well-meaning man, it reminds us we all have monsters and demons inside, and the film is an articulation that no matter how far advanced we may get, technology can release the beast within. A very relevant thought in today's internet reliant society.
In “Forbidden Planet”, the effects help enhance the story, never detracting from it. In many science fiction films prior to this one, monsters and aliens looked just like what they usually were - a man in a monster costume. There was a concern as to what the beast in “Forbidden Planet” should look like, and MGM knew they needed something special. They hired top Walt Disney animator, Joshua Meador, to create the monster (and many other effects) through animation. I never knew upon my first viewings, that the monster (or “Robby” turning red, and other effects) were animated. Only later did I learn of the animation, which you can see, but even knowing that, Meador’s work is still magnificently impressive.