Forbidden Planet (1955)
Written by Cyril Hume
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
I was utterly blown away by Forbidden Planet, which was helped because I went into my first viewing with pretty low expectations. I kept seeing the picture pop up on Best of Science Fiction lists, but from the images I’d seen, it looked like a collection of a lot of sci-fi cliches. I’d seen Robby the Robot in pop culture since I was a child and always associate him with The Robot from Lost in Space. Leslie Neilsen is the protagonist, and his association with comedy probably had me expecting something cheesier. What I was met with was a psychedelic powerhouse of a science fiction movie that certainly pushed the boundaries when it was released.
Set in the 23rd Century, we follow a United Planets starship crew as they investigate the conditions on Altair IV. Years prior, an expedition from Earth landed there and hasn’t been heard from since. Commander John Adams (Neilsen) orders his ship to land, and he and his crew begin searching for signs of life. They meet Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the only surviving scientist of the group. He lives a life of quiet study with his teenage daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and their robot servant Robby. Altaria is immediately smitten with these young space-faring men, having never met anyone more youthful than her aging father in her life. Adams gets a weird feeling about what’s going on in this world but awaits orders from Earth command before he leaves. Then something comes in the night, leaving a crewman in pieces, and suddenly it becomes clear that an evil presence lives on Altair IV.
What blew me out of my seat first was the musical score for this movie. It is credited as the first fully electronic musical score ever made for a film. There are not sweeping themes or any of the orchestral cues we expect to hear. Instead, composers Bebe and Louis Barron, discovered in a beatnik nightclub by an MGM producer. Due to union rules, it is referred to as “musical tonalities,” but I think that is an apt description of how they sound. Instead of having harmonies, these pieces burst and recede, jerking around in strange angles and combinations. It reminded me of part of the Fantastic Planet score at its most alien & otherworldly.
The second element that most impressed me was the special effects & model work. There are some brilliant shots early on of the United Planets ship flying through space, the camera moving around it that hold up to the best CG work I’ve seen today. The blend of models & matte painting really feels like it was done with a passion for the craft, attention to detail so that the strings & seams do not show. The production also brought in animation veteran Joshua Meador from Disney to help with additional special effects, especially the Id Monster, who shows up in the second act. Meador served as an animator on almost every Disney film from 1937 to 1961. That breadth of knowledge comes across with the incredibly revolutionary special effects of Forbidden Planet and elevates what we see beyond your average B-picture.
It came as no surprise when I read that Gene Rodenberry cites Forbidden Planet as a significant influence on Star Trek. The entire movie feels like the premise of a Star Trek episode just extended to a greater length and with a larger budget. When watching the picture, it is helpful to not see this as “just like every other science fiction” film and realize this is the movie that invented the tropes and characters. Robby the Robot is considered the first movie automaton to have a real personality. Robby’s very unique wit would become the foundation for future robot supporting characters like C3-PO and R2D2. Going even further, Forbidden Planet is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the Space Age. It doesn’t adhere to that plot 1:1 but is most certainly recognizable as an adaptation of that work.
I clearly see why Forbidden Planet has such a hallowed place in the realm of science fiction. It set so many standards for what people expected to see and pushed the genre into new areas. The visual effects and musical score are some of the best of their era. There’s also a wry sense of humor present from the start, the film not taking itself so seriously it becomes a farce but still handling its narrative with seriousness. Watching the picture, you can feel it as a seed from which so much has sprouted in the decades that came after.