Filmsite Movie Review
Forbidden Planet (1956)
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Background

Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of the more influential, classic and ground-breaking science-fiction space-opera adventures ever made - it was the first science-fiction film in color and CinemaScope. The film, directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox (from a screenplay by Cyril Hume), marked a number of firsts:

  • the first film to be set entirely on a foreign planet in interstellar space, arrived at via travel on a flying saucer at light speed
  • the first Hollywood film to have an all-electronic music score
  • the first film in which a robot had a personality (and sense of humor), was more than just a boxy 'tin-can', and was given his own onscreen credit
  • the first high-budget sci-fi film from MGM studios, with first-class special effects
  • the first sci-fi film with a widescreen scope aspect ratio
  • the film that initiated many genre ingredients for future sci-fi films (and TV shows)

The lavish, dazzling and colorful film joined a number of other highly important films in the genre, including alien invasion films such as The Thing (From Another World) (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Them! (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). There were other lesser sci-films of the 1950s that also depicted travel into outer space, including Rocketship X-M (1950), producer George Pal's Destination Moon (1950), This Island Earth (1955), First Spaceship on Venus (1959), and The Angry Red Planet (1959).

The plot depicted a space journey in the year 2200 A.D. by astronauts on a flying saucer-shaped United Planets space cruiser C-57D to a distant planet-star named Altair-IV with green skies, sixteen light years from Earth. They intended to investigate the mysterious fate of a colony planted about 20 years before. Their rescue mission led by alpha male Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen in his film debut) was designed to discover what had happened to the starship Bellerophon that crash-landed and vaporized in the earlier expedition. Upon landing, they found only three survivors: Dr. Edward Morbius (a variation on German mathematician Moebius, of strip fame) (Walter Pidgeon), his pretty and innocent virginal 19 year-old daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis) who had never seen earthlings before, and their multi-lingual robot house servant and bodyguard, Robby.

During their prolonged investigation, the space explorers were told how the planet was once home to a now-extinct, advanced alien intelligence, known as the Krell, and were given a tour of their labyrinthine underground city and its themonuclear power reactors. They were repeatedly attacked by an unknown feral force (a giant, invisible creature) that ultimately could destroy all of civilization. The film's main spoiler secret was that Dr. Morbius had harnessed the superior Krell technology to increase his own intellect and telepathic powers, and that the creature was in reality a manifestation of his own projected anger (a "monster" from the ID") - mostly to protect his daughter, but originally to kill the earlier colonists who wanted to return to Earth. In the exciting conclusion, Dr. Morbius willfully confronted his own destructive power and the threat of Krell technology. Guiltily fearing human dependence on machines, he sacrificed himself by opposing his own Id, and urged programming the Krell machine to self-destruct, after allowing the surviving space crew to depart with Altaira from the 'forbidden planet'.

Although set in the futuristic world of the 23rd century, the movie was an essential product of the mid-20th century American psyche. The film's major cautionary subtext was about the dangers of the time period's own Atomic Age of the 1950s, with the unleashing of the terrible destructive forces of nuclear weapons, the Bomb, and its accompanying Communist Red Scare in the McCarthy era. In the mid-1950s, scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer had created the atomic bomb and unleashed a dangerous technological power upon the world and caused nuclear proliferation (his famous quote: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds"). Lessons were to be learned from the film's godlike, advanced alien civilization of a race known as the Krell that once ruled the 'forbidden planet,' who had developed technology and their own intelligence to an unwise and dangerous level that ultimately brought about their extinction. They had developed a machine that gave form to their thoughts, including their sub-conscious fears and desires. The 'mad scientist' character in the film had also attained the knowledge of the Krell, realized its dangers, insisted on portioning out its dissemination to the world, and had over-reached his humanity by attempting to be god-like. This had resulted in his dark, destructive and rampaging unconscious emerging from inside himself - aided, fed and powered by the alien technology.

Although the retro 1950s film was very stodgy, pretentious and slow-moving, it must have mesmerized 1950s audiences with its visually imaginative representations of interstellar space travel, a flying saucer cruiser with hyper-drive, life on another planet, the anthropomorphic robot Robby, Robby's space vehicle-Jeep, an atomic cannon, futuristic gadgetry and gobble-de-gook technology (high-energy blaster ray-guns, force-fields, a disintegrator beam disposal unit, a hologram sculpture (appearing in a "plastic educator" device), a cranium-boosting device, planetary energy wells, a long-range Klystron Transmitter, and more).

Robby was the first celebrity robot - a quintessential and iconic character built by the MGM prop department for a cost of $125,000. The 7' 6" tall, lumbering Robby (Frankie Darro, voice by Marvin Miller) functioned as both a house servant and guard, and provided comic relief. Robby was probably the most expensive, most advanced, intricately-wired film prop ever constructed at the time, resembling a walking jukebox with human charm and personality. Robby was shown to be capable of carrying heavy loads, and conjuring up replicas of food, booze, precious gems, and textiles. It was programmed to obey Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" stated in his 1950 novel I, Robot, although Robby was inconsistently portrayed as threatening in the film's poster. In the film, the mechanical creation was built ("tinkered together") by Morbius from plans left by an alien race. Robby (a distinct advancement over previous Robot Depictions in Film) influenced and was the progenitor of many other future robotic creations, including the Huey-Dewey-Louie robots in Silent Running (1972), and C3PO and R2-D2 in the Star Wars franchise.

An unrelated sequel followed set in the present day, The Invisible Boy (1957), but was only a spin-off of the Robby the Robot character as an evil robot. However, the very popular robot character appeared in various other cameos in a number of movies, including Hollywood Boulevard (1976), Gremlins (1984), Cherry 2000 (1987), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). Robby also appeared in many TV series episodes from the 1950s onward, including The Thin Man (in 1958), The Gale Storm Show (in 1958), Hazel (in 1962), in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (in 1963-64), The Addams Family (as Smiley in 1966), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (in 1966), Lost in Space (as Robotoid B9 in 1966-67), Columbo (as MM7 in 1974), Space Academy (in 1977), Wonder Woman (in 1979), and Mork & Mindy (as Chuck the Robot in 1979). Star Anne Francis was briefly mentioned in the song "Science Fiction/Double Feature" in the opening credits of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Many reviewers have noted how the film was one of the first sci-fi films to work in a Freudian subtext (with its invisible Monster of the Id and other subtle sexual innuendos) - a development that was the rage in the 1950s. It has been often psychoanalyzed as a dramatization of repressed sexual desires. There were two doppelgangers in the film: (1) the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality of Dr. Morbius, and (2) the ideal technological robot Robby obedient to Asimov's laws vs. the monstrous Id released by the Krell's great machine.

It was also a loose adaptation or reworking of Shakespeare's early 1600s play The Tempest, and inspired the look of many future films and works, notably providing a blueprint or template for TV's Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry, and influencing the Star Wars films by their creator George Lucas.

 
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Tempest (1611)
Star Trek
(Original TV Series 1966-1969)
Setting
Planet-star Altair-IV in 23rd century Mediterranean Island
On the starship USS Enterprise built by the United Federation of Planets in the 23rd century
Characters
Mad scientist or Archaeologist Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) Magician or Sorcerer Prospero, Deposed and Exiled  
Daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) Miranda  
Space-robot Robby Ethereal and loyal sprite Ariel  
  The Krell The Sycorax  
Space Explorers Shipwrecked crew of aristocratic Milanese dignitaries  
Id Monster from the Subconscious Mutinous native Caliban  
  Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen)   Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner)
  Lieutenant ‘Doc’ Ostrow (Warren Stevens)   Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy)
  Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly)   Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley)

This film was the first sci-fi film of the prestigious MGM studios since The Mysterious Island (1929). Although the studio-bound film, exhibited in widescreen CinemaScope and Technicolor, was originally to be a cheaply-made B-film, the ambitious effort quickly ballooned its budget up to almost $2 million - an unprecedented amount for a science-fiction film. The massive sets, cyclorama matte-paintings, construction of the robot, other intricate props, rear-projection, hand-drawn cel animation (of the night attack of the ID monster) and its electronic score added to the cost. Critics and audiences loved the film at the time, but it was only a modest financial success, and barely managed to break even.

Its Oscar nomination for Special Effects was due to its amazing miniatures (e.g., the flying saucer), innovative set and art decoration (with soundstage scenic paintings), and matte backdrops to create the alien environment of Altair IV. It was unusual for a film to have a non-traditional musical score - this one featured eerie, other-worldly, alien-sounding "Electronic Tonalities" for the main soundtrack (and for sound effects!) created by experimental beatnik musicians Bebe and Louis Barron.

There have been no feature-length movie remakes of the original film, but the closest approximation was the jukebox musical Return to the Forbidden Planet (1989) on stage, featuring numerous 50's rock songs. This film was obviously influenced by George Stevens' classic western Shane (1953), and in turn influenced Logan (2017), a spin-off the the X-Men series.

The Story


The Title Credits:

The film opened with a flying saucer journeying through a dark starry sky, underscored by an electronic music soundtrack. The title screen began as a pinpoint and fanned out with yellow trails stretching upwards to present the words "FORBIDDEN PLANET" in bright red. Cast and crew credits were presented with bright yellow curved lettering. Even the robot character was given its own screen: "And introducing, ROBBY, THE ROBOT." The off-screen narrator (Les Tremayne) set the scene - beginning with the predictive statement that mankind did not reach the moon until the end of the 21st century:

In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 A.D., they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyperdrive 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. United Planets Cruiser C-57D, now more than a year out from Earth base on a special mission to the planetary system of the great main-sequence star Altair.

Some time in the 23rd century, an all-male crew of about 20 young, uniformed explorers-scientists was on board a United Planets Cruiser C-57D, sent by the government from its Earth base on a year-long mission, via hyperdrive propulsion, to the exoplanet of Altair-IV, 16 light-years from Earth. It was estimated that the journey had traveled roughly 100 trillion miles across interstellar space.

Mission to Altair - The Flying Saucer's Arrival:

A dissolve from the title screens entered into the flying saucer's interior where Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his Astro-gator Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) were monitoring controls as they prepared to decelerate from light-speed within about three minutes. The crew members were alerted to take their D.C. positions. The astronauts stood under a green light-beam in their individual stasis chambers to protect themselves, as the lights in the control room alternated to purple, dark blue, green, and red. They successfully decelerated down to 0.386 of light-speed (or 2.6 million mph), and a view-screen showed that they were closely approaching toward the planet of Altair. The saucer flew past the main planet Altair-I's brilliant eclipse (with a bright corona) as it headed toward the fourth planet, Altair-IV. Adams briefed the crew on the reason for their mission - they were to learn the fate of a "prospecting" expedition aboard the star vessel Bellerophon 20 years in the past, that had mysteriously disappeared:

As you recollect from your briefing lectures, this is an Earth-type planet. Twenty years ago the spacecraft Bellerophon landed here with a prospecting party of scientists. Our mission is to search for survivors.

Lt. "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) marveled at the sight of Altair IV: "The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds." As the flying saucer approached, changed flux, and dove down toward Altair-IV, the white apron-wearing Cook (Earl Holliman) groused:

Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors. Nothin'. Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans.

Commander Adams prepared the crew for the final approach and landing: "We are now entering the atmosphere of Altair-IV. No survival suits will be required upon landing. Oxygen content, 4.7, richer than Earth standard. Gravity only 0.897. Adjust your equipment accordingly." As they neared the surface of the Earth-like planet in order to land, no short-range radio signals were detected. The navigator Lt. Farman described the desolate planet with no signs of life: "There are no cities, ports, roads, bridges, dams. There's just no sign of civilization at all." Suddenly, they found that their starship was being scanned by a powerful radar beam that oriiginated from an area of about 20 miles square on the planet. Some of the crew were advised to take their combat stations and prepare their blasters by activating their scopes.

And then a human voice was heard on a radio signal asking: "Spaceship, identify yourself. You're being tracked." The voice identified itself as Dr. Edward Morbius of the doomed Bellerophon - the colonizing expedition's philologist (later described as "an expert in words and languages, their origins and meanings"), who stubbornly but vaguely warned that the ship must not land, because no rescue or other assistance was required:

What do you wish here, cruiser?...absolutely no assistance of any sort is required....Let me repeat. I'm in no sort of difficulty here. Your best procedure will be to turn back at once without landing....If you set down on this planet, I warn you that I cannot be answerable for the safety of your ship or your crew.

When Commander Adams explained the rescue mission - but was rebuffed, he ignored Dr. Morbius' warning and demanded landing coordinates. Morbius reluctantly provided directions to a landing area in the planet's desert for the flying saucer. Commander Adams urged his crew to be vigilant upon landing with "standard class-A security" - all hands were ordered to wear fire-arms.

The landing sequence was awe-inspiring - the flying saucer approached its open landing space in the pastel-colored desert (with some rugged outcroppings and jagged peaks) against a greenish sky, with two moons (or other Altair planets) within view. A bluish force-field gently brought the saucer down to the planet's surface, and two sets of stairs descended from its interior. After determining that it was safe to disembark, the crew walked down to the surface, and soon noticed a whirling dust-cloud approaching.

Delivery by Robby the Robot to Dr. Morbius' Home:

They were met by a fast-moving Jeep-like vehicle driven by a large bi-pedal robot, about 7 and a half feet tall. The robot had a cone-shaped, clear-domed and jukebox-like head (with twirling lights and rotating motorized antenna ears), a lighted chest panel, gripping hands (with thumb and two fingers), bulbous segmented legs, and a pot-belly stove-shaped body. The highly-articulate, language-fluent robot bowed and welcomed the crew in English:

Welcome to Altair-IV, gentlemen. I am to transport you to the residence. If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.

The very charming and polite robot introduced himself by the name of Robby (Frankie Darro as actor, voice by Marvin Miller): "For your convenience, I am monitored to respond to the name Robby." When Adams mentioned the planet's high oxygen content ("Nice climate you have here. High oxygen content"), Robby replied with a sense of humor: "I rarely use it myself, sir. It promotes rust." Robby also clarified after a question from the Cook about his gender: "In my case, sir, the question is totally without meaning." Adams ordered Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson) to take charge of the ship, while he and two of his fellow officers ("Doc" and Farman) were transported to the home of Dr. Morbius - chauffeured by Robby.

The Introduction of Dr. Morbius and Robby:

The three crew members were immediately but stiffly greeted at the front door of Morbius' ultra-modern home: "I am Morbius." The scholarly reclusive, goateed philologist Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), was basically unwelcoming to the group, but was also cordial and invited them to lunch:

How ironic that a simple scholar with no ambition beyond a modest measure of seclusion should, out of a clear sky find himself besieged by an army of fellow creatures all grimly determined to be of service to him....You must stay for lunch, gentlemen. And do forgive the ill manners of an old recluse.

They found that the anthropomorphic Robby served multiple purposes. Domesticated as a cook, he had prepared their lunch meal (composed of synthesized food) using his built-in matter replicator that had been described by Morbius:

Morbius: Simply some of Robby's synthetics... Even manufactures the raw materials....One introduces a sample of human food through this aperture. Down here, there's a small built-in chemical laboratory where he analyzes it. Later, he can reproduce identical molecules in - in any shape or quantity.
Commander Adams: Why, it's a housewife's dream.
Morbius: Plus absolute, selfless obedience.

He also showed off Robby's ability to clean up or dispose of any material with a 'household disintegrator beam' - the robot was commanded to zap an apple thrown into the air in front of him ("Activate the disposal unit"). Morbius convinced the space-men that Robby was non-menacing and safe, but was still incredibly strong: "Don't attribute feelings to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool. Tremendously strong, of course. He could quite easily topple this house off its foundation." "Doc" hypothetically asked whether Robby - "in the wrong hands" - might become "a deadly weapon." Morbius (referring to himself as a possible 'mad scientist') assured them that Robby had a fail-safe mechanism against human murder and was utterly obedient and loyal to him:

No, Doctor, not even though I were the mad scientist of the tape thrillers because, you see, there happens to be a built-in safety factor.

He borrowed Commander Adams' side-arm blaster-gun and ordered Robby to dutifully obey his order to shoot an Althaea frutex (fruit tree) out on the terrace. However, when Morbius ordered Robby to point the blaster at Adams and "aim right between the eyes. Fire!", the robot turned powerless and helpless, short-circuited and froze. [Note: This was one of the tenets of Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics" to never kill a human.] Morbius explained how Robby was harmless and would never kill a rational being, but so obedient that he had to be released from the 'kill' order by another specific directive.

Locked in a sub-electronic dilemma between my direct orders and his basic inhibitions against harming rational beings. Cancel! If I were to allow that to continue, he would blow every circuit in his body.

Morbius explained Robby's origins - he had constructed the Robby "mechanism" or "toy" by tinkering around: "I tinkered him together during my first months up here." The astronauts were amazed by the robot: "This robot of yours is beyond the combined resources of all Earth's physical science." With a bit of "parlor magic," Morbius activated steel shutters that Robby had protectively erected around the house, but explained how he realized later that they were unnecessary: "I had Robby install the steel shutters before I realized how altogether safe I am here." Morbius finished up their luncheon meeting by reiterating that he was living a carefree existence and had no need for the crew's rescue or assistance:

You've seen how comfortable I am here, no hardships, no special difficulties, and, uh, no need at all for military assistance.

The Fate of the Bellerophon Expedition:

Commander Adams was still curious about the fate of the other Bellerophon research expedition members. He was astonished when told that every one of the others was violently killed in the first year by some dark, ambiguous, unknown and mysterious "planetary force" [Note: A foreshadowing of 'The FORCE' in the Star Wars saga]:

Others? But there are no others, Commander. Before the first year was out, they had all, every man and woman, succumbed to a - to a sort of a planetary force here. Some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force. Only my wife and I were immune....My wife and I differed from the others only in our special love for this new world. In our boundless longing to make a home here far from the scurry and strife of humankind. I remember how when the vote was taken to return to Earth, she and I were utterly heartbroken. How could we have foreseen the extinction of so many co-workers and friends?

The Bellerophon records showed there were no married couples on the journey. Morbius spoke further about his deceased wife, biochemist Julia Marsin, whom he had married during the voyage. Although immune to the Force, she had died shortly after their arrival of natural causes. "My dear wife died a few months after the others. Only in her case it was of natural causes." Morbius described the "unnatural" deaths of nearly everyone else - they were literally torn apart "limb from limb" by a vicious and "devilish thing" or "creature":

Morbius: The symptoms were striking, Commander. One by one, in spite of every safeguard, my co-workers were torn literally limb from limb.
Commander Adams: By what?
Morbius: By some devilish thing that never once showed itself.
Commander Adams: And the Bellerophon?
Morbius: Vaporized as the three remaining survivors tried to take her off.
Commander Adams: And yet in all these 19 years, you personally have never again been bothered by this planetary force?
Morbius: Only in nightmares of those times. And yet, always in my mind, I seem to feel the creature is lurking somewhere close at hand. Sly and irresistible. And only waiting to be reinvoked for murder.

Commander Adams was very suspicious that Morbius was immune to whatever phenomenon or creature brutally slaughtered the rest of his fellow explorers in the expedition (save his wife) almost two decades earlier, and why the returning starship Bellerophon wasn't able to safely depart. It was also unusual that the unknown force had remained dormant for 19 years and had never attacked Morbius.


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