Forbidden Planet (1956) by Mark R. Leeper (a film retrospective).

I saw that TCM is going to show one of the great and iconic Science Fiction films of all time. As I have never written my comments on this film, it is about time.

Turner Classic Movies has shown the visionary ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956), one of the most imaginative and influential Science Fiction films ever made, but I had never actually made it my pick of the month. I guess that was on the theory that everyone already knew about it. It has been inaccurately claimed to be the first Science Fiction film to ever take place entirely in space.

No scenes of this film take place on Earth or even in our solar system, though the characters are all humans or one of a couple of zoo animals. Well…that is if we disqualify a robot from being a character. Sadly, it does not even hold the distinction of being the first truly space-bound film. That distinction probably goes to ‘Cat Women Of The Moon’ (1953).

‘Forbidden Planet’ is probably the best Science Fiction film of the 1950s. It is the closest to the quality of contemporaneous written Science Fiction, a genuine scientific puzzle with a sophisticated problem solution. Along the way, we really are given all the clues necessary to solve the murder. Visually, the film probably shows the greatest imagination of any 50s film in any genre and, when seen in its widescreen format, much of it still looks very good 65 years later. The beautiful planet-scapes and space-scapes would not be surpassed until ‘Star Wars’. For the pre-digital age, the effects are very impressive and the scenes are all the more impressive in widescreen format.

This is in spite of the fact that what was released was only a rough-cut of the film with what we shall see are plenty of errors. Not that it is so much a tribute to this film, but when Gene Roddenberry was planning the original ‘Star Trek’ series, he pitched it as being ‘’Wagon Train To The Stars’, but what he was really planning was ‘Forbidden Planet: The TV Series’. The film is almost a template for the original ‘Star Trek.’ Bits of the ideas show up throughout Science Fiction to come like bits of the props showed up in ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes.

The characters are a little stereotypical and 1950s-ish in their sensibilities and their morality. Much has been made of the idea that the story was built around the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’. That may be true, but little more than the basic situation and some of the characters are taken from Shakespeare. The murder mystery, which is the main thrust of the plot and the character’s motivations are entirely different from the Shakespeare. For those who have not seen it, the story, in short, deals with a rescue mission to the planet Altair IV.

An expedition to the planet two decades before had disappeared without a sign. From Earth, United Planets Cruiser C-57D captained by Commander Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen) comes to investigate and discovers the sole survivor living on the planet with his daughter. Nearly everyone else from the expedition had been killed under very mysterious circumstances, ripped apart by an unseen force. Only Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his wife survived and died of what we are told were natural causes a year or so later.

In the light of the denouement, one wonders if that is actually true. Morbius’s only company is his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who was born on this planet and Robbie, a fascinating robot who talks but prefixes every speech with the sound of an old-fashioned mechanical adding machine.

Connected with the mystery of what happened to the original expedition is the fact that the planet was at one time millions of years earlier inhabited by a super-scientific civilisation that were called the Krell. One of the points of the story was to show the immense power that the Krell had and, for once, what we see really seems to confirm the fact. The great set-piece of the film is a visit to one of four hundred Krell power shafts. We see four or five levels of what we are told are 7800 levels. So what we are seeing is a tiny fraction of what the film claims the Krell had, but what we do see is dumbfoundingly immense. This is a film that really dwarfs the human and overwhelms the viewer with the magnitude of what is possible.

This is a film with beautiful effects that rely in large part on matte paintings and not models. That approach gave the effects department much more artistic freedom in the images it could create. Mostly the effect was used for planet-scapes and space-scapes, but they are impressive. Then there is Robby, the most famous film robot outside of the ‘Star Wars’ universe. Over the years, the suit became almost a star in itself. The design is incredibly creative, with a flurry of moving parts and flashing neon to make it look more like a mechanical device than a man in a robot suit. Each time the robot speaks, it is prefaced by the noise of a cash register as if it is computing mechanically. The voice is Marvin Miller, a familiar voice often used for narration and dubbing at the time. Those who remember 1950s television may remember him as Michael Anthony in the television series ‘The Millionaire. 

Special mention should be made of the electronic music by Louis and Beebe Barron. It was the first totally electronic score in a feature film and the MGM music department would not even allow it to be called a score. They were somewhat disappointed that there was not more interest in their new musical form, ‘electronic tonalities’. In 1976, Louis Barron decided that there might be a market for the soundtrack on record. He still had LPs, so packed some cases at his own expense. He brought a case to MidAmeriCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, in the hopes that there might be some interest in the record. He told himself that some people might still be interested in the unusual score after 21 years.

After selling in the huckster room for an hour he put in an emergency call home to Beebe saying to ship him the all rest of the cases as quickly as possible. He had no idea the demand that there would be either for the record or for himself. He suddenly found himself to be a celebrity. For years, I remember seeing copies of the record for sale. I believe it is even on CD. I hope the latter-day popularity of the score helped the Barrons in their later years.

Leslie Nielsen plays his role straight, as he would his roles for many years to come. But it is hard to see him in this film without being reminded of his later slapstick comedy roles. Walter Pidgeon is clearly a bit uncomfortable in a role very unlike what he is used to playing. Of course, that quality may be just what Morbius needs. Anne Francis in an ingenue role is somewhat better than many young starlets who have been in similar roles. Les Tremayne who played a general in ‘War Of The Worlds’ narrates three or four sentences at the beginning.

But even so great a film as ‘Forbidden Planet’ has a few flaws and I will talk about them this week. Apparently, MGM wanted to get the film out with as little expense as possible. It already has cost $1.9 million, then the most ever spent to make a Science Fiction film and they did not want to sink much more in. The executives decided on releasing the rough-cut of the film that it did not want to pay for a final editing. As a result, we see many editing problems that really should have been corrected. There are little pieces of conversations that seem either incomplete or totally incoherent. When the cruiser comes out of hyperspace, Cmdr. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) is momentarily angry at Jerry, perhaps for navigating the cruiser so close to a star. But Adams never finishes his sentence and the matter is totally dropped, so we have no confirmation of what it was all about.

In another scene, we can suppose that Dr. Ostrow (Warren Stevens) has started to say something to Adams and stopped himself. But it would seem the scene was cut. All we have left is him telling Adams, ‘nothing important, skipper’. In another scene, Altaira has decided she loves Adams, but there is nothing that makes it obvious when seeing her. Still, Adams tells Ostrow, ‘Something new has been added.’ Ostrow looks at Altaira and somehow knows what Adams means. He comments, ‘That will complicate things.’ He can see love in Altaira somehow, but what he is seeing is invisible to the viewer. It can also be seen by the tiger apparently and he turns on her, though why a tiger should behave differently to her because she was in love is never explained. Adams seems surprised that Alta does not understand, but I have to admit I don’t either.

Much of the dialogue is scientifically absurd, like the implication that lead isotope 217 is lighter than ordinary lead. Some of the science jargon is complete nonsense, with phrases like ‘short-circuit the continuum on a 5 or 6-parsec level’. I might be overruled on this but that sounds like a load of jargon duck tires.

There are signs that even director Fred M. Wilcox did not give the script a close reading. We are told that the energy shaft is twenty miles square. Morbius tells this to Adams pointing horizontally saying, ‘Twenty miles’, and then pointing in the opposite direction repeating, ‘Twenty miles.’ That would make the shaft forty miles across and the characters would already be in the centre. In fact, they probably were in a corner of the shaft and he was supposed to be pointing along two perpendicular edges.

In another scene, Altaira describes a dress in detail for Robby to make. When we see the dress the length is about right, but otherwise, it looks very different from what was described. More possible errors: the credits call Anne Francis ‘Altaira’, but in the film she is almost always called ‘Alta.’ She is introduced with the shorter name, but characters seem to know about the longer one. When the monster is tracked on radar it is as big as a house, when we see it is roughly the size of an elephant.

There are some other visual problems. Even the outdoor sets were clearly shot on soundstages, giving the film a claustrophobic set-bound feel. The outdoor paintings are all too obviously paintings, albeit imaginative, with an inexhaustible supply of nearby moons. The feel is again reminiscent of the early days of ‘Star Trek’. Some of the props are a little strange. The klystron monitor looks like a distiller; blasters look a little too much like dressed-up packing tubes. When we first see Altaira with a tiger, the cat walks in front of a red bush and Altaira follows it. Someone must have sprayed the bush between when the cat was filmed and when Francis was. The bush turns redder in pieces as Francis walks by it. We see the camera move just a little each time a panel is shut around Morbius’ home.

MGM was not able to do themselves all the effects for ‘Forbidden Planet’ and got some technical aid from Disney Studios. The result is that several of the scenes have the unmistakable feel of Disney animation. When we see sparks in Robby’s dome or long arcs of electricity, they look like Disney animation. When walking to the reactor, we see a scene in the power shaft that looks very much like Disney animation. I assume they also did the rays coming out of the blasters, but not very well. The line of the blast remains steady even though the gun is shaking around.

But even with all the ground-breaking approaches in this film, the filmmakers were afraid to make a future without paying their tribute to religion. A special effort is made to show that these future people still believe in God. As Ostrow says, ‘The Lord sure made some beautiful worlds.

This is one of the great Science Fiction films of all time. I give it a full +4 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

October 2021


One thought on “Forbidden Planet (1956) by Mark R. Leeper (a film retrospective).

  • If I had to name just one favourite SF film it would be ‘Forbidden Planet’. It was way ahead of anything up to then; we’d had rockets going to the Moon, or (probably accidentally) to Mars: ‘Destination Moon’, ‘Rocketship XM’…. Then suddenly we’re in a FTL starship coming out of hyperdrive and about to land on a planet of Altair IV (from memory?) You have dealt with the storyline etc., but what impressed me, at the age of 20 when I first saw it, was that there was no music, in the conventional sense, or sound effects (likewise), just ‘electronic toalities’. I had just discovered the theremin, so what more could I ask ?


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