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Forbidden Planet

Entry updated 20 May 2024. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1956). MGM. Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox. Written by Cyril Hume, based on a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Cast includes Anne Francis, Earl Holliman, Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon and Warren Stevens. 98 minutes. Colour.

Although Wilcox was new to sf Cinema – his best-known film was Lassie Come Home (1943) – Forbidden Planet is one of the most attractive movies in the genre. Some of the more interesting resonances of Forbidden Planet stem from its being an updated version of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623). Prospero is Dr Morbius (Pidgeon), an obsessive Scientist living alone in exile on the planet Altair IV with his daughter Altaira (Francis), a virginal Miranda figure. Ariel is a charming metal creature, Robby the Robot, who became so popular – the first Robot star since Metropolis – that another film, The Invisible Boy (1957), was made as a special vehicle for him; here he scrupulously obeys Isaac Asimov's three Laws of Robotics. The film opens with a Spaceship landing to investigate the fate of a colony whose sole survivors are Morbius and Altaira. The crew is menaced by an invisible Caliban, which proves to be a "Monster from the Id", an Energy Being which eventually destroys its unwitting creator, Morbius; Holocaust follows. Altaira is saved.

The plot, mixing the tawdry and the potent, is very sophisticated for the time – astonishingly so for a film originally designed for a B-movie audience, especially in the intimations of incestuous feelings of the father for the daughter, though these hints are in fact very mild. The dialogue is slick and unmemorable. The best sequences involve a tour by Commander Adams (Nielsen) and crew of the still-functioning Underground artefacts – spectacular and mysterious, dwarfing the humans passing among them – of an awesomely powerful vanished race of Forerunners, the Krell, who aeons earlier had been preparing for their Transcendence of corporeal form just as chaos – engendered by the uncontrolled Id now once again gaining sustenance – tore their civilization apart. The visual treatment of Forbidden Planet was unsurpassed until 2001: A Space Odyssey, made twelve years later; any sense of déjà vu audiences might have felt may be explained by the fact that Altaira's garden was shot on the same stage and with the same set used for the Munchkin Village in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The music by Louis Barron and Bebe Barron (see SF Music) was the first entirely electronic score in a commercial film. Despite its flaws, Forbidden Planet remains one of the few masterpieces of sf cinema. Its influence on a successor like the 1966-1969 Star Trek is multiple: including the ship (C57D) being a unit in the United Planets space navy; the specific process of transition from Faster Than Light to Sublight speed as it nears the new planet; the sanserif uniforms worn by the crew; the casual-seeming hierarchy aboard ship; the Matter Transmitter that beams them down; the presence of the captain on the exploration team; the demolition of Red Shirts. It is not unlikely that William Shatner's camp assumption of the 1966-1969 captain role takes off from Leslie Nielsen's difficult-to-maintain po face as Commander Adams.

The novelization, Forbidden Planet (1956), was by W J Stuart (Philip MacDonald). [PN/JC]

see also: Intelligence; Monster Movies; Paranoia; Villains.


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