Forbidden Planet (1956 United States)

forbidden_planet_20110730233728What strikes me about this film is that the settings stirs imagination in us about things we subconsciously like to experience. On repeat views I am reminded of its brilliance. Standing apart from other sci-fi films, even contemporary ones, FB evokes cosmic wonder and amazement: an other-worldly sense of adventure and exploration, far removed from Earth.

Well conceived and written, the intelligent script offers suspense, an intriguing plot, compelling characters, and humour. A human crew investigates a planet of the star Altair. They find the place presided over by the wise Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a scientist who seeks to understand the technological wonders of the Krell; the planet’s long-vanished civilization that built up a huge base of scientific knowledge far superior to that of humans.

Dr. Morbius lives here alone, except for his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and the wacky, funny Robby the Robot. His amusing character adds the comedy to this tragic space opera.

Without Robby’s fantastic resourcefulness and astounding ingenuity, none of the inferior humans would have ever been able to survive for five minutes on the uninhabitable terrain. A space crew’s latest mission to this barren yet wondrous planet brings the elder scientist, and his daughter under outside scrutiny. The captain of the starship, John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his officers set out to find out why the two have survived all this time while the rest of the original expedition died violently from some malignant presence. So, when the crew of the starship begins to die in the same manner (being torn apart, limb from limb), the captain naturally begins to suspect the erratic doctor. Walter Pidgeon is backed into a corner, but he does hit back at his interrogators with many lines of smooth, sanctimonious dialogue.

Dr Morbius and Altaira represent Prospero and his daughter Miranda in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”. And The Krell’s technology functions exactly like Prospero’s magic. Indeed, one of the film’s themes is that any super-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If the script is terrific, the visuals and sound effects may be even better.

The whole look is that of an alien world, a moonscape appearance, and the unique underground ventilator shafts created by the Krell. Then there is the electronic “tonalities”; eerie sounds enhancing the visuals, plus all those subtle echoes. Unlike so many current sci-fi films wherein CGI substitutes for a non-existent plot, the special effects enhance an already well-developed plot. (Despite the cast dressed up like they are heading for a golf tournament)

We marvel at the film’s set design, animation effects, and matte paintings, all of which combine to create an artistic look that augments and supports the intellectual script. Similar to “The Tempest” in characters, plot, and theme, and aimed at an intelligent audience, “Forbidden Planet” is one of the three or four best sci-fi films ever made.

It must have been a major inspiration for the later Star Trek TV series.  For all its “futuristic” speculation on mankind’s adventures in outer space in the early 24th century, the attitudes and gender roles are rooted in the Eisenhower era. All in all, I’d say Forbidden Planet is better now than when it came out in 1956. Kitsch doesn’t get any more quaint than here.

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