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Forbidden Planet Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 26, 2006

    Forbidden Planet Review
    When I started the Retrofest over a year ago now, I immediately seized upon covering my absolute favourites from the horror and sci-fi genres, with The Thing From Another World, Them! and Night Of The Demon starting the ball rolling. But that opening salvo was missing one pivotal title that should have been right up there alongside them as the best that vintage fantasy had to offer. Of course that title belonged to the immortal classic Forbidden Planet. But, until now, there simply wasn't a version of the film on disc that was worthy of commenting on - the R1 version being below par in every department. But with its 50th Anniversary looming, it was only a matter of time before the film received the attention it so richly deserved and so, finally, we can welcome director Fred Mcleod Wilcox's seminal space opera into the family of movies whose lasting legacy has proved so groundbreaking, influential and cherished by fans and filmmakers alike.

    “Look at the colour of that sky!”

    “Yeah, but I'll still take blue.”

    It is no secret that the film's original story, by Irving Block and Allen Adler, was a fantastical take on Shakespeare's The Tempest, although the film takes great steps to create its own space-age milieu. With Walter Pidgeon's Dr. Morbius, survivor of a doomed human exploration to the planet Altair-IV assuming the role of the play's Prospero, his daughter Alta (played by Anne Francis) bringing the part of Miranda to virginal, yet spirited life and the celebrated star-in-the-making Robby The Robot encasing the servant sprite Ariel in bubbly metal, the scene is much the same as the Bard's, albeit one that relocates from an island to a far off world in the distant future. When a relief party aboard Leslie Nielsen's awesome spinning-top space cruiser arrive to discover what has happened to the missing research team, events are set in motion that will bring forth sci-fi's answer to the frightening and fantastical Caliban to wreak havoc among the newcomers that threaten the misguided sanctity of Morbius' idyllic domain. But the plot of the film throws in so much more high concept and excitement that the story deviates spectacularly from Shakespeare's fruity prose and journeys far beyond the borders of any sci-fi film seen before it or, for that matter, for a long time afterwards.

    “Prepare your minds for a new scale of scientific values, gentlemen.”

    Having discovered some of the technological wonders of the wise old Krell, the race of beings who lived in harmony centuries before mankind set foot on the planet, Dr. Morbius is exceptionally unwilling to leave, or even to entertain visitors. He fears that the mysterious destructive force that prowls the exotic world, the same force that laid waste to his fellow party of pioneers several years before, will once again be invoked for murder unless the rescuers leave. When Leslie Nielsen's stalwart Commander J. J. Adams quizzes him on those earlier deaths and just how he knows danger and terrible events are encroaching, Morbius is vague and disturbing. “I just seem to feel it,” he replies ambiguously. But with the space cruiser laying crippled in the desert after some unseen aggressor has sabotaged it, and a faintly ridiculous love affair started up with Alta complicating things, the spacemen have no choice but to sit out a few tense days and nights as the same dreaded pattern of circumstances that destroyed the earlier settlers, and the unfortunate race of Krell before them, is played out once again in earnest.

    “Er, this is no offence, but ... you are a robot, aren't you?”

    Combining awe and wonder with suspense and terror, Mcleod directs his genre-busting opus with keen wit and innovation. So many facets of the story have deeper resonances that it is still surprisingly thought-provoking and intensely debateable even today. On one level, the film discusses and explores the dangerous use of technological power - Morbius, in a way playing God, refuses to have his discoveries exposed to mankind in other than small bite-sized portions for fear that they would use the knowledge thoughtlessly and with dire consequences. On another, and infinitely more rewarding and perplexing level, the film chronicles the psychological trauma of suppressed jealousy, rage and hatred, throwing up many sly and unpleasant notions of what may have happened to the once mighty Krell when their final grand scheme for eternal freedom from instrumentation collapsed around them, destroying their civilisation once and for all. Though, quite astutely, these events, and the actual appearance of this highly evolved race are kept hidden from us. What is revealed, and in all its glory, is the fantastical nature of actually living on another world. Very much in vogue with the 50's TV commercials promoting gadgets and new ways of time and labour saving, Morbius treats us to a tour not only of the complex Krell machinery that lives on beneath the ground, but of the household appliances that he has crafted. A disintegrator beam that incinerates rubbish, beamers to summon people from around his palatial residence, blast shields to protect the house and the servant robot, Robby - a clunking, hulking jack-of-all-trades who can run up a dress festooned with star-sapphires one minute and carry several tons of lead the next. Of course, the space cruiser's booze-besotted cook - appropriately called Cookie, and played by Policewoman's Earl Holliman - finds an altogether more salubrious use for him. Taking full advantage of the metal-man's built-in chemical laboratory, he purloins himself gallons and gallons of the hard stuff - for cooking purposes, naturally. That the two strike up a friendship that is frowned upon by authority is a clear precursor to the relationship between Will Robinson and the family robot in the cult TV show Lost In Space.

    “Meanwhile, this ship arranges its own eclipses ...”

    Walter Pidgeon is not an actor that I've liked in anything other than this. But here he exemplifies the dedicated scientific zealot whose humanity has been so utterly warped by is own obsessive quest for knowledge that he simply cannot see the danger that he has, himself, created. His performance is a very curious one though - often emoting as though he really believes he is on stage in a production of The Tempest - emphatic that his visitors should leave the planet as soon as possible, yet strangely keen to exhibit the secrets of his beloved Krell, fiercely protective of his daughter one minute and then playfully cajoling her about the amorous advances she has received from Adams and his predatory pack of cohorts the next. The pride of his discoveries reveals itself when he almost gleefully shows off his newfound intellectual capacities to the relative imbeciles from the space navy. “It's alright,” he baits a dumbfounded Adams who can barely raise the Plastic Educator above the starting position, “a good commander doesn't need brains, just a big loud voice.” To a modern audience there may even be hints of an incestuous desire within Morbius for own daughter, which is actually all the more frightening when you consider the Krell-induced powers he has gained for his subconscious mind. But, after a very long strain of mad doctors and misguided inventors throughout the genre, Pidgeon bestows Morbius with a lot more motivation than many of his predecessors and a superego that is still as credible as it is warped. Freud would have had a field day with this guy and his issues.

    Anne Francis is a delight as the pure and naïve Alta, and I'm not ashamed to say that I had a powerful childhood crush on her because of her portrayal of the often mini-skirted star-child. Alta has never visited Earth having been born on Morbius' beloved world - a theme pinched for Farrah Fawcet's character in the equally robot-mad thriller Saturn 3 - and the arrival of such fine male specimens as Nielsen and his backing duet of first officers, Doc Ostrow and Lt. Farman (Warren Stevens and Jack Kelly respectively) puts her into a spin. But, having lived for years without any interaction with humans, particularly males, other than her father, her confusion over their interest in her is intriguing to witness. Wilcox fudges the romantic scenes though, using them more for a comedic value that cheapens the galaxy-hopping Romeos and lessens their believability as professionals quite considerably. Then again, the coy-but-eminently-suggestive exchanges between her and, first, Jerry Farman - who is incredibly quick on the uptake - and then, rather predictably, Adams are very much in keeping with the romantic comedies of the time, full of innuendo yet steadfastly innocent in presentation. However, there is a nice little moment when Morbius quizzes her about her willingness to stay there on Altair-IV with him and not go back to Earth at the spacemen's request. Check out the expression on his face when he probes her about the rivalries she has caused between the visitors - doesn't he look like old John Carradine as he lecherously appears in The Howling? Even if Alta's little Garden of Eden, filled with tigers and other exotic wildlife that the Krell voyagers had brought back eons ago, seems a little underused and somewhat redundant in the grand scheme of things, it still provides a couple of lush and hypnotic scenes, Wizard Of Oz-style.

    “These gentlemen have expressed a very kindly concern about the amount of liberty you have here.”

    Oh, I'll just bet they have!

    The awesome Leslie Nielsen always seemed strangely miscast as the heroic-yet-idiotic Commander Adams, even before he became the Godfather of spoof and lampoonery. What would become his trademark of deadpan delivery was still apparent even then and, sadly, it seems comically off-target all too often. When things turn nasty and crewmen are being ripped apart, Nielsen still comes over more like Lt. Frank Drebin is in command of the situation. Although he has turned his hand effectively to straight roles throughout his career, in Forbidden Planet he misses the mark constantly with glib remarks, pantomimic ordering, manic head-turns and a lantern-jawed attempt at seriousness that is, frankly, absurd. Yet, this doesn't matter one iota. Part of the film's unique charm is this oddly-behaved Commander, a man whose low IQ is the butt of several jokes and whose attempts at wooing Alta are the surest and most disgraceful examples of pulling rank that I have ever seen - and with a fair bit of time spent with the Royal Marines, I've seen quite a few examples of people pulling rank in order to get the girl. But, without being much of a looker, and despite a rather inept command of authority, Nielsen's hero is a guy I would travel the stars with - a goofball who is never less than likeable and entertaining. His jaw-droppingly daft chat-up lines would become legendary throughout the universe, but his loopiest comment would have to be the totally cringe-worthy “Doc, can you talk some sense into this girl ... I'm in over my head.” It's so agonisingly naff that it simply is a classic.

    With its surprisingly intelligent and elaborate plot, Forbidden Planet creates as much food for thought as it does candy for the eyes. The psychological complexity of Morbius' unravelling subconscious - “Monsters, John! Monster of the Id!” - was a daring concept back in the whirligig fantasies of the audacious fifties, and a somewhat reconciliatory one. After two world wars had propelled ingenuity and depravity into hitherto unknown realms, with scientific advancement so thoroughly corrupted by Man's inherent evil, the world was not only ready to be transported to other, more hopeful destinations but prepared to take stock of the damage it had done to its own home and neighbours. In other words, ready to come to terms with the destructive nature dwelling, irredeemably, within its own dark heart. So, dressed up as a fabulous tale of interplanetary adventure, romance and danger, Cyril Hume's screenplay probed the festering recesses of the unconscious mind. The mighty Krell, however oddly shaped they may have been - check out Morbius' theory on the bizarre geometrical dimensions of their doorways - were studious, industrious and highly philosophical, yet still the, supposedly universal, instincts of base anger, hatred and bigotry lay dormant deep down inside their immensely evolved brains. It may not be a direct parallel to mankind's own destiny of conjoined discovery and death - we seem only to gain knowledge after we have first used it to destroy ourselves, whilst the Krell's obsessive thirst for enhancement merely masked their innate rivalries until it was too late for them to quell - but the message was crystal clear. The seeds of decay are within us and no matter what breakthroughs we make scientifically, spiritually or intellectually, we are predisposed to use them against one another at some point. This was heavy and radical stuff for a colourful space romp and, wisely, the script maintained dialogue that was arch, comical and often highly camp to ensure that there was a balance between the wondrous and mind-boggling statements being made and the wild and exciting fun to be had from such a garish scenario. For every revelation revealed by Morbius there is dumb-dumb line from square-jawed doofus Adams to bring us back down to earth. Just when the technological splendour of Robby - cobbled together by the good Doctor when he had a little spare time - threatens to overwhelm us, Cookie has him manufacture “Genuine Kansas Bourbon ... smooth, too.” And when the intellect-boosting mind games make us jealous of those increasing their brain power, it is immensely refreshing and reassuring to see them make complete nerds of themselves when attempting to chat up the luscious Alta with such lame lines and inept moves that would make a schoolboy wince.

    “Sorry, miss ... I was giving myself an oil job.”

    Of course Robby is the thing that people recall most fondly from the movie. A big, bulbous-headed poster-boy for 50's fantasy, he is like every kid's dream toy come to life. Intricately crafted from knobs, cogs, wheels and giros and adorned with blinking lights, whirring motors and flashing circuitry, he is a colossally cumbersome individual. With his character wonderfully enhanced by the rich and mellifluous voice of Marvin Miller, Robbie's presence is one of strength, dependability and reassurance which obviously flies in the face of the original poster art campaign for the film, which depicted him rampaging across the weird landscape of Altair-IV with a scantily-clad damsel in his metallic clutches.

    “The fool! The meddling idiot ... as if his ape's brain could contain all the secrets of the Krell!”

    Despite being sex-starved space sailors, Nielsen's navvies still have a tendency to be as camp as they come. Those comfy looking shoulder pads and fuzzy-felt uniforms aren't exactly the battle-ready attire of the Colonial Marines in Aliens are they? Designed more to cushion the wearer from an accidental knock on a space-cruiser's bulkhead than to confront the terrors of deep space, this galactic clobber has the emphasis on lounging about, although that material does look a little itchy to me. These intergalactic Brylcreem-boys are supposedly super-competitive, hand-picked specimens of Earth's best males, with an average age of 24.6, yet you would be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't look the wrong side of 30. There is a very cosy sort of camaraderie that exists between these travellers that fits in perfectly with the post-War attitudes that the military was hoping to instil in the good old American public of the times. The playful banter bouncing back and forth between Adams, Doc Ostrow and “space-wolf” Jerry Farman have a farcical texture that would just be plain daft if the menace they would later be placed under was not so tangible. Cookie's buffoonery is pure Operation Petticoat, although Wilcox wisely remembers to keep such asides in check. Nevertheless, there is a wonderful mood created around the parked-up space cruiser, with all the work going on beneath its circular shadow and the many atmospheric scenes depicting the guards on the perimeter. There was a Tom Baker Doctor Who story that tried strenuously to capture the look and feel of Forbidden Planet with regards to Adams and his men, even down to the costumes and the phantom beast picking them off one by one. But perhaps the greatest legacy that these star sailors leave is that here in Forbidden Planet it is the first time that we see human beings as the occupants of an arriving flying saucer. Oh, and before I forget, have a look for the guy called Quinn who has to repair some of the important gadgetry on the ship. He's played by Richard Anderson, who went on to essay Oscar Goldman in TV's The Six Million Dollar Man. You see, even in the early days, he just couldn't help rebuilding things!

    “The symptoms were striking, Commander. One by one, in spite of every safeguard, my co-workers were torn, literally, limb from limb.”

    The monstrous presence lurking outside on the threshold, the frightening manifestation of inner rage let loose, is, of course, a very Lovecraftian device, in essence if not in detail. Spectral red outlines of the beast as it is pummelled with laser blasts ignite truly demonic imagery that, although dated by today's standards, still makes the hairs spike on the back of the neck and the heart pound a little faster. Terrifically atmospheric shots of the creature stalking invisibly onto the spacecraft are so insidious and creepy that the crewman's assertion that he had simply had a dream is not so preposterous an excuse. And the result of the plaster-cast taken from one of its footprints reveals a clawed hoof that is positively alarming. I love the tension built up in the scenes depicting the creature's remorseless passage through the canyon - the excited babble from the radar-man that “It's still coming on!” - and when Robby delivers his matter-of-fact warning to Morbius and Adams that “something big approaches from the southwest”. But the nerve-shredding suspense that accompanies the metal-melting finale is one of science fiction's greatest moments. No matter how cerebral the beast's conception may have been, being torn apart by it is not just a mental state. The sight of Morbius, his over-developed brain throbbing with uncontrollable rage, sitting in torment whilst all the Krell generators blaze away behind him fuelling his subconscious, is deliciously dramatic. The ingenious moment when we realise conclusively just what, or rather who is the monster comes when Robby, himself, is unable to retaliate against it - a very clever payoff to the reciting of Asimov's Laws Of Robotics from much earlier on. The terrifying vision of the super-dense Krell steel doorway melting as the monster claws its remorseless way in, and the operatic confrontation between man and mind during the inevitable last stand are purely fantastic illustrations of how powerful the imagination can be.

    “My poor Krell ... how could they have known ...?”

    But the film contains many more pivotal images that have come to represent science fiction in all the glory of its golden age. Majestic scenes of the Earth cruiser skimming through the cosmos are photographed with almost flawless special effects that portray the passage as smooth and graceful against a retina-transfixing star-field. No other cinematic saucer of the era ever came close to emulating this. The telepathic hologram of Alta that Morbius produces for the pleasure of his visitors - so prescient of a similar shot used by George Lucas for Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. The eerie sight of the graveyard that Morbius built for his murdered comrades straddling a hill against a matte painting that looks as if it has leapt from the front cover of Astounding Tales or Amazing Stories. Laser bolts that resemble anti-aircraft fire tracing into the sky, and the spellbinding moment when a distant cloud of dust becomes the rapidly arriving Robby in a rocket-propelled car are like tinsel wrapped around an exquisitely decorated Christmas tree. But none of this compares to the fabulous visual rendering of the Krell machinery located deep beneath the planet's surface. Like a vast technological hive stretching for hundreds of miles in very direction, the painted and animated backdrops are still an utterly incredible and gobsmacking sight even today. The little tiny humans, like ants, wandering across one of the millions of gantries and the incessant hum and whir of immense circuits continually opening and closing provides an indelible glimpse of the possibilities that sci-fi, great sci-fi, can produce. Up above this awe-inspiring labyrinth the rolling deserts yawn out towards a twin-mooned horizon, the oddly-coloured skies cleaved by jagged mountain ranges that gave their spiky, otherworldly appearance to the evocative covers of thousands of fantasy novels by people such Michael Moorcock and Larry Niven. Only a year before, This Island Earth had strived to create another world for its audience to gasp at, but its accomplishments were profoundly primitive when compared to the advances that Forbidden Planet made.

    And, of course, Robby's filmic career didn't end with Forbidden Planet. So successful was the dome-headed hero with the public that many offers came flooding in for his guest appearances on TV and the big screen. This Anniversary release also contains another starring vehicle for the big guy. The Invisible Boy, shot in black and white and released in 1957, a year after his cinematic debut, was directed by Herman Hoffman and, as with Forbidden Planet, is based on a screenplay by Cyril Hume. Starring the same little kid, Richard Eyer, who played the annoying genie in the otherwise classic The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, this is a pure children's fantasy romp. Primarily a vehicle for Robby, again voiced by Marvin Miller, who also voices the devious supercomputer who runs away with the show and threatens the world in a style that predates the similar Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssy, The Invisible Boy suffers from a painfully slow first half in which the kid's techno-boffin dad largely dismisses his un-mathematically-minded son until the brat, now invisible (in a neat spin on the fact that he has wandered around his dad's lab unwanted and virtually unnoticed all along) falls afoul of the sentient computer's evil-doings. Unsurprisingly, Robby saves the day, but not before we have had some actually quite exciting set-pieces in the second half. Overall, the film isn't too bad and, at least, reveals that Robby had potential for different roles and stories. Well, providing those stories called for smug-voiced, cog-whirring robots, that is. Still, this is a nice addition to the release.

    Housed in a positively huge metal tin, the Ultimate Edition of Forbidden Planet 50th Anniversary is simply a must-have.