The 1956 MGM film Forbidden Planet is a watershed moment in American sci-fi film that opened new realms, new ideas, and inspire visionaries for decades to come!
Forbidden Planet is a classic science-fiction film that took all the best elements from what had come before, whether in books, the pulps, or film, and created a grand and epic adventure tale. It created so many new elements for the genre and inspired other creators, proving it was indeed light years ahead of its time!
“Today, man prepares to take his first step outward into space…” that’s how the trailer for Forbidden Planet opens. And while it would still be years before the first manned spaceflight, America was obviously looking forward. The trailer then goes on to show some of the myriad of technology in the film, for the spaceship, to Robby the Robot. It sets up the love story (being sure to show part of the “nude” Anne Francis bathing scene), and promises an exciting adventure film! It almost looks like a version of Star Wars for the 50s!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Forbidden Planet has so much going on in it. Sometime in the 23rd Century, United Planets cruiser C-57-D has just come out of light speed to investigate the missing ship Bellerophon on Altair IV. Commander JJ Adams (Leslie Nielsen) hails the planet and makes contact with Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) the lone survivor of the expedition sent there 20 years ago. Morbius attempts to warn the crew away from the planet, but Adams’ orders are quite clear.
After touching down, Adams, Lt Ostrow (Warren Stevens) the ship’s doctor, and Lt Farman (Jack Kelly) are met by a large anthropomorphic robot that calls itself Robby. It takes them by shuttle to meet Morbius, a philologist, who tells them of the death of the other members of the Bellerophon party by some “planetary force.” He also explains that Robby, while menacing looking, is incapable of harming humans. At that moment Morbius’ daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) enters, having never seen a young man, let alone three. All the men are quite smitten with her. The commander tells Morbius he must contact Earth-base for further instructions and that it will take him a few days.
The next day, Lt Farman leaves the landing area, and finding Altaira, decides to teach her about kissing. Commander Adams, puts a stop to this and becomes irrational agitated with Alta. She tells her father of this later, not understanding that it was jealousy he exhibited. That evening the ship is entered by an unseen force that sabotages the communication equipment. Returning to meet with Morbius later, Adams catches sight of Alta swimming without a bathing suit and averts his gaze. But she continues to come onto him, intrigued by these new feelings in herself. They embrace and kiss.
Adams and Ostrow find a secret underground passage where Morbius is studying the technology of the Krell. He gives them a tour and shows them all the advancements of this once great race, including the “plastic educator,” which runs off the electromagnetic waves of the brain. The Krell machinery is all buried underground, measuring 20 miles on a side, providing untold amounts of energy. Adams pleads with Morbius to bring this knowledge back to Earth, but he states that humanity is not ready yet. That evening, the ship is attacked by the invisible being again, this time slaughtering Quinn.
Adams takes no chances and sets up electronic fencing and laser batteries around the ship. The next evening the invisible creature returns and is caught in the crossfire, but not before it kills three more crewmen, including Farman. In order to get more answers Adams and Ostrow return to Morbius’ house. Ostrow uses the brain enhancer, which ends up killing him, but not before he can provide information to Adams. The Krell in all their advancements to free themselves from their bodies, forgot about the monsters of their own subconscious; their Id. It is Morbius’ Id that killed the crew of the Bellerophon, and that continues to attack the men now.
Adams attempts to warn Morbius of this with Alta’s help, but the Id monster attacks the house. His fear of losing his daughter causes the monster to kill anyone threatening her. The three of them lock themselves in the Krell lab, behind 26 inches of metal. But that cannot stop a creature that can draw on the immense amounts of power in the Krell labs. Finally having convinced Morbius of the real danger, he places himself between the creature and Alta, sacrificing himself. His dying act is to enable a self-destruct mechanism that will destroy the entire planet. Adams takes Alta and his crew and blast off for Earth, as the entirety of Altair IV explodes behind them.
“In times long past this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell….The heights they had reached but then, seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history this all but divine race perished in a single night.” – Edward Morbius
History in the Making
Released in March of 1956, about one month after Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet presented a new depiction of what a science-fiction film could be. Up to this point sci-fi films were more low-brow, relatively simplistic, and looked at by the studios as lower budget films. MGM decided with this film, based on an original story by Irving Block and Allen Adler, to put a considerable budget towards making an A-list sci-fi film. MGM purportedly had a budget of $1.9 million in which to bring this story to the screen, utilizing all the talent that could be had at the time. It was shot in color, and made use of some extraordinary techniques in special effects to create a thrilling story. It was nominated as one of two films that year for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Unfortunately, it lost out to The Ten Commandments.
Many point to the story, comparing it to elements from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but that was only part of its complexity. The screenplay by Cyril Hume also made use of psychological science pioneered by Sigmund Freud as part of the storyline. This sort of complexity in a sci-fi film had never been undertaken before. Forbidden Planet also pioneered many other elements that have become standard fare for science-fiction films, including the use of faster-than-light drives, robots, spaceship, laser guns and “futuristic technology.” This too was the first sci-fi film set in the future, showing that mankind had advanced in their technology to be able to travel through the stars. It also was the first film to spend the entire time on an alien world.
However one of the biggest advancements for the film, and one that was not able to be properly recognized with any sort of award at the time, was the soundtrack. Composers Louis and Bebe Barron created the soundtrack entirely from electronic modalities, which add to the futuristic and outer-space vibe that the film creates. The Academy of Motion Picture Science was unable to classify the soundtracks as “music” or “special effects” at the time, so the Barron’s did not get the accolades that they deserved. While The Day The Earth Stood Still was the first film to use the electronic theremin in its soundtrack, this film’s soundtrack was entirely generated electronically, presaging the works of Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange, TRON), Tangerine Dream (Legend, The Keep) and Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, Scarface).
Forbidden Planet’s strengths lie in its elevation of the Saturday morning serials and sci-fi B-movies to a more prominent place in the history of film. Taking a cue from the pulp-era magazine stories, coupled with an actual budget to create the necessary effects, the film designed an entire world, rich in visual detail as well as entertaining. Its additions to the genre would inspire creators for decades to come.
One of the biggest inspirations apparent is to the television series Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was obviously impressed by this film when creating his 1966 television series about the adventures of the USS Enterprise. The similarities include: a genial captain, who leads his crew on away missions to planets where mysterious circumstances dictate the death of a crew member. The use of indoor sets to depict the outdoor setting of Altair IV gives the film a unique look, which mirrors any number of planets on Star Trek. Add to this the use of military style uniforms, unique to different branches of the crew, a named spaceship and the use of laser-gun style sidearms, and you’ll see the inspiration of any number of futuristic adventure shows and films.
The biggest non-human star of the film is surely Robby the Robot, who was made specifically for this film at great expense. Never before had a non-human entity interacted with the cast of a film in such a funny and likable manner. Robots of course had been around on film, but they were limited to the likes of Maria from Metropolis, or Gort in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Robby had a personality, and was central to some major plot devices, elevating his status as an instant celebrity. His inspiration on the future generation of robots is clear, having inspired HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey), C-3PO (Star Wars), and Robot from the tv-series Lost In Space. In fact, Robby was so popular (or maybe MGM was trying to recoup the costs of such an expensive investment) that he would show up in a number of future films and tv shows, including The Invisible Boy, episodes of The Twilight Zone, Lost In Space, The Man from UNCLE, and even The Addams Family.
A number of assumptions about the future on mankind can be made from this film. For example, the people of the Earth must have learned to get along and forego their warring ways long enough to make contact with other planets, as is made evident by the fact that the spaceship is designated as the “United Planets” ship. Sufficient energy and brainpower must also have gone into making the technology that powers the ship, and it’s faster-than-light drive. Forbidden Planet paints a future that is wondrous and fantastic, as long as you’re a white male.
For while the future appears bright, the film was of course made during the segregation and sexism of the 1950s. There is no representation of any other race, other than white men on the C-57-D, and no female crewmembers. The one female in the film, who can be no older that 20, is used as an object for the male gaze. Her naivete in the ways of the world actually excites members of the crew enough for jealousy to exist between the Captain and Farman. Of course, Anne Francis’ sexuality was used as a marketing element to sell the film to adolescent (and post-adolescent) boys, just as much as the use of spaceships, laser guns and robots. While the sci-fi films of the 50s had conquered a lot in terms of expressing issues about man’s role in the universe and loftier ideals about humanity, it was still mired in many social norms of the time. It would still be several years until sci-fi would see more equality and representation in film.
While the themes above are relegated by omission, the biggest theme presented, overtly, is the unintended consequences of power. As discussed in previous Sci-Fi Saturdays articles, mankind has attempted and struggled with the even-handed use of power. Oftentimes it’s depicted as an individuals use of power to solve a problem for humanity that leads to unintended consequences. But Forbidden Planet goes even further taking the route of pop-psychology, and making the scientist’s unconscious desires into the monster of the film. Morbius’ Id, defined by Freud as the unconscious and instinctually parts of our brains, fears the subjugation and control on his life by others. Thus, after using the Krell technology, which boosted his intellect as well as his Id, a monster from his subconscious escapes to destroy the members of the Bellerophon and later Adams’ crew. This idea, that the monster we fear the most is in fact ourselves, is a truly chilling idea, and quite advanced for a film of this period.
The Science in The Fiction
The scientific advancements made on this film, as stated before, give hope to the audience that the human race was not going to destroy itself in the next few years. The trailer mentions that “man prepares to take his first step outward into space” which was true. The first manned spaceflight would occur five years later by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Vostok I, followed by the United States with the Mercury and Apollo programs, ending with the moon landing in 1969. Forbidden Planet makes the prediction that man would not land on the moon until sometime in the last decade of the 21st Century (2090-2099). Oops!
The movie also presents lots of other advancements in science, some by humans and some by the Krell. None of these are explained in any great detail, lest they lose their “magical” qualities. The audience is exposed to the faster-than-light travel and inner workings of the spacecraft, an autonomous AI in Robby the Robot that can manufacture and synthesize any substance in a matter of hours (used by the cook to generate 60 gallons of Kentucky bourbon) and the advanced brain-powered science of the Krell. It also introduces the concept of Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, with the depiction of Robby short-circuiting when ordered to harm a human. These scientific rules had been a staple of science-fiction literature for over a decade, and would become a science-fiction staple by the 70s.
The Final Frontier
Besides tackling a genre using elements of pulp-fiction and pop-psychology, Forbidden Planet also draws from Greek Myth. The doomed ship that crashes on Altair IV is called the Bellerophon, a slayer of monsters from Greek Mythology, specifically the Chimera. Morbius literally becomes both the Chimera, a hybrid creature assembled from the parts of other animals, and Bellerophon in this film; slaying the crews of the various vessels, and in the end, tackling the monster itself.
Ruminating further on the inspirations of this film, a small line of dialogue about the “D.C. moment” C-57-D is to leave hyperspace may have additionally contributed to the Star Trek mythos. The navigator states that in three minutes, at 1701, the ship will reach its D.C. point (presumably DeCeleration point). That number is probably better known to fans as the registration number for the USS Enterprise, trekking around the galaxy on its 5-year mission. The coincidence seems to good to be true. Additionally, there is evidence that George Lucas may have been inspired by the Krell technology. Even though he was only 11 at the time this film was released, his love for older sci-fi films and serials is well known. The scenes of Morbius showing Adams and Ostrow around the underground Krell machinery look similar to scenes in the Death Star from the original Star Wars. The scale of humans to environment is drastic, and something that the Star Wars films have always tried to portray. If not a direct influence on Lucas, then perhaps they inspired Ralph McQuarrie, George’s visual artist for the original trilogy.
Of the cast, Walter Pidgeon was already a notable film star. He would go on to star in another adventurous sci-fi film in the next decade, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. To fans born after the 1980s, it may seem weird to have Leslie Nielsen as the male romantic lead, but his career up until 1980 had always been playing good looking straight-men. It was only after his comedic role in Airplane, and his time as Lt Frank Drebin in Police Squad and the Naked Gun films, that he created a second career for himself as a deadpan comedian. One final actor of note, is the bit role of Quinn, the technician who is killed by the Id Monster, played by Richard Anderson. Anderson is probably better known for his role of Oscar Goldman in the hit sci-fi television series from the late 70s, The Six-Million Dollar Man.
Forbidden Planet set a very high bar for subsequent science-fiction films to follow. And while it would take more than a decade for Hollywood to come up with a film that elevated the genre even further, they didn’t stop trying. Many fun and entertaining movies would be released in the interim; many which will be coming to your screen on a future Sci-Fi Saturdays article!
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.