Forbidden Planet (1956), Dir. Fred M. Wilcox
Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen and Robby the Robot.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
A theater near me was screening this for one night only with a restored 35mm print. It was the same night as a Lost season finale. I'm weak.
Everyone knows by now that Forbidden Planet is based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest, right? Of course, it's based on the The Tempest in the same way that O Brother, Where Art Thou is based on The Odyssey. Perhaps the proper turn of phrase is "loosely inspired." Let's stick with that. Forbidden Planet is loosely inspired by The Tempest, except that the wizard Prospero is a mad scientist, the spirit slave Ariel is just a regular 'ol slave and the deformed Caliban is now Robby the Robot. Of course, the "ship" is now a spaceship and our heroes crash land on the titular planet because of an experiment gone wrong instead of being shipwrecked due to a magical spell.
After the initial set-up, the film abandons the Shakespeare and aims for the Asimov, but its reach exceeds its grasp. Considering the schlocky nature of most 1950s science fiction films, you've got to give Forbidden Planet credit for trying, even if the science is pretty silly by modern standards. I have to wonder if the film would've been better if they'd ditched the science and treated it as a straightforward space opera, but that would be advocating for the dumbing down of a film. And that would be wrong.
Forget about the wonky science. Forbidden Planet has endured. It's endured because of amazing production design, credible performances from solid actors and the iconic Robby, who went on to have quite a career in the science fiction genre. Scientific ambitions aside, there is not a single self-important bone in Forbidden Planet's briskly paced running time and the whole thing has aged remarkably well. This is the epitome of great sci-fi pulp. A perfect movie for smart kids and their ever-suffering parents.
I could sit here at my computer and open my review with a paragraph delving into the often fascinating psychological concepts on display in Forbidden Planet. I could talk about the charming special effects, the kitschy but compellingly stoic performances and the pure, unadulterated awesome that is Robby the Robot, who actually gets his name in the opening credits, playing "himself." All of them are valid conversation starters.
Instead, let's talk about sex. Because Forbidden Planet is all about sex. Nothing graphic, of course. This is the age of Eisenhower! People were better, cleaner and more decent back then (unless you were a damn dirty Communist).
Forbidden Planet appears to be the story of a spaceship arriving at a distant outpost and encountering a possibly dangerous scientist named Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who's harboring a secret with universal implications. Actually, that's all a ruse to distract you from the real plot: 98 minutes of said scientist accidentally using powerful alien technology to c**kblock his daughter. To say more would be to spoil the plot of this 64 year old movie that everyone except me had already seen, so I'll tread lightly.
When Commander JJ Adams (Leslie Nielsen) lands on the planet (which may or may not be forbidden), his crew has not seen a woman in over a year. Thus, pants get a little tighter all around when they meet Dr. Morbius' daughter Alta (Anne Francis), who was born and raised on the planet and has never seen a man who is not her father. Hijinks ensue as one particularly randy crew member tries to teach her the fine art of kissing and Adams finds himself falling in love with her. Heck, even Robby the Robot gets in on the lovin,' popping up in the middle of one scene to declare "I was giving myself a lube job."
In fact, the first half of Forbidden Planet feels like a loose, slightly farcical romantic sex comedy on an alien planet. There's no real ongoing threat and the film feels like a series of goofy vignettes. Adams is attracted to Alta but she doesn't like him! The wacky cook is running out of booze and Robby the Robot offers to synthesize some for him! And so forth and so on. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It's actually pretty refreshing and fun, but none of if feels "classic."
Then, around the halfway point, things take a serious turn. The ship is sabotaged. A crew member is murdered. Dr. Morbius reveals an underground machine the size of a city, built by a long-dead alien race to...well, let's just say it resulted in the long-deadedness of this long-dead alien race. Contrary to popular belief, Forbidden Planet is absolutely nothing like The Tempest (and the only people who disagree are people who obviously haven't read it), but this twist reveals an alien threat that is truly unique, ambitious and totally original. The sci-fi technology on display may have no grounding in reality, but the concepts that surround it are intelligent and frightening. In my pre-viewing section, I assumed this was a Shakespeare riff reaching for Asimov. It's not quite Asimov, but it's definitely ambitious. Actually, the concept of an alien race that created something powerful enough to wipe themselves out being discovered by an overly curious human scientist reminded me more of HP Lovecraft than anyone else.
But is it a great film? Is it the "epitome of great pulp" as I wagered it would be? The answer is no. Forbidden Planet is too scattershot, its overly goofy and fluffy first half operating in such contrast to the more serious, thrilling second half that the result is almost disastrous. I could have done without the broadly comic cook character. I could have done without the numerous bad jokes. I could have done without the slapstick gags.
I'm not saying this movie needed to be completely serious. Much of the film's charm comes from how it embraces silly 1950s concepts of the future. Surely there is some self-awareness here. This is a movie where the spaceship crews' wages are referred to as "space pay." I have to wonder if they drink "space juice," wear "space raincoats" and are looking for a cure for "space diabetes."
However, if the inherent goofiness of the 1950s science fiction had been in service of a story that took itself completely seriously, I think this would probably be one of my favorite movies of all time. Instead, I have to relegate it to my "Films I Admire But Don't Love" column. There are stretches of this film that are remarkable, a few scenes and performances that are unforgettable and Robby the Robot is the best robot in the history of cinematic robots. He'll kick the butt of that lousy Logan's Run robot any day of the week.
I'll put up with the bizarre concentration on sex because it pays off in a big way when the nature of the "villain" is finally revealed. I'll put up with the cornball romantics because we later get the sequence where Captain Adams and his crew fight for their lives against a threat they can't comprehend in a scene that combines amazing props, an awesome spaceship, beautiful matte paintings, extensive special effects and even animation to create an action scene that's pretty much jaw-dropping, especially for its time.
I'm running hot and cold on Forbidden Planet. There are aspects of it that bored me to tears, but when it works, it WORKS. This is a must-see for fans of the genre and if you're like me and you like men in jumpsuits brandishing rayguns while conversing with robots, you will certainly find much to appreciate.
(Voting returns this week! Which film should I watch next? Depending on whether or not Netflix likes me, the film with the most votes will be the subject of the next column or the column after. Vote in the comments below, shoot me an email or vote on Twitter, where I can be found as @jacobshall.)
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