Why is it that we remember so few science fiction films today that were made prior to 1968? Certainly Stanley Kubrick's '2001' cast a long shadow that its predecessors (and followers, for that matter) seldom escaped. But was it merely the fact that its arrival at the peak of the international "space race" made plausible the exploration (and entertainment) that we previously dismissed as fantasy? Or did Kubrick's technical verisimilitude allow (or force) us to outgrow the simplistic atomic-age paranoia that often provided subject matter for so many of the entries made in the 1950s and early '60s?
Revered by the likes of 'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry and 'Empire of the Sun' author J.G. Ballard as a thoughtful alternative to the monster movies and pie-tin flying saucer flicks with which it competed, 'Forbidden Planet' was released in 1956 and has grown in stature since then as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. But other than its venerated status among the cream of the sci-fi crop, the question remains: is 'Forbidden Planet' still as entertaining as it is respected?
The Facts: Released in 1956, 'Forbidden Planet' was directed by Fred M. Wilcox and written by Cyril Hume. Inspired by Shakespeare's 'The Tempest,' the film follows a group of space explorers who land on the planet Altair IV, only to discover that its only inhabitants are Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who have inexplicably survived attacks by mysterious, invisible creatures that ravage the barren alien landscape.
'Forbidden Planet' was nominated for one Academy Award, for Best Special Effects, and grossed approximately $3 million against its $1.9 million budget. The film continues to enjoy a 97 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Regardless of the fact that it debuted at the dawn of widescreen cinema, the special effects and cinematography of 'Forbidden Planet' still hold up as some of the most striking, iconic and effective visuals ever depicted in a science-fiction film. The imagery is almost all done via hand-drawn animation, where it's not assembled from camera tricks and matte paintings, and yet it never seems too exaggerated or farfetched to feel either authentic to the universe within the film or simply believable within our own.
As a concept, the idea of a surviving group of human inhabitants surviving on a desolate planet by utilizing the technology of a bygone alien race is fairly brilliant, especially since the film aggressively (and effectively) explores both the technological and ethical implications of that decision. Hume's use of 'The Tempest' as a template for his imaginary universe is also ingenious, as it not only provided deeper dramatic stakes for the story, but it set a precedent for science fiction filmmakers to use and recontextualize existing texts in order to explore their ideas (along with new ones) in a completely new environment.
But ultimately, the great strength of the film is its employment of archetypal human emotions to create a fantastical environment, and to merge the fantastic with the almost painfully intimate to create a tale that works as pure science fiction and resonant character study simultaneously.
What Doesn't Work: As a straightforward piece of entertainment, the movie moves like molasses. Particularly the first half of the film progresses so slowly that it's understandable to want to give up, but in general the movie has a certain kind of narrative momentum that simply feels outdated given the accelerated pacing of modern storytelling. And this isn't merely a matter of being a product of the Michael Bay era of moviemaking; truly, there's a collective sophistication that has evolved in audiences through the evolution of the medium itself which makes movies like this one seem anachronistic, or outdated.
Meanwhile, the plot itself is so remarkably simple in so many ways that it seems sparse in many areas in which it could have been denser and more involving. The invisible creatures that attack the landing party only strike a few times before their true nature is revealed, and other than a couple of money shots, not much happens to escalate the action/ danger. This isn't merely a byproduct of more conservative or restrained creativity in terms of action or gore; rather, it seems to operate on a restrained, but unfortunately too understated scale to create palpable danger, even when things are meant to be most dire.
Finally, and again, as perhaps a direct extension of the era in which the film is made, the gender politics are troubling, albeit thankfully not as problematic as some others from that time. Altaira is essentially passed between the members of the landing party until the captain more or less pulls rank, but during the time in which she becomes "introduced" to men, she basically has no identity except as the object of their affection, and the film's digression into "introducing" her to the ways of love, and men, feels a little bit sleazy, at least by today's standards.
What's The Verdict: 'Forbidden Planet' remains a benchmark science fiction movie and requisite viewing for any fan of the genre, but it does not feel as timeless or purely entertaining as some of the other titles on that list of superlative entries. The special effects, and in particular the way the film is directed is magnificent, revealing new worlds (literally) for the viewer to absorb and explore, and the creation of a hermetic and cohesive universe feels effortless. But the storytelling unfortunately feels as if it comes from the past, and as a result 'Forbidden Planet' is an effective depiction of the future that does not successfully propel science fiction filmmaking into that great untamed unknown at the same time.