FORBIDDEN PLANET: The Lord Sure Makes Some Beautiful Planets

Forbidden Planet (1956) – Directed by Fred M. Wilcox – Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Walter Pidgeon, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, and Robby the Robot.

I love watching movies completely out of context.

FORBIDDEN PLANET was released over a half-century ago and has become such an influential movie that there’s no way to replicate the original viewing experience. That doesn’t bother me. Over the years I’ve become used to my own attitudes changing towards things I liked or disliked as a kid (trending upwards: eggs and Thundarr the Barbarian; trending downwards: ketchup and Superfriends) so while I’ll note and respect FORBIDDEN’s historical importance (the all-electronic score, the use of a robot with a personality, the Oscar-nominated special effects where it lost to The Ten Commandments, the influence on countless other sci-fi stories) as a viewer all that really matters is this: is it, as I sit and watch the DVD on my TV in September of 2010, any good?

Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

FORBIDDEN PLANET does not have a complicated narrative structure. It starts on a spaceship (the “imaginatively” named C-57D) headed for the planet of Altair IV to investigate what happened to the colonizing ship Bellerophon, 20 years earlier. (In mythology, Bellerophon killed the monster, Chimera; in FORBIDDEN PLANET, a monster kills every last member of the Bellerophon but two: Dr. Morbius and his married-en-route wife, who’s dead now, so her name isn’t important.) Captain Leslie Nielsen and two crewmen are taken to the swank house of Dr. Morbius by Robby the Robot, where they meet Morbius and his 19-year old daughter, Altaira (because the Doc thought it would be a good idea to name his daughter after the planet where everyone else died), who’s never seen another human. People start dying from an invisible monster and there’s a whole underground installation created by the Krell race that’s really big and powerful. Captain J.J. Adams gets smoochy with Alta and Morbius is revealed as the man creating the invisible monster from his subconscious. Captain Adams wins, leaves with Alta, Morbius causes planet to explode.

Watching FORBIDDEN PLANET is like watching a story emerge from one of those old Walt Disney films about “the future” or even about Disneyland. One minute some old white dude is explaining the toaster of the future and the next people are getting torn apart by an invisible monster. The pacing of FORBIDDEN is incredibly slow, but where a modern movie would play quick with the set-up to get to the invisible monster tearing people apart, FORBIDDEN is very much like one of those info-films about the future. I love those movies/cartoons/whatevers that take the time to explain The Future to you, and FORBIDDEN does just that.

After the C-57D (seriously, they could name the colonizing ship but not the military vessel?) lands and Captain Adams, Lieutenant Farman, and Doctor Ostrow head to Morbius’ swank LA-styled bachelor pad (it’s like some cross between the homes owned by Mike Brady, Jackie Treehorn, and Jason Robards in Magnolia) and there’s just oodles and oodles of Morbius giving us lectures.

There’s a lecture about the robot, a lecture about what happened to the Bellerophon, another lecture about the robot, a lecture about the Krell’s machinery, a lecture about the power that energizes the Krell machines, and a lecture about the Krell’s underground installation.

There’s very little of actual “showing” in FORBIDDEN, and a whole lot of “telling.” I can only imagine a student turning this story in to an MFA course would be browbeaten in red ink for this literary crime, but FORBIDDEN never gets boring.

I think it stays interesting because, like one of those explanatory shorts about Disneyland, FORBIDDEN keeps taking you deeper and deeper into this world, and since it’s an interesting world, and since every layer revealed is unexpected (at least to the characters in the story), it keeps your attention.

It’s amazing, too, that this film came out in 1956, a full decade ahead of the first Doctor Who broadcast. Different medium and different budgets, of course, but FORBIDDEN PLANET is still a far superior visual feast. That’s not a knock at Doctor Who – it’s just that’s what I’ve been watching, so the comparison is the most readily at hand. (When Doctor Who does their version of this story, 1975’s excellent “Planet of Evil,” they create one of that era’s very best studio set designs, a bright, vibrant, constricted alien world.) You can clearly see and feel the influences FORBIDDEN PLANET must’ve had on numerous sci-fi shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who, Babylon 5The Outer Limits, and numerous others, from the design of the C-57D’s bridge, the crew’s uniforms, the slowly-unfolding mystery, encountering the alien unknown, and on and on.

The mystery really isn’t much of a mystery. From the moment Morbius informs Adams about the fate of the rest of the Bellerophon crew, there’s only one possible suspect – Morbius himself. If there’s a failing with the script it’s that it dismisses anyone else as a suspect fairly quickly. It can’t be Alta because she either wasn’t born, yet, or was just an infant. It could be his dead wife, but then, who’s doing the killing now? It could be the robot, except we learn almost instantly that Robby was built by Morbius after the killings. It could be some unknown monster of the Krell, but they’d still have a connection to Morbius which still marks him as guilty.

Instead of pushing who’s behind the mystery of the killings, the movie focuses instead on the nature of the monster that does the killing (especially since it’s invisible), and a smaller focus is on what happened to the highly-advanced Krell.

The main hero of the film is played, of course, by Leslie Nielsen, and I was more than a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to separate this serious performance from the comedic performances that I’m accustomed to seeing him perform. Turns out it’s not much of a problem at all since he barely resembles (either physically or vocally) his older self. I was concerned that he’d deliver these ultra-serious lines straight that I’m used to hearing played for laughs, but the script doesn’t give him many of those lines and so that wasn’t a problem, either.

It’s not a bad performance at all, but it’s not a perfectly conceived character, either. On the one hand, Adams comes off as a by-the-book pencil pusher, needing permission and direction from his superiors on how to handle the situation on Altair IV, yet on the other, we’re supposed to believe he’s some kind of irresistible sexual swordsman, conquering women all over space.

It’s Lieutenant Farman who takes first crack at seducing Alta, and he logics her into kissing him a few times, but she’s not feeling it. Alta is instead sexually awakened by Adams, who both scolds Farman for attempting the interplanetary hook-up and then chews her out for coming around his all-male crew in revealing clothing and yet gets involved with her anyway. Adams is enough of a gentlemen to not take a peak at her nude body when she gets out of the water after taking a swim, but not enough of a gentlemen to not play kissy face with her immediately afterwards.

Farman is an interesting character; barely able to contain himself from attempting to instantly seduce Alta right in front of her father, he also incredibly clumsy at it. Immediately upon meeting the girl, he offers to get her a cup of coffee and she finds it funny that he’s doing it when they’ve got Robby to do that sort of thing. He spins an awkward double-entendre to her about envying the robot about some things, but not others and she replies with a naive rejection. “I can see that was probably very clever,” she says matter-of-factly, “but I don’t seem to understand it.”

The crew of the C-57D is a rather degenerate lot, reminiscent of the stereotype of the old naval crews. The cook is a drunk and gets Robby to make him 60 gallons of Kentucky bourbon. When they arrive at Altair IV, one of the officers (I think it was Doc Ostrow) says that “the Lord sure makes some beautiful planets,” but when we see the crew’s reaction to it, we get a very different take. “Another of them new worlds,” one of them grumbles in one of the film’s few really classic lines. “No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothing. Nothing to do but throw rocks at tin cans and we gotta bring our own cans.”

I thought we’d get more of this discord, but we don’t. This is a crew that clearly feels the need to cut loose a bit, which could have led to real tension between their desires and the mission (especially since Morbius talks about the “dark forces of the planet”), but nothing is ever really done with it. Robby makes the cook his liquor but then he gets drunk off-screen and nothing more is done with it, except to provide an alibi for Robby.

Still, for all that FORBIDDEN PLANET isn’t, what it is still works. It’s a standard rescue-mission-turned-suspense plot but it manages to pull it off effectively. The sets and scenery are gorgeous, whether it’s the alien sky, the invisible monster (seen in electric outlines), or the underground installation, and while none of the characters are particularly memorable, they are interesting enough for what the story needs.

That the monster is a projection from Morbius’ mind isn’t much of a surprise but the final sequence between Adams and Morbius, with the monster slamming at the outside walls and Altaira caught in the middle, is effectively executed.

The movie totally resonates “1950s science fiction movie,” too. I don’t even know what I mean by that, exactly, except that when I was watching it, it seemed to be exactly what I wanted it to be. Heck, look at that spaceship – making an Earth spaceship look like a flying saucer … how much more awesome could you get?

Good film, even if the poster is a total lie. Robby never carries any scantily-clad beauty anywhere.

I’m not going to hold that against the film, though.

And on the subject of Robby …

Did you know you can buy a life-size Robby the Robot? Yeah, it’ll only set you back $49,999.95. What’s awesome is that they don’t charge you $50,000.00, but $49,999.95.

Because that five saved cents probably sells them another 499 units every year.