Recently screened at the Edinburgh Filmhouse in an event arranged by the British Science Association, Geek Chocolate looks back on this beloved film and asks how does this work from half a century ago stand up to a modern audience, both technically and artistically?
Regarded as a benchmark of the golden age of cinema, Forbidden Planet springs from the decade that science fiction moved to well financed major studio fare, and represented several significant developments – the first time humans had been seen engaged in interstellar flight in a vehicle of their own design, and the first film depicting an attempt to colonise another planet.
Earlier in that decade, producer George Pal had took audiences beyond the atmosphere in the Robert Heinlein written Destination Moon, then brought outer space back to Earth, first in When Worlds Collide, then in the first film adaptation of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Technical innovation and big screen spectacle were the order of the day, and Forbidden Planet raised the game with a lavish production costing $4.9 million, a vast sum for the era, boasting special effects that were nominated for an Academy Award.
Very loosely modelled after Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D have arrived at the planet Altair IV to investigate the fate of the ship despatched their twenty years previously. Warned not to land by Dr Morbius, sole survivor of the Bellerophon expedition, Commander John J Adams insists that he must follow his orders and takes the ship down. Investigating, they find Morbius has discovered the ruins of an advanced civilisation known as the Krell, whose dormant technolgy may still pose a threat to the crew.
In any era, a film will stand or fall on the script, and here is Forbidden Planet’s weakness. The film has great ideas, the artistic ambition and the technical skill to bring them together, but a terrible script that undermines all the other achievements. Dialogue is tiresome and delivered slowly; character development is minimal, and the role of the only woman in the entire film, Morbius’s daughter Altaira, played by Anne Robinson, is embarrassing even by the repressed standards of the 1950’s, playing a character less independent and liberated than that depicted in the Doris Day vehicles of the era.
The cumbersome camera rigs required for Cinemascope necessitated a relatively static framing, reinforced by the requirements of matte shots to have a fixed background; instead of compensating for this by having as much motion in the foreground as possible, director Fred M Wilcox prefers a uniform approach, with all the actors taking a leisurely approach to physical activity and delivery of lines.
Where Forbidden Planet does succeed is in the visuals. The backgrounds and matte shots may not be as dynamic as modern computer generated inserts allow, but they do express the stark beauty of an alien world, their very stillness implying how deserted and unwelcoming that world is. The descent into the Krell city changes the scale of the film, tiny figures dwarfed against great machines conducting powerful energies, unknowable and incomprehensible.
The model work is also notable, the smooth motion of the C57-D through the stars, unblemished by engines, markings or appendages. Although surpassed, the influence of the visuals on later films is undeniable: the approach Altair, eclipsing the sun, was recreated by Ridley Scott as the Nostromo entered orbit of Acheron in Alien, and the final descent was mirrored by George Lucas as the Millenium Falcon arrived at Yavin IV. Another key reference is in the Great Machine of Epsilon III, above which orbits Babylon 5, undeniably influenced by the design of the Krell city.
Another technical innovation was the blending of the various elements – filmed foreground, actors and elaborate sets, painted backdrop, modelwork, and hand animated inserts enhancing the action, in the force field that lowers the C57-D to the desert surface of the planet, or the force field and weaponry the crew use to defend the ship when it is attacked by the invisible monster that haunts the planet. Even seemingly minor details, such as the shadow the C57-D casts on the mountains or the dust blown up by its passage enhance the belief that this is what space travel could actually be like.
Ironically, for all the background achievement, the interfaces with the Krell technology are one of the design failings. While the presence of a blackboard in Morbius’ study can be regarded as an affectation, even in the 23rd century, the clumsy levers and needle dials in the Krell control room break the illusion the other elements work so hard to create, and having the knowledge base of the Krell accessed via a microfiche may once have been cutting edge, but now seems hopelessly dated.
For all that one of the joys of the film is that it is in many ways a serene romance. The Star Wars films, and later Alien and Blade Runner, instilled a “used universe” feel to lend science fiction authenticity, but here the technology and uniforms are pristine, a representation of the supremacy of American innovation and efficiency, the promise of baby boomer suburbia, where a trip to a distant planet, other than the duration, was as easy as loading the family into the station wagon. Filmed ten years before man had set foot on the moon, this was a vision of optimism and possibility.
An aspect of the film that time has changed the perception of is the necessarily chaste relationship between Altaira and Commander Adams. Her comment to him that “You’re the only member of the crew who hasn’t kissed me” was probably intended to indicate his honour, but just makes her look even more of a teasing spaceslut.
Gene Rodenberry acknowledged the debt of Forbidden Planet to the format of Star Trek, but the short decade that passed while the crew of the Enterprise were assembled shifted gender, race and interspecies relations to another world, but a recurring theme in Star Trek was clearly found its source here, the use and abuse of technology, how we allow it to shape us and be controlled by its demands, most often typified by James T Kirk talking a computer to death – a more successful solution than Commander Adams, who abandons the planet to explode in the final scenes. The colour schemes, bridge design and uniforms were also strongly echoed in The Cage, though would have been adapted somewhat before Star Trek finally aired.
But Forbidden Planet is not immune to influences itself. Five years after Bernard Hermann employed a theremin to enhance the score on Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet’s soundtrack was entirely composed of “electronic tonalities.” While space opera would swing back to orchestral suites provided by John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith in the seventies, we are now firmly back in the realm of the synthesiser with Daft Punk’s score forTron Legacy.
The Tempest is not the only literary referent, as Robbie the Robot’s programming obviously includes something of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, dating back to the 1940’s, though it is not clear if he features a positronic brain. One of the most expensive elements in the film, Robbie has continued to make guest appearances in other science fiction films.
There are moments in the film that make no sense; that seem only an excuse to include special effects, the protection shields the crew engage before dropping to sublight, Commander Adams vapourising the tiger (an animal that might be implied to represent Altaira’s virginity, but then again, might not), but how is that different from modern blockbusters? Indeed, while Morbius states the animals were already on the planet, brought there centuries before by the Krell, there is a possibility that they were in fact creations of Morbius’ mind, and that the tiger was defending his daughter, but judging by her disinterest, it is diffcult to tell.
Looking back, Forbidden Planet is not a great science fiction film, but it is great for what it represents: the technical achievement of half a century. Released in 1956, it marks the half way point between the first science fiction film, Georges Méliès’ 1902 shortLe Voyage dans la Lune, now sadly best known as the inspiration for a Smashing Pumpkins music video, and where we are now. That half century gave widescreen, colour, synchonised sound and special effects that would set the standard until the release of 2001 A Space Odyssey almost fifteen years later, and influenced a whole generation of filmakers.
The greater sadness is how we have capped that span, in a year where the major science fiction release was Transformers 3. For every Sunshine or Moon we are given, there are many vacuous blockbusters concerned only with explosions and car chases. Technical innovation may have continued to advance, but Hollywood storytelling has not.
The 50th anniversary edition of Forbidden Planet is available on DVD and Blu-ray