|Forbidden Planet, 1956. Directed by Fred Wilcox.
Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis.
I suppose that I had to get around to reviewing Forbidden Planet at some point. I mean, I did name my web site after one of its key plot points. The real impetus for reviewing occurred a couple of days ago when I stumbled across an article on the net announcing plans to remake Forbidden Planet. I think it was Howard Hawks (or maybe John Huston) who said that "you should never remake a good movie. Remake bad ones." No one listens to Hawks or Huston these days....In any event, I thought I should take a look at Forbidden Planet and wound up watching The War of The Worlds and It Came from Outer Space, too.
The plot of Forbidden Planet is more or less lifted from Shakespeare's The Tempest, with its mad magician alone on his island. A United Planets space ship has been dispatched to Altair-4 to discover the fate of the starship Bellerophon, which was dispatched to colonize the planet twenty years earlier. They find only two survivors: Dr. Morbius and his daughter, Altaira (as well as their manservant, Robby the Robot). Some "planetary force" killed the rest of the expedition shortly after the discovery of the remains of an alien civilization. The aliens--The Krell--left a laboratory for mind-expansion, a laboratory that Morbius has been using for his own researches. The planetary force reappears when the rescue ship lands and the crew begin to make inquiries. The Krell, it seemed, were wiped out when they let the demons of their own minds--their "Monsters from the Id"--get the better of them. Morbius has the same problem. When he realizes that he himself is responsible for the death and destruction around him, he vows to destroy the planet....
My experience of Forbidden Planet is somewhat colored by my childhood. The only time I was ever able to watch the movie was late late at night on an independent tv station out of Denver in the days before cable television (it never seemed to show up on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings--go figure). Being an independent, without the revenue of a network affiliate, this station crammed their late late shows with tons of commercials and edited into them helter skelter with blank jump cuts at seemingly random points. The prints they showed were invariably washed out and were cropped from widescreen without even the benefit of pan and scan. No film is going to be unharmed by this sort of treatment and Forbidden Planet was harmed more than most. The film's running time stretched from an hour and forty minutes to two and a half hours. The result was a disjointed, attenuated experience that more or less convinced me that Forbidden Planet was a slow movie, even though the flying saucer, Robby the Robot, and the Monster from The Id were all pretty cool. Imagine my surprise when I eventually saw Forbidden Planet in its original widescreen glory on a big screen. Why, it was positively lively. That was probably a decade ago. Until I sat down to watch it for this review, I haven't seen it since.
My immediate reaction to Forbidden Planet upon rewatching it for this review was that it is hopelessly dated. It prophesies a future that couldn't possibly happen based on the intervening ten years, let alone the intervening forty years. It presupposes that the social mores of the late nineteen fifties will endure into the twenty third century, when, of course, they wouldn't endure far into the 1960s. It's kind of fun to watch the film make a big deal out of the fact that Morbius didn't have a wife in the records and its fun to watch it dance around the fact that the film has a crew of men who haven't been around women for a year. Altaira is just about as brainless a sex kitten fifties-era science fiction ever created, a walking, talking stereotype whose actual impact on the movie itself is minimal beyond rooting it firmly in the past and providing Morbius's Prospero with his Miranda (Robby the Robot serves as Ariel, I guess, and the Id Monster is Caliban).
On closer inspection, other aspects of the film are still visionary. Certainly the visual appeal of the film remains intact. The special effects are excellent and still hold up in the post-computer era. Forbidden Planet is impeccably designed and individual frames from the film would not be out of place on the cover of Amazing Stories or Astounding Science Fiction. The Krell laboratory and planetary machineries are still awe-inspiring. The weird Theramin soundtrack (billed as "electronic tonalities," interestingly enough) retains its "alien-ness." And the plot itself, in which a great civilization is laid low by its own baser instincts, still has a certain amount of relevance. There are a lot of remarkably cool touches, too. My favorite of these is the scene where Morbius is sleeping in the Krell laboratory and all of the Krell power indicators are flashing at full capacity, but the walking tour of the remnants of the Krell civilization is a close second.
The slipcover of my edition of Forbidden Planet features a blurb from Pauline Kael declaring that Forbidden Planet is the best of the science fiction movies of the fifties. I'm not sure I agree with that (certainly The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The War of The Worlds, The Thing, and It Came From Outer Space all have a claim on that title), but it is surely easy on the eyes. And, unlike most modern science fiction movies, it isn't afraid to engage the brain either...