Who here has seen 1956’s Forbidden Planet? While it’s definitely not the first sci-fi flick, this movie’s one of the game-changers and a pretty unusual film for MGM. Even people who don’t usually care for older films should watch this one because it’s chock-full of tried-and-true tropes. The real buffs will no doubt notice more than I’ll mention here, but I’ll try to hit the high points.
It’s the 23rd century, and United Planets starship C-57D is on its way to Altair IV, where a scientist colony has gone missing for years. Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) wants to re-establish contact but isn’t hopeful that anyone survived.
As it happens, though, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is alive and well, but he isn’t too jazzed to hear from his fellow Earthlings; in fact, he tries to discourage them from landing because he can’t vouch for their safety. Adams isn’t put off, though, and presses Morbius for the coordinates, but he suspects something fishy is going on, so everyone packs sidearms.
Altair IV looks fairly normal on landing, except for its purple sky and higher-than-Earth oxygen content, but no sooner have the crew of the C-57D disembarked than a formidable robot answering to the name of Robby rolls up in a landspeeder and asks Adams, ship’s doctor, Ostrow (Warren Stevens), and first mate Farman (Jack Kelly) to come with him. Dr. Morbius is waiting to have lunch with them.
It’s an enlightening time to say the least. Adams and his crewmates find out that Morbius and his wife survived a mysterious pestilence that somehow killed the rest of the colony. Morbius’s wife died later of natural causes. Since then, Morbius has thrown himself into the study of the Krell, the beings who lived on Altair IV and died out two thousand centuries previously, give or take a few hundred years.
Morbius lives the life of Riley. Robby can produce anything on demand, and he even creates his own raw materials. They also learn that Morbius has a young and beauteous daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis) or Alta, as she’s sometimes fondly known. She’s never seen any men (or people) besides her dad, who has given her the option of going to Earth for her own social benefit. Altaira is blithely opposed to the idea, though, because she doesn’t want to leave her dad or her friends. And when she means “friends,” she’s referring to the various wild animals who stroll into her backyard.
If not for the formality of contacting Earth before they leave, the C-57D would be outta there, but these things take time. Morbius, nice guy that he is, offers to help the crew put up a protective barrier around the ship. It doesn’t help, though, because a mysterious, mostly unseen creature breaks through and kills some of the crew members.
Yep. Morbius might say there’s danger on Altair IV, but it’s not that simple. Morbius isn’t just a student of the Krell; more like, he’s gone tribal. And he has some secrets.
Forbidden Planet is very loosely based on The Tempest, but aside from a few basic plot similarities they couldn’t be more different. For one thing, Morbius doesn’t want Adams and his crew landing in the first place, whereas Prospero causes a shipwreck on purpose when a passing vessel happens to be carrying his relatives. I’d say more but things would get too spoiler-y, so we’re not going there.
My favorite aspects of this movie are the special effects and the production design, which were developed by A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and Cedric Gibbons, respectively, both decades-long veterans of MGM. It’s interesting to think about the changes these two men saw over the courses of their careers; everything from silents of all kinds to lavish clouds of fantasy and spectacle to firmly-on-the-ground realistic and pared-down.
According to Gibbons biographer Howard Gunter, production design at MGM during the nineteen-fifties was a boring, predictable affair, so designing Forbidden Planet must have been refreshingly fun. Besides the planetscapes, there’s Morbius’s house, which screams mid-century modern except that most houses don’t have special protective panels that snap into place to keep out wild animals. Well, hurricane shutters exist, but those are a wee bit different. Most houses also don’t have triangle-shaped doorways, either, or for that matter, a giant robot guarding the entrance. Forbidden Planet was one of Gibbons’s last MGM films if not his last; it released on March 15, 1956 and Gibbons would retire a month later due to ill health.
Production design and special effects would have naturally gone hand in hand in Forbidden Planet, and it’s hard to communicate the depth to which these sets go, especially once Adams convinces Morbius to give him a crash course in Krell technology. The vast majority of the set was matte painting, with the tiny group of humans appearing even tinier amidst the cavernous underground Krell power plants. There were numerous minatures, such as the C-57D. There were also bending stairs at a certain crucial moment and a projection of Altaira not unlike R2D2 projecting Princess Leia, among other fun stuff. Gillespie won an Oscar for his work on the film and would stay at MGM a little longer than Gibbons; his last credit at the studio was 1960’s Cimarron.
It’s natural when discussing Forbidden Planet to play Spot the Trope, and it’s hard to know where to start. We’ve got hyperspace and we’ve got what looks funnily like a Starship transporter room except that in the Forbidden Planet world it’s a decompression chamber for coming out of hyperspace. We’ve even got parsecs, only in this case it seems to measure power instead of distance. It’s hard to tell because Adams doesn’t really dwell on it. Speaking of Adams, he’s part of the United Planets. Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?
Also familiar is Robby the Robot, who, apart from starring in Lost In Space a few years later, is also Robby the Replicator, only he can produce way more than food. Seeing as he manufactures his own raw materials, it’s highly likely he’d be able to produce a mean cup of hot Earl Gray if asked.
Something that probably jumps out at John Christopher fans are the triangle-shaped doors, because anyone who has read The City of Gold and Lead can attest, the Tripods needed pointy doors to accommodate their unusual physiologies. Odds are good Christopher was at least a little inspired by Forbidden Planet.
I’ve by no means covered everything that can be gleaned from Forbidden Planet, and like I said, the true buffs will probably be able to spot more than I can, but it’s a must-see film no matter the level of sci-fi geekdom. And seen again, because it’s that good.
A new Shamedown is coming up on Thursday. Thanks for reading, all…
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Gutner, Howard. MGM Style: Cedric Gibbons And the Art of the Golden Age In Hollywood. Lanham, Maryland: Lyons Press, 2019.