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Forbidden Planet (1956)


If the goings-on that take place under alien skies on the surface of Altair-4 in 1956’s Forbidden Planet seem familiar, it’s not just because the planet’s name was recycled later for the Star Trek universe, but also because this film was the well-drunk-from by so much cinematic and televisual sci-fi of the following decades. The stalwart explorers, deserted planet, missing planetary explorers, a mysterious evil that may have a less than completely corporeal source; there’s a reason that the film has been called the most influential sci-fi flick until Star Wars (actually more so, since nobody was ever really able to recapture Lucas’ peculiar magic). It’s unfortunate then, that as inspirational as it may have been, Forbidden Planet wasn’t a better film.

Set further in the future than most sci-fi tales, the undistinguished script by Cyril Hume — inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, especially the magician Prospero and his magical spirit agent Ariel — takes place in the 23rd century, when the human race has finally burst the bonds of our solar system and is truly exploring space. A spaceship crew (in an actual flying saucer, a rare thing for humans in films of this sort) is on its way to Altair-4 to find out what happened to the crew of the Bellerophon, which touched down 20 years back and hasn’t been heard from since. A strange voice informs the crew to land only at their own peril, which they do. Not long after landing, the crew — led by a stalwart and spry pre-Airplane Leslie Nielsen — is taken by a friendly and nearly all-powerful robot (as in Robby the Robot, soon to grace the small screen on Lost in Space) to meet that warning voice. Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a mysterious fellow with little use for strangers but in possession of a nubile blonde daughter who takes a shine to the first male strangers she’s ever seen, is the sole survivor of the Bellerophon‘s crew. The others? Killed in brutal fashion by some strange and disembodied alien presence, which may just still be around to threaten the newcomers.

There seems to be little in this film that wasn’t looted later, from the laser stasis field inside the flying saucer that looks exactly like the teleportation beams on Star Trek to the suspiciously fragile-looking rocks on the alien planet, the invisible but deadly evil that’s loaded with all sorts of metaphorical weight, the robot that’s more charismatic than any of the humans, and even the creepy Theremin wails on the soundtrack. One can see especially why the music for Forbidden Planet — so ahead of its time that it’s actually listed in the credits as ‘Electronic Tonalities’ — became so pervasively copied, as the low, throbbing hum provides such an effectively foreboding backdrop to the film’s rather mundane goings-on. The plain truth is that a large measure of Forbidden Planet is extraordinarily dull, consisting mostly of stiff-necked military types standing around and debating how crazy Dr. Morbius is, whether his research into the vast artifacts left behind on the planet by a vanished alien race is of any use, and how they’re going to defend themselves against something that they can’t see.

Constructed with quite a bit more seriousness and class than many of its C-grade followers, Forbidden Planet strives for high seriousness, and occasionally even achieves it, though in a dated ’50s pseudo-intellectual context (witness the man’s dying shout of ‘Monsters! Monsters from the id!’). The strictly formulaic direction and by-the-numbers script, however, leach any true drama or humanity out of the bulk of the film, consigning it in the end to the category of interesting and strangely influential oddity.

Warner Bros.’ 50th anniversary two-disc special edition does Forbidden Planet proud, with a superb remastered and restored widescreen version of the film, and including everything the completist could want, from hours of documentaries to some banal ‘lost’ special effects test footage. For the true fanatic, there’s the Ultimate Collectors Edition, which comes with your very own Robby the Robot action figure.