Forbidden Planet (1956)


*. According to people who keep track of these things, Forbidden Planet was the first SF film . . . set entirely in space, to feature humans traveling in a spaceship of their own invention, to be shot in colour and CinemaScope, to be produced by a major studio with an A budget, and one of the first to have a robot that is also a character with an individual personality.
*. Of course it wasn’t the first SF film but it set the standard in so many ways for what came after. In the same sort of way John Carpenter’s Halloween wasn’t the first killer’s-point-of-view, dead-teenager slasher film but nevertheless was the seminal classic of the genre. Just in terms of material artefacts, the spaceship and Robby the Robot would be recycled many times as enduring props.
*. How a movie that did not do great box office (some reports even say it lost money) went on to have this kind of impact is the real mystery. We all know why Halloween was imitated so much. But the influence of Forbidden Planet was something different. It made SF mainstream, even if audiences weren’t quite ready yet.
*. High concept meets high art, with a story loosely based on The Tempest. But the acting and script are pure B picture, by which I mean they’re not very good. You get the feeling of a Star Trek episode that’s dragging on for an extra half hour.


*. Some of the business was already predictable, even hoary by 1956: the scientific gibberish in particular, and the laser rifles that look like caulking guns. People still argue over the wisdom of showing the Id monster, and it’s animated appearance. I think for an effects movie like this they had to reveal it at some point, but it didn’t come off as very scary. Then again, Altair-4 is a cartoon planet through and through.


*. The sexual subtext is positively rank, and I’m not sure we can even speak of it as subtext. Dr. Morbius has a fanatical reverse-Electra complex, having killed his wife to possess his daughter. The rest of the men have to make do with . . . well, whatever is at hand. As Commander Adams tries to explain to Alta: “I’m in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days!”
*. Even the machines are horny. Robby says that he has no gender (he says “the question is totally without meaning”), but it’s a zinger when he comes in to tell Altaira (“Alta”) that he’s been busy oiling himself. At least I think it’s a zinger, given how bad the script is I doubt it was intended that way. And then we’re told of how the Krell machines have been at work for millions of years lubricating themselves. Mars, or Altair-4, needs women! Or else lots of hand lotion.


*. What’s funny is, in the face of all this, how extraneous and cold a figure Alta is. She might as well be a sex toy, an animate blow-up doll. It’s a total buzz kill when we’re led to believe she’s skinny-dipping in the pool and then we see her wearing some kind of outfit when she pulls herself out of the water. Did that scene go on too long? Or did they think there’d be censor problems with just being suggestive?
*. The homestead on Altair-4 was actually shot on leftover sets of Munchkin land from The Wizard of Oz. Same thing? In terms of its look, yes, and it’s a look that would continue into Star Trek (Gene Rodenberry admitted being influenced). But it’s more ’50s American consumerist Utopia than Oz: a sort of SF version of Leave It to Beaver. The gardens and sliding doors open on to a world of automated domestic bliss. Robby is a perfect cook and Morbius’s home is immaculate. What does Alta do all day? Swim, read, and design dresses?
*. Of course when you think of Leslie Neilsen now you first think of Lt. Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun (and before that Police Squad!). In fact, Frank Drebin may well be the only role you remember him playing. In 1956 he could still be imagined as a leading man, but you can already see something isn’t right, something’s missing. He doesn’t project any sexuality at all (something that may in fact be his salvation on the planet of the Id monster). Flickers of comic deadpan come through, but the script wasn’t there. He would have to wait a very long time to come into his own.


*. Is it political at all? There seems to be some message about our power having outstripped our moral compass, that we’re still just apes only now we have nuclear weapons. Even the Krell have gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. Dr. Morbius says he isn’t a mad doctor like you see on “the tapes,” but he’s obviously a dictator-in-waiting, king of his “little egomaniac empire.” We’re sure he won’t be satisfied with that for long. The military good guys put him in his place, but aren’t they just more apes? The cook is a raging alcoholic. Farman is a horny dog, to the point of undercutting his commander’s authority by spreading lies about him to Alta. Even Doc Ostrow kills himself in a mad attempt to become a Krell uberman. Thank heavens Robby is in charge at the end! They’ll need him.
*. This is a landmark movie, one that set down genre conventions, styles, and even archetypes for years to come. That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. The script is crap, the acting mechanical (it’s an old joke, but only because it’s true, that Robby is the most lively personality on screen), and the direction never pays off. This could have been quite a suspenseful SF thriller, what with the invisible monster tearing the team apart. But the scene where it sneaks past the guards and on board the spaceship is so ludicrous it defeats suspense. I guess it can adjust its size at will, but why was it sabotaging the ship in the first place if Dr. Morbius wanted them to leave? Or, if mayhem was its intention, why didn’t it just kill everyone? I guess only the Id knows for sure, and it has its own reasons.


13 thoughts on “Forbidden Planet (1956)

    1. Alex Good

      It’s a family film today, but the subtext is there. I just wonder how noticeable it was in 1956.Apparently the first silicone breast prosthesis was created in 1961.

  1. museumcuratora596506782

    As I saw it in the movie theater when it first came out. I was real young but not too young to be thrilled by it. There were so many “firsts” about this film, it’s hard to list them all. But the most important “first” is that movie audiences had never seen anything remotely like it to date. And Dr. Morbid still had the coolest looking, mid century house.

    So to pick the film apart through Millennial’s eyes is absurd. I guess you just had to be there. As an aside, wait until kids, who are born today, start reviewing the film’s of your generation.😝

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Alas, I’m a long way from being a Millenial.

      As for the judgment of the future, I don’t think any of the big Hollywood films today will last even if cinema itself lasts, which I honestly don’t think it will. At least not in anything like the form it has today.


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