Here’s my latest SPOOKLIGHT column, now up in the HWA February Newsletter, on the 1956 science fiction classic, FORBIDDEN PLANET, featuring Robby the Robot and a pre-comedic Leslie Nielsen.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Being cooped up this winter has put me in the mood to take a trip– to the FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).
Yep, today we’re entering the world of science fiction, a genre which most of the time goes hand in hand with horror.
FORBIDDEN PLANET is one of the more celebrated science fiction films from the 1950s, and it’s certainly one of the more colorful, filled with elaborate sets and eye-popping special effects, the latter of which were nominated for an Academy Award in 1956 but ultimately lost out to Charlton Heston and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).
FORBIDDEN PLANET is also famous for featuring Robby the Robot in his first film role.
It’s the 21st century, and a spaceship under the command of Commander J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) arrives at the planet Altair on a mission to check on a previous expedition which had landed there years before. Once on the planet, Adams and his crew are met by Robby the Robot who greets the space travelers and takes them to his owner, a scientist, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon).
Morbius explains to them that he is the last surviving member of the expedition which had originally landed on the planet, with the exception of Robby the Robot, which he built, and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius also explains that the members of his crew were all murdered by a ferocious creature, which strangely, later disappeared. Hmm, sounds suspicious to me!
It doesn’t ring true to Commander Adams either, and during the course of their stay, his crew is soon attacked by the invisible creature which makes a triumphant return. Adams presses Morbius for more information, and the scientist reveals to Adams his discovery of the remnants of an alien race known as the Krell. By using their machinery, Morbius was able to increase his intellect, which is how he built Robby, and also why he remains there on the planet, to learn as much about the universe as possible using the Krell’s abandoned technology.
This is all well and good, but Adams is most interested in protecting his crew from the unstoppable monster that seems intent on visiting their camp each night and killing as many of them as possible. How does one stop an invisible creature? That’s what Adams has to figure out, or else he and his crew will never be able to leave the FORBIDDEN PLANET.
Even though it’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” FORBIDDEN PLANET has always been for me a visual feast that’s somewhat lacking in the story department. Cyril Hume wrote the screenplay, and while the story itself is adequate, it’s nothing to get excited about. Plus, I find Commander Adams and his crew terribly dull, and Dr. Morbius a thorough bore. Anne Francis as Altaira is very easy on the eyes, and Robby the Robot is probably the most interesting character in the entire film.
It plays like an episode of the original STAR TREK, only less fun since Commander Adams and his friends are nowhere near as entertaining as Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy. Like STAR TREK, the film is cerebral and thought-provoking, but unlike STAR TREK, it fails to instill much emotion.
That being said, FORBIDDEN PLANET clearly influenced 1960s science fiction TV shows like STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE. The visuals used to depict the deceleration booths on the spaceship are reminiscent of the visuals used for the transporter beams on STAR TREK. And the conversations between Robby the Robot and the human characters foreshadow the banter between Dr. Smith and the Robinson Robot on LOST IN SPACE.
The influence of FORBIDDEN PLANET goes beyond 1960s science fiction. When Morbius takes Commander Adams and his men on the tour of the underground Krell world, the visuals— some of the more impressive in the film— bring to mind the interior of the Death Star in STAR WARS (1977). I almost expected to see Obi Wan Kenobi lurking around the corridors.
Sure, the special effects in FORBIDDEN PLANET are dated by today’s standards, but there’s still something incredibly fun and awe-inspiring about Altair, the underground Krell world, and Robby the Robot.
As much as I liked Leslie Nielsen in his later years when he enjoyed his “rebirth” as a comic actor in AIRPLANE (1980), THE NAKED GUN movies, and all the other spoofs he appeared in, his leading man shtick here is pretty wooden. He’s hardly an inspiring commander.
Walter Pidgeon is also sleep-inducing as Morbius. He’s your standard misguided mad scientist that we’ve seen in countless other movies, the genius with good intentions who just can’t seem to see inside himself and realize that his good intentions have gone awry.
Anne Francis fares the best as Altaira. She’s sexy, and her lively yet innocent personality is all the more refreshing because she’s surrounded by a bunch of one-dimensional space explorers. Also in the cast as crew member Chief Quinn, is Richard Anderson who would go on to play Oscar Goldman in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and BIONIC WOMAN TV shows.
FORBIDDEN PLANET was directed by Fred M. Wilcox, most famous for his first hit, LASSIE COME HOME (1943). FORBIDDEN PLANET was his only genre film.
Robby the Robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita, and in addition to appearing in FORBIDDEN PLANET, Robby also appeared in the B-Movie THE INVISIBLE BOY (1957). Robby went on to become one of the most recognizable robots in the history of the movies. He also appeared in the LOST IN SPACE Season 1 Episode “War of the Robots” where he took on the Robinson Robot in one of that show’s more memorable episodes.
There’s also a unique electronic music score by Louis Barron and Bebe Barron which is innovative and futuristic sounding, even if it does get to be annoying after a while.
FORBIDDEN PLANET could certainly have benefitted from a stronger story, more interesting characters, and some human charm. But you can’t go wrong with the imaginative special effects or the real star of this one, Robby the Robot.
If you’re in the mood to visit a strange new world, check out FORBIDDEN PLANET, but be forewarned that a hungry invisible monster with an appetite for humans happens to call the place home.