Forbidden Planet

Synopsis: A dutiful robot named Robby speaks 188 languages. An underground lair offers evidence of an advanced civilization. But among Altair-4’s many wonders, none is greater or more deadly than the human mind. Forbidden Planet is the granddaddy of tomorrow, a pioneering work whose ideas and style would be reverse-engineered into many cinematic space voyages to come. Leslie Nielsen plays the commander who brings his spacecruiser crew to the green-skied world that’s home to Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter (Anne Francis)…and to a mysterious terror. Featuring sets of extraordinary scale and the first all-electronic musical soundscape in film history, Forbidden Planet is in a movie orbit all its own.

Forbidden Planet 7.0

eyelights: the Star Trek connection(s). Robby the Robot. the special effects.
eyesores: the ear-chaffing soundtrack. the tired gender roles. the whole dénouement. the special effects (bis).

Commander John J. Adams: “Dr. Morbius, just what were the symptoms of all those other deaths, the unnatural ones I mean.”
Dr. Edward Morbius: “The symptoms were striking Commander. One by one in spite of every safeguard my co-workers were torn literally limb from limb.”

The crew of an interplanetary spacecraft arrives at its destination after a long voyage from Earth. Its contingent, led by Commander John J. Adams (played confidently and soberly by Leslie Nielsen) finds the planet almost deserted, after receiving a warning from one of the scientists that they should stay away. This is when they discover that, although they were sent on a simple relief mission, inexplicable wonders and dangers await them.

If there’s anything that I take away from ‘Forbidden Planet’, it’s that it was the precursor for ‘Star Trek’. Not officially, evidently, but it is said that Gene Roddenbery was inspired by ‘Forbidden Planet’ in creating his pop cultural juggernaut. Honestly, I had no idea of this before sitting down to watch the movie – this is something I read after the fact. But the tell-tail traces are everywhere:

-there’s the adventure itself, which mostly takes place on a planet with Earth-like qualities, thereby ensuring that the humans can walk around in their regular uniforms. It’s a long, drawn-out affair that could easily have been resolved in 30 minutes of 2010 Hollywood time. Personally, I like this pace, perhaps because of its ‘Star Trek’ vibe.

-the adventure revolves around a mystery, and it must (of course!) be resolved by the ship’s skipper – even though he is surrounded by much smarter people than he.

-the ship is called the United Planets Cruiser C57-D – not to be confused with the United Space Ship NCC-1701.

-the ship instruments have similarities, including a device that resembles the Enterprise’s own transporters – although I was unclear as to what their device did. This is the first bit that clued me in to the Trek commonalities and I was on the lookout for more from that point onward.

-the uniforms aren’t an inspiration for the television show, per se, but you can find similarities between Lesley Nielsen’s open-collared outfit and the ones the Enterprise crew wore in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. I couldn’t help but see James T. Kirk in John J. Adams’ stead.

-oh yeah… both skippers have “monosyllabic” names. And initials, too!

-and, of course, the skipper gets the girl. Not only that, but her emotions are awoken by her encounter with him. Kirk did this in every other episode, seems to me.

There’s probably more, but this is the best I can figure without watching the film again and taking notes. I would defy anyone familiar with the original ‘Star Trek’ show to watch ‘Forbidden Planet’ and ignore some of the similarities. At the very least, the tone is similar. You could easily double-bill this with ‘The Cage’ or almost any of the James T. Kirk-driven episodes taking place on an alien planet.

What impressed me the most, next to its Trek-ness, were some of the special effects, courtesy of some of Disney’s crew (I’m guessing that they were the ILM of their day!). They came in and deftly animated some special effects over the film footage to make the Cruiser land on the planet, to give Robby the Robot some fireworks, and to shoot lasers from guns. Some of it was actually quite impressive-looking; it’s amazing what they did with such limited tools.

Having said this, it wasn’t always a success. When it came to creating the effects for the creature, it looked like animation wholesale – at no point did it look like a live alien creature. In fact, it looked like a GIANT animated dog that was slightly mutated for effect. Not good. Truth be told, I’d have to say that the best effects were at the beginning, and that the quality degenerated as the film raced to a finish.

Some of it was no doubt to due to the direction, because a number of details seemed to slip by. For instance, I loved how small the Cruiser was given that it was meant to hold 18 fully grown men for a year. And, presumably, feed them for two. In my estimation, these men would have had no place to sleep – they would have had to stay at their posts the whole time. Details like that take credibility out of a film. And it can be avoided.

There was also the choice of using a wholly-electronic soundtrack. This was 1956, you have to remember, and electronic music was hardly sophisticated. So what we got the whole way through -the WHOLE way through- were a series of bleeps and bloops that unceremoniously dropped in and out of the picture at what seemed like random times. Given that it wasn’t music proper, it was near-impossible to figure out the “musical” choices.

As far as I’m concerned the rest of the issues lay in the screenplay.

For starters, there’s the disgusting machismo and old school gender roles that peppered the male-female dynamics. There’s the obvious, such as the crewmen wanting to bed the only woman on the planet the moment that they lay their eyes on her. The lack of subtlety in their courting was beyond reason, but the girl was also extremely naïve; she didn’t know better. There was also the ridiculousness of having a girl, isolated for all her life, being only concerned with getting new dresses. That sort of thing.

But, having said this, one has to remember that ‘Forbidden Planet’ is, after all, a product of its time.

This leads me to the cheesy romantic subplot, which involves this sheltered girl and the Commander – whom she initially dislikes but grows to love. That is, after another crewman sneaks off with her first, to teach her the basic of physical pleasure. What’s amazing is not only how this love blossoms without reason and without any real heat, but also how the Commander took her from the crewman out of entitlement, based on his rank. WTF? I didn’t know if I should be weirded out or grossed out by that.

Ultimately, though, I was enjoying the film until it decided to wrap the whole thing up with a BS dénouement, involving a “love conquers all” motif and layman psychology. Without spoiling anything, I found that the whole reveal about the monster and the disappearance of the original colonists was complete garbage. It didn’t help that the girl chose the Commander over her own father, in a scene that explained nothing of her logic or motivations. And then it all ended abruptly, as though the filmmakers ran out of ideas. Or budget. Or interest.

Until then, though, I was quite fond of ‘Forbidden Planet’. In fact, I’d say that the first half would be an excellent recommendation to any fan of the original ‘Star Trek’ series, and to the more forgiving fans of the later ones. But, after this, it goes into pseudo science that borders on the derisive. Not enough to completely ruin the picture (obviously, as evidenced by my rating), but enough so as to taint the overall impression that it gives. Still, if it inspired Gene Roddenberry, then it’s most certainly worth seeing; at the very least, one would have to agree that ‘Forbidden Planet’ is culturally significant.

Robby: “Quiet please. I am analyzing.”

Date of viewing: November 19, 2012

2 responses to “Forbidden Planet

  1. Pingback: The Invisible Boy | thecriticaleye·

  2. Pingback: Gremlins | thecriticaleye·

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