Throwback Thursday: Dare to Visit the Forbidden Planet

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Continuing our look into space opera films, we’re setting the way-way-back machine to the year 1956 and looking at the first science-fiction film to take place entirely away from Earth. That movie is MGM’s Forbidden Planet. While a modest success at the box office, no one could have predicted that it would go on to achieve pop-culture status and be entered into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Lobby poster for Forbidden Planet.

Original lobby poster for Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet follows the Earth crew of a saucer-shaped starship (say that five times fast) sent to a distant planet, Altair IV, to find out what happened to a lost expedition. On landing, Commander John Adams (played by a young Leslie Nielsen) and his landing crew find out that the entire expedition was lost except for Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). The crew of the ship start to experience the same problems that the original expedition did, and it’s up to Adams to figure things out and save the girl (because of course he has to).

I will say right off the bat that the role of Altaira is strictly to look good and provide a damsel in distress. Anne Francis plays the role well for how it is written, and she gets a new costume almost every scene she’s in. If you’re looking for a strong female character, this is not going to be a film for you. In fact, she actually gets chastised by Adams for dressing skimpy and leading on his all-male crew. It’s not even a little victim blaming, it’s a lot victim blaming, but please take into account that this film was made in 1956 and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Adams and Altaira talking.

A girl has to learn how to kiss sometime, right? (Awkward . . .)

What works in this film is that the crew plays the fact they’ve been trapped in a flying tin can for awhile. There’s a certain underlying camaraderie that feels real, with just the right amount of tension. There is a short subplot where Cook (Earl Holliman) convinces Morbius’s robot, Robby, to help him make moonshine. The downside is that the moonshine is created to elicit no hangover the next day, which causes a bit of consternation on Cook’s part because he likes to take the bad with the good. All in all, though, this is a film that rests on the backs of Pidgeon and Nielsen and ends up being a great showcase for them to play standard protagonist/antagonist roles in a sci-fi film. The term that best comes to mind is “earnest.” It was an acting style of the time, but it’s so refreshing to see when so many modern films rely on sarcasm and ambivalence in their characters.

Dr. Morbius, Altaira, and Adams in front of Robby the Robot.

Robby can even drive a car. Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis don’t want to get in, though.

The special effects are top notch and cutting edge for the time. The matte paintings that make the backgrounds look like a foreign planet and are absolutely gorgeous, and when the team embarks into the tunnels of the planet, the sets have a sufficiently gargantuan scope. There’s one scene where the power levels of the alien technology are being used up, and it’s just in the background for the audience to watch while the foreground has all of the exposition and action. A very well-balanced shot and moment. The animators also do a great job of showing that the crew uses a forcefield around their ship, along with lasers to fend off a creature terrorizing them. Between all those things and the down-to-earth Robby the Robot, it’s a science-fiction fan’s delight. Robby the Robot was so popular that he was used in another film, The Invisible Boy, the next year (along with quite a few TV appearances). The director, Fred Wilcox, does a fantastic job building up the tension in regards to Robby and how he will interact with the crew. Also adding to the ambience is the electronic score. The first film to do so, it provides a deeply unsettling mood that has been co-opted in so many films and TV shows since. When listening to a John Carpenter score, you can definitely hear the building blocks of what he would do. A debt of gratitude goes out to Bebe and Louis Barron, who took this chance with the film. It definitely succeeds.

Matte painting of Altair IV.

A matte painting of Altair IV with the crew’s spaceship getting ready to land.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because there are a few twists and turns for new viewers, but this is a film that should be on your watch list if you are a science-fiction fan and haven’t seen it yet. Aspects of the film have become so ingrained in popular culture that in 1990 there was even a stage musical made, loosely based on the original plot. It gives it more of a Shakespearean Tempest bent, and sprinkling with vintage ’50s rock-and-roll tunes, it’s also a fun diversion if you ever get the chance to see it on stage.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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