by Jay Seaver
You may have heard this before, but sometimes science-fiction stories get become dated after time. Yes, believe it or not, stories that take place in the future are sometime rendered moot by ensuing events, or attitudes seem quaint, and that's just what print is vulnerable to. Film has to deal with futuristic fashions that are laughable mere months later, and are often saddled with special effects and production design that can't hope to match the writer's imagination but are still snickered at years later. To endure, something more basic has to shine through when all the other factors are working against it. "Forbidden Planet" is one that manages the trick.The story is a familiar one - an Earth starship arrives at Altair IV seeking a status report on the colony that had previously been established there, but the only inhabitants they find are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a robot far in advance of contemporary technology (Robby the Robot). Morbius warns the crew to leave, but Captain John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) feels bound to investigate. Eventually, Adams and his crew discover the planet's secrets, but not before an invisible monster begins attacking their ship.
"An A-quality picture all the way."
Certainly, some parts of the film have dated - Spaceship's C57D's all-male crew and analog instrumentation, for instance - but others have become part of the standard lexicon for filmed science fiction. Ten years later, Star Trek would appear to be very much influenced from this film, with its uniform styles, hand-held communicators and a deceleration cocoon visual that looks rather like the later "transporter" effect. And while some of the costuming is amusing - the cook with his apron, Anne Francis's remarkably short dresses - it seldom looks impractical, or designed with no intention but looking futuristic.
And the special effects are remarkably good. Not just for its time period, either; while not quite film, the HD-DVD version I viewed could be potentially unforgiving, and I found myself thinking something looked nice far more often than quaint. The picture uses a broad range of techniques - miniatures, matte paintings, and cel-based animation - and does a good job matching techniques to visuals. When Morbius gives Adams a tour of an gigantic underground facility, there is a real sense of its scale, of it being active, and of it being alien. The monster that becomes partially visible while trying to penetrate the crew's force-field might be considered primitive by today's standards, but even if it doesn't look photorealistic in the way that today's CGI does, the look and technique communicates information through its artifice in a way that attempts to fool the eye might not. Even the small details look good, like the invisible creature leaving footprints, look like some effort has been put into them.
And some are just details that many lesser fifties sci-fi movies would omit, like the retro-rockets that slow the saucer's descent into the atmosphere. Budget reasons would often replace that with an "anti-gravitational deceleration field" (indeed, I'd suggest that the likes of Star Trek has trained us to see such recognizable technology as quaint), but Forbidden Planet leaves it in, along with statements about the planet's gravity and oxygen content in. The futuristic technology is influenced by the space program of the time, so we see vehicles having to be assembled on-site and components being re-purposed. It's a well-thought-out world - a pair of well-thought-out worlds, actually, as the world of Altair IV's original inhabitants, the Krell, seems just as consistent and detailed.
The story is famously influenced by Shakespeare's The Tempest, but that's really only the case in the broadest sense - Morbius is Prospero, learning to use lost magics and technologies, with a daughter who has never encountered men her own age (Altaira/Miranda), with Robby the Robot standing in for Ariel. The last is tenuous, as is describing the monster as Caliban. Fortunately, the three credited writers don't slavishly adhere to that template, instead taking a page from the better works of golden-age science fiction, creating a puzzle that will require both action and brains to solve, and having their characters talk in straightforward, understandable language. Fred Wilcox's direction is similarly uncomplicated; he probably had to keep an eye on technical considerations at all times, but he never seems to treat the film as anything less than a real movie. It's an A-picture all the way.
The cast does a good enough job, too. These days, it's almost difficult to remember that Leslie Nielsen once played the kind of authority figure he has spent decades parodying, but his no-nonsense spaceship captain can be taken seriously without any trouble. Anne Francis lays the naïveté on a bit thick, but she does convey that Altaira has become a relatively normal girl despite an odd upbringing. Walter Pidgeon is by turns intimidating, mysterious, and remorseful. Marvin Miller gives voice to Robby the Robot, and can deliver a funny line without reminding the audience that there's human beings behind the machine. For the most part, the various members of the ship's crew deliver better than the people in similar roles in B movies.That's "Forbidden Planet" in a nutshell: A look at the movie poster or DVD case and glance at the synopsis makes it look like yet another forgettable fifties B movie to be beloved more for its camp value than its actual quality, but actually watching that reveals an adventure film that holds up pretty well. Wilcox and company bothered to sweat the details, and in doing so made something that lasts.
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originally posted: 01/13/07 14:46:49