Immortalised in the opening song of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” – and deservedly so – “Forbidden Planet” is a Sci-Fi milestone which propelled the genre from B-movie cult appeal to A-list mainstream success. As part of Realweegiemidget Reviews & Thoughts All Sorts ‘Now & Then’ Blogathon, I’m taking a look at a time before Leslie Nielsen became known as a bumbling, deadpan comedy genius, back when he was a dashing matinee idol who played a starship captain so adept at this Earth custom called ‘kissing’ that he could give James T Kirk a run for his money. So come with me now on a journey through time and space, as we go back…back to the future!
In the 23rd century, starship C-57D, under the command of John J Adams (Leslie Nielsen), is on a mission to the distant world Altair IV to investigate the fate of the Bellerophon, an exploratory mission sent there twenty years earlier. As they near planet fall, they make contact with the expeditions only survivor, Dr Edward Morbius (Walter Pigeon), only to be warned against landing as their safety cannot be guaranteed. Undeterred, Commander Adams lands his ship and finds himself at the mercy of a seemingly unstoppable force which, two hundred millennia ago, destroyed the Krell civilisation of the planet.
Unexpectedly greenlit by MGM – then Hollywood’s most prestigious studio – “Forbidden Planet” was elevated from creature feature shocker to a big budget motion picture event. The production values are immediately apparent and, even though it’s entirely studio bound, the matte paintings, sets and scenery are so lush and verdant that they sell the illusion of a boundless alien world. Of course, it’s impossible from the present day to look back at “Forbidden Planet” and not see its clear influence on its most direct descendent: “Star Trek”. The film could easily pass for a long-lost ‘third’ pilot episode for Gene Rodenberry’s iconic creation and the man himself admitted that the movie was a huge inspiration for the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Given it was a one-shot film, there’s an astonishing attention to detail and rich world-building that gives the movie a real solidity and verisimilitude. Casual dialogue mentioning other ‘high civilisations’ hint at something like the United Federation of Planets and even the possibility of some kind of Prime Directive. Clearly, there are men and women engaged in seeking out strange new worlds, new life forms, and new civilisations and the fictional universe of “Forbidden Planet” is larger than the one adventure we get to see.
There are quirky crewmembers too, and Nielsen ends up with the relatively thankless role of being the square-jawed everyman hero while his cast mates get to play around a little, but in the end it’s his solid dependability that anchors the picture. He delivers a quietly charismatic performance that suggests, had this gone on to become a franchise, he would have really grown into the role of dashing starship commander and history might have turned out very differently. The iconic trinity of this ship’s crew also includes a doctor (Warren Stevens, who would go on to appear in the original “Star Trek” episode “By Any Other Name”) but instead of a science officer, it’s the ship’s cook (Earl Holliman) who makes an impression, delivering an amusing sub-plot and comic relief with his interactions with Robby The Robot, who makes his own ‘debut’ in this film. One of the most expensive props in history at the time (he cost nearly 7% of the entire budget, equivalent to $1million in 2017 money), he’s an instant sci-fi icon, reappearing in everything from “Lost In Space” (where he battled his most famous facsimile) to a cameo in “Gremlins”.
Nielsen’s restrained stoicism is a nice counterpoint to the Shakespearian theatricality of Walter Pigeon’s Morbius, not quite a villain but again laying a template that Trek would come to rely on, again and again, that of a secretive scientist engaged in dangerous experiments on an isolated world. Also, much as Trek would do time and again, the foundations of the plot are drawn from Shakespeare, this time “The Tempest”, with Morbius as Prospero and his daughter, Altaira as Miranda.
It’s not just “Star Trek” which owes a debt to “Forbidden Planet”, it’s a nexus point to which nearly all modern science fiction can trace its ancestry. The ‘Klystron Transmitter’ – an important part of the Krell machinery – is memorable enough to be namechecked in “My Stepmother Is An Alien” some forty years later and this MGM production is as indelibly influential to the genre as the Universal Monster movies were to theirs and as “Star Wars” would be in 1977.
Of course, it’s saddled with some of the social mores of its time, so Anne Francis’ role as Altaira is somewhat underwritten although she has a little bit of fun subverting the naïve ingénue before the plot relegates her to a love interest for the leading man. The film is suffused with gently chauvinistic fifties chivalry and there’s a real Hollywood US Navy feel about the crew, down to the amusingly tipsy cook and the general aw shucks machismo.
Blessed with an ambitiously cerebral plot, sumptuous production values, great special effects – provided by veteran Disney animator Joshua Meador (on loan from Disney) and a deceptively great leading turn from Nielsen, “Forbidden Planet” is a classic which completely deserves its reverence and reputation. It may seem a little quaint and cute by today’s standards, but it still stands up as one of the all-time sci-fi greats.