Forbidden Planet (1956) ****
Forbidden Planet is a top contender for the title of The Ultimate 1950’s Science Fiction Movie. It certainly isn’t the best of the lot (The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers may have a slight edge over it, and War of the Worlds is definitely a superior film), but it encapsulates its era’s take on the genre in a way that no other one movie has managed. It has flying saucers, alien worlds, nuclear power, mad scientists, robots, monsters, super-science, civilization-destroying apocalypses, beautiful girls in really tiny costumes, and square-jawed, two-fisted men of action. It has theremin music, questionable acting, special effects that bite off just a bit more than they can chew, and hundreds and hundreds of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights. It even has a stern but uplifting moral that warns of the perils that lie in wait for a species whose intelligence has outpaced its wisdom. It is, quite simply, The Shit.
As the movie begins, a voiceover fills us in on the history of mankind’s conquest of space (“Early in the 22nd century, men and women in rocketships landed on the moon...”) and gives us the skinny on Planetary Federation Cruiser C-57D. This spacecraft (note that, for once, it’s the humans who are tooling around the galaxy in a flying saucer!), under the command of Captain J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen, from Day of the Animals and The Poseidon Adventure, whose long reign as the Emperor of the Doofi was still some years in the future), has been dispatched to the planet Altair IV to look into the disappearance of the starship Bellerophon and its crew, who attempted to colonize that distant world 20 Earth-years before. This first scene mainly serves to acclimate the audience to Forbidden Planet’s take on the future, and to introduce us to some of the more important characters— Adams, first officer Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly, from Cult of the Cobra and The She Devil), and science officer Lieutenant Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens, of Cyborg 2087 and The Amazing Captain Nemo) in particular.
Before long, though, Cruiser C-57D reaches Altair IV, and Captain Adams is immediately presented with something of a mystery. There is no sign of civilization anywhere on the planet, which would seem to suggest the total failure of the Bellerophon mission, and yet, according to the ship’s sensors, the C-57D is being tracked by some sort of radar-like beam emanating from some 20 square miles of Altair IV’s surface in the middle of an especially inhospitable desert. Soon after the tracking system locks onto the ship, the C-57D is contacted by a human who identifies himself as Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, from The Screaming Woman and The Neptune Disaster). Morbius is not happy to see Captain Adams and his ship, and he insists that his would-be rescuers turn around, go home, and leave him the hell alone. But Adams is equally adamant that his orders require him to land and take stock of the situation on Altair IV, and Morbius grudgingly instructs the captain on where to land his ship. Before he does so, however, Morbius pointedly warns his visitors that he accepts no responsibility for anything that might happen to them.
The mystery only deepens when the ship makes landfall. Morbius sends his robot servant, Robby (who would become something of a minor star himself, appearing in several other movies over the course of the 50’s), to collect Adams, Farman, and Ostrow, and it is immediately apparent to the latter man that Robby represents a technological achievement far in advance of the best that Earth science is capable of. Morbius’s home is equally remarkable. In the middle of a vast, trackless desert, the doctor has created a veritable Garden of Eden, in which he lives alone with Robby and his beautiful 19-year-old daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis, who turned up later in The Satan Bug and Mazes and Monsters). When asked what became of the rest of the Bellerophon crew, Morbius explains that they were all killed within the first few months after landfall by a “planetary force” of unknown nature and origin, to which he, his wife, and their newborn daughter proved strangely, uniquely immune. Whatever it was that seemed to take such pleasure in dismembering the other colonists by night apparently took no notice whatsoever of Morbius and his family, and after the last of the other colonists was killed, they were never bothered by the unexplained horror again. (The subsequent death of Mrs. Morbius was due to purely natural causes.) And because Morbius had always been something of a recluse anyway, he rather likes being one of only two humans living on the entire planet, now that he has Robby to provide for his material comfort and the killer whatsit has gone away. He therefore has no intention of taking his daughter and his robot and hopping aboard Adams’s ship for the return to Earth.
It should be pretty clear where this is going. Because his orders don’t provide for anything like the present situation, Adams needs to contact Earth for new instructions. And because the C-57D doesn’t carry any communications equipment powerful enough to bridge the vast distance, that means Chief Engineer Quinn (Curse of the Faceless Man’s Richard Anderson) will have to temporarily cannibalize most of the gear on the ship— including its main power core— to assemble a makeshift hyperspace radio rig. And that, in turn, means that the C-57D isn’t going anywhere for at least ten days, leaving them vulnerable to attack in the event that whatever killed the Bellerophon crew should come back. And that is exactly what happens on the C-57D’s first night on Altair IV. Even though the ship is surrounded by armed sentries, something sneaks aboard and wrecks a crucial piece of Quinn’s jury-rigged transmitter.
At first, Adams thinks Morbius sent Robby to commit this act of vandalism out of fear that the folks in charge back on Earth would order the captain to bring Morbius home whether he liked it or not. He goes back to the Morbius homestead with Ostrow looking for answers, and gets rather more than he bargained for. In their impatience to question the doctor, Adams and Ostrow let themselves into his study, which proves to be empty despite Robby’s assurances that Morbius was inside. Just then, a secret door in the back wall slides open, and Morbius walks into the room from a curious-looking subterranean corridor. Faced with the fait accompli of the astronauts’ intrusion, Morbius decides to take them downstairs to show them what he’s been doing with his time in the twenty years since the Bellerophon landed.
Practically the entire planet, it turns out, is riddled with tunnels allowing access to a vast machine constructed by the original inhabitants of Altair IV. These creatures, called the Krell, thrived for untold millennia, building a society of such technological and social advancement that it would be the envy of the galaxy, if anyone but Morbius knew about it. But then, without warning, the entire species was destroyed, apparently in the space of a single night some 200,000 Earth-years ago. Morbius accidentally discovered one of their pedagogical laboratories many years ago, and though he nearly died of cerebral shock the first time he tried it, he has since been using a Krell educational machine to expand his mental capacity, allowing him to puzzle out some of the simpler secrets of their nearly miraculous science. As yet, Morbius has little clue what the Krell device that occupies some 8000 cubic miles of the planet’s interior is for, but finding out is the great project to which he has devoted his life on the alien world.
Meanwhile, as Adams and Ostrow are getting their guided tour of the Krell complex, their crewmates are in big trouble. Again, something sneaks aboard the ship, but this time it doesn’t limit its activities to destroying communications equipment. Rather, the invisible monster (and the huge footprints it leaves in the sand around the ship show it to be exactly that) makes its way into Chief Quinn’s quarters, and redecorates them with little bits and pieces of the chief himself. There is, of course, no sign of it when the sentries come to see what all the ruckus is about. When he gets back to the ship, Doc Ostrow has a plaster cast made of one of the footprints, and the results suggest that the situation is much worse than he had even guessed. If the creature’s feet are anything to go by, it must stand about fifteen or twenty feet tall and weigh several tons. More troubling still, those few anatomical details that Ostrow is able to infer from the limited evidence at his disposal point to a creature that simply should not be able to exist, something that has more in common with the implausible mix-and-match monsters of ancient mythology than with any product of natural selection. The ship’s crew is ready for the thing when it comes back the following night, but their extensive preparations avail them next to nothing. The creature backs off after killing only a handful of men (including Lieutenant Farman), but the reasons why are just as mysterious as the beast’s existence in the first place; certainly neither the forcefield perimeter around the ship nor the fission blasters that serve as the C-57D’s main armament made much of an impression on it.
So it’s very interesting that the disappearance of the monster should happen at exactly the moment that Altaira wakes her father up by barging into his study. The girl had been having nightmares, and she was looking for a little parental reassurance. It probably won’t come as any surprise, either, to hear that Altaira’s bad dreams had more than a little in common with what was going on back at Adams’s ship, or that the doctor himself appeared to be in the throes of a nightmare when his daughter came in. Adams, too, has come to the conclusion that there is some kind of connection between Morbius and the monster, and Ostrow is of the opinion that the Krell technology the doctor has been playing with holds the key to the mystery. Again, Adams and Ostrow go to see Morbius, and Ostrow succeeds in sneaking down to the lab to take a crack at the Krell brain-booster. True to Morbius’s warning, the experience proves fatal to Ostrow, but before he dies, he has a chance to tell the captain what he’s learned. The giant machine inside Altair IV was the aliens’ ultimate technological achievement, a thought-materializer so powerful that it turned the entire race into psychokinetics. The idea was that the machine would forever free the Krell from reliance upon other technologies— all they’d have to do from then on was will anything they needed into existence. The Krell forgot one crucial fact, though. Whatever their achievements as a civilization, they still possessed the same subconscious minds as their primitive cave-Krell ancestors, and now those half-bestial under-minds, with all their atavistic ugliness, had access to the same tremendous power as the more refined parts of their personalities. Imagine, if you will, what might happen if every nasty, destructive, mean-spirited impulse you ever had instantly took shape in the real world, if all the bad things you ever wished on the ditz at the cash register, the obnoxious brats at the next table over, or the senile old bozo driving 15 mph below the speed limit in front of you actually and immediately took place. And imagine what would happen if every man, woman, and child in the world suddenly acquired this power without knowing how to control it, or indeed even realizing that they possessed it. In the case of the Krell, what happened was the total destruction of their civilization as unstoppable “monsters from the id” roamed Altair IV destroying everything that aroused the ire of their unwitting creators. And now that same power has fallen into the equally unsuspecting hands of a reclusive semi-misanthrope, and the jealous father of a teenage girl to boot. You can’t get a whole lot more fucked than that, as Adams, Morbius, and Altaira are soon to learn.
You know what I miss most about 50’s sci-fi? Back in those days, authors and filmmakers were willing and able to combine thought-provoking speculation about how humankind and its place in the universe might be affected by rapidly advancing technology with flat-out, kick-ass action. Unfortunately, they don’t make them like that anymore. Since the 60’s, the genre (at least on the movie screen) has undergone a disastrous fission into a Star Wars school and a 2001: A Space Odyssey school, with the ultimate result that just about all the brains have leeched out of it. The problem is that most people find intensely cerebral movies incredibly dull (and though it pains me to say so, I think they’re probably right most of the time). Because $7.50 is an awful lot of money to spend on 90-120 minutes of boredom (and the higher figure is more likely to be the case when it comes to “serious” science fiction), the descendants of 2001 crash and burn at the box office, and thus get made ever more infrequently. Meanwhile, the lowbrow action/adventure school has painted itself into just as deadly a corner. Every time something like The Empire Strikes Back (a fantastic movie for what it is, but frankly not too bright) outperforms something more intellectual on opening weekend, the more deeply ingrained the message “Explosions good, ideas bad” becomes in the minds of studio heads, until finally we end up with crap like Independence Day and Armageddon.
In Forbidden Planet (or in any one of a dozen other films I could name from its era), you get the best of both worlds. A lot of thought went into this vision of the future, even if it does seem a bit giddy at times. Even more thought went into the question of how such a future might change the humans forced to live in it— note especially the characterization of Altaira, who has grown to womanhood completely isolated from human society, but with nearly inconceivable technological marvels constantly at her fingertips. Finally, consider the main theme of the movie, the cautionary example of the Krell, who are nothing if not the reductio ad absurdum of 20-century humanity, attempting to tinker and invent their way out of every difficulty, until they are at last done in by their own ingenuity. And yet Forbidden Planet is never ashamed to go for raw dazzle, sparing no expense to awe the audience (yeah, well you’d have been awed in 1956...) with fast-paced action and what were then state-of-the-art special effects. Every once in a while, a movie like Blade Runner will come along to give me hope that somebody still remembers how to pull this trick off, but for the most part, it is a sadly lost art.