Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Archive: Forbidden Planet (1956)

"At times loud and frenzied, literally encircling the viewer with sight, sound, and fury, and at other times subtle and silently unnerving, Forbidden Planet is, on every conceivable level, a work of commercial art."

- Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Citadel Press, 1975, page 78.

To assess the dynamic in purely Generation X-friendly terms, Forbidden Planet is to the 1950s what Star Wars is to the 1970s.

Or perhaps what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the 1960s.

In other words, Forbidden Planet is a visual space odyssey so involving, so expertly presented, so beautifully designed that it endures as a landmark in the history of the cinema. 

Even fifty-five years after its theatrical debut, Forbidden Planet still impresses, and on some level even terrifies, in significant degree due to the eerie "electronic tonalities" of the score devised by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Today, this 1956 film from director Fred M. Wilcox and writers Cyril Hume and Irving Block remains one of the boomer generation's most important genre touchstones, and has been referenced directly and indirectly in  a wide-range of high-profile sf productions including Serenity (2005) and Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek (1966 - 1969).  

The film's mostly-invisible villain, "The Monster from the Id," is one that is still well-known by name in the pop culture lexicon.

At the movie's core, Forbidden Planet concerns an anxious fear not of technology itself, but of the human application of technology.  Or, more directly, human hubris.  The film reveals that for mankind (much like the ancient Krell), the stars can be our destination.  But our species could also lose everything it holds dear by failing to understand the greatest mystery of the universe: the human psyche.

Buttressed by "superior special effects" (Science Fiction Films. Bison Books Corp., 1984, page 39), Forbidden Planet truly  "thought big" and thus shines yet as one of the most imaginative and compelling movie visions of the future. 

As a kid of the 1970s,  I grew up frequently reading in the protean genre press about how Forbidden Planet was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.  Regardless of factors such as generational loyalty or nostalgia, those testimonials are absolutely, positively accurate.  This has been one of my favorite and most beloved films for a long time.

Delightfully, even if divorced from its Atomic Age original context, Forbidden Planet remains provocative.  The film remembers what so many science fiction visions of today fail to acknowledge; the fact that human beings -- and human problems -- must remain at the heart of any forward-thinking work of art. 

After all, when man reaches the stars he will still be man, and his decisions and wisdom (or lack thereof) will always spark the most invigorating of dramas.  Awe-inspiring special effects are one thing (and Forbidden Planet certainly deploys such effects brilliantly), but a story that connects to us, here and now, on an emotional level trumps such technical achievements every time.

"The secret devil of every soul set loose on the planet all at once..."

In the 23rd century, mankind endeavors to to conquer space, thanks in large-part to the invention of the hyper-drive, which makes interstellar travel possible.

As Forbidden Planet commences, space cruiser C-57D under command of stolid J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) approaches Altair IV, a world previously visited some two decades earlier by the Bellerophon. 

On approach to Altair IV, Adams and his ship are warned away from the planet by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who insists that he won't be responsible for the outcome should Adams ignore his counsel.

Adams sets down anyway on the craggy surface of the planet and soon encounters Robby the Robot, Morbius's highly-advanced mechanical servant.  Robby takes Adams, "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) and Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly) back to Morbius's home, where they meet the man.

The grave, serious Morbius is the last surviving original member of the Bellerophon expedition and reports that "some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force" killed the other humans on his crew.  However, he has been safe and secure in the intervening nineteen years, living alone on the planet with just Robby (his construct; something he "tinkered together") and his beautiful if naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).

The ship's crew responds enthusiastically (*ahem*) to the lovely Altaira, even as Adams determines he must contact home base to request further instructions regarding Morbius.

Unfortunately, the cruiser's long range communication apparatus, the "Klystron Transmitter" is sabotaged at night by an unknown, apparently invisible foe.

In the days ahead, Morbius introduces Adams and Doc to the great archaeological find of Altair IV.  Beneath the scientist's house, inside a vast subterranean complex, stands an ancient power generator belonging to an alien race called the Krell.  The colossal machine -- whose exact purpose remains unknown -- is all that remains of the once super-advanced people.

In fact, the Krell were so advanced that they visited Earth before man even walked the Earth, and brought back samples of the planet's wildlife, including tigers and deer. 

In one impressive alien laboratory, Morbius demonstrates a Krell educational game, a "brain boost" machine that he himself has experimented on, augmenting his own natural intellect in the process.   

Alarmingly, Morbius also reports that the Krell civilization vanished in one night, on the eve of an almost divine achievement: the creation of a device that could render unnecessary all forms of physical instrumentality.

Awed and a little disturbed by Morbius's alien discoveries, Adams believes Earth  and the "United Planets" must be permitted to share in the wealth.  Morbius objects to the captain's interference, however.  

As if in response, the terrifying invisible foe returns again and again, night by night, growing ever stronger...and ever more murderous.

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious.  So we have laws and religion."

As any college level English student can dutifully attest, Forbidden Planet appears loosely based on William Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1610). 

That work by the Bard revolves around Prospero, a man who has lived on a remote island with his daughter Miranda for twelve years. 

Prospero is served by a spirit called "Ariel" and uses the auspices of Ariel's magic to create a  storm (a tempest) at sea.  The storm causes a shipwreck and draws important visitors (Alonso, Ferdinand, etc.) to Prospero's island for his unique purposes of personal and family renewal. 

Importantly, also residing on Prospero's island is Caliban (think cannibal): a monster who utilizes magic for much darker purposes. In the end, Prospero renounces magic and Ariel is set free from servitude, while Miranda and King Alonso's son, Ferdinand, are free to marry.

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest is frequently assessed a highly-reflexive work of art because it compares Prospero's use of magic with the magic of the theater.  Prospero's renunciation of magic at play's end is thus said to represent Shakespeare's own pull-back from the stage; his professional retirement, essentially.  The Tempest is also widely considered a "post-colonial effort," drawing specific interest because of the way that Prospero treats (and mistreats?) Caliban, Ariel and the other denizens of the faraway island. 

Forbidden Planet certaily shares an abundance of common narrative and thematic points with Shakespeare's final literary endeavor.  If you substitute Altair IV for the remote island, Morbius for Prospero, and Altaira for Miranda, the comparison begins to take shape.  Captain J.J. Adams -- as love interest for Altaira/Miranda -- is at least part Ferdinand, and the extraordinary Robby the Robot fits the bill as Ariel, the servant of Morbius/Prospero. 

What seems rather unique about the transference of The Tempest's scenarios to the futuristic realm of Forbidden Planet is that the makers of this classic sci-fi film have made some very intriguing switches or substitutions.  

Here, technology -- alien technology -- replaces magic or the occult.  Robby is not a "fairy" or "spirit" like Ariel, but rather a thinking machine created from super-advanced technology; Krell technology.  Just consider  Clarke's third law, of 1961.  Advanced technology -- machines beyond our understanding -- appear as baffling as magic, right?

Furthermore, the film's "thing of darkness," to turn a Shakespearean phrase (Act II, Scene II), is positioned as a psychological, interior force, rather than as an exterior personality, Caliban.   It is the scientist/wizard's "id" in Forbidden Planet that creates problems, not a fellow and less honorable practitioner of the magical arts.  

Indeed, Forbidden Planet purposefully re-contextualizes Shakespeare's line in The Tempest that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of," so as to readily incorporate the the Id, which is one third of the human psychic apparatus as delineated by Sigmund Freud. 

Id is instinct.  Id is chaos.  It is aggression and destruction, with no overriding sense of morality, and it operates on passion and desire. Often, our nocturnal dreams  and phantasms are seen as the representative outlet of the Id, and in Forbidden Planet, Morbius -- immediately before his heroic demise -- explicitly names dreams as devious originator of his unpardonable sins. 

"What man can remember his own dreams?" Morbius asks desperately, suggesting that consciously he is fully separate from the the instinctive human urges which created the Monster from the Id and committed murder.  The truth is that the Monster here is actually a reflection of his basest, most primitive self.  Something that -- even in the era of space travel -- man cannot fully expunge.

Another substantial difference to consider when comparing The Tempest to Forbidden Planet involves the manner in which Morbius uses Robby.  Though it is clear from Morbius's demonstrations involving the robot that the scientist holds a kind of spell over him --  able to render Robby immobile with a simple voice command --  Morbius does not utilize Robby to bring visitors to his world. 

On the contrary, Morbius explicitly shuns such visitors while the cruiser is still in orbit.  This act separates him rather dramatically from his literary predecessor, Prospero.  In the denouement of both works, however, the non-human servant (Ariel/Robby) is freed from his master and takes part in the navigation away from the island/planet.  In Forbidden Planet's final scene, we see Robby at the controls of C-57D, having adjusted rather nicely to his new environs.

There are major differences in tenor as well.  In no significant or meaningful way does Forbidden Planet attempt to draw parallels between the technology of the Krell, for instance and the technological art form of film. 

On the contrary, Forbidden Planet plays its story completely straight, sometimes even underplaying moments so as to more fully erect a sense of complete, overwhelming reality about the film's universe.  Again, the idea at the root of the film is not a comparison of magic to art, but a comparison, rather, of  future technology to more current events, circa the mid-1950s.

In the Atomic Age, a literal Pandora's Box was opened thanks to the creation of The Bomb, and many people feared what could happen when mankind "tampers in God's domain."    That's the explicit fear of Forbidden Planet and the lesson to draw from the unfortunate, god-like Krell.  The film is about achieving a technological awareness that our species is not yet emotionally ready, not yet wise enough, to countenance.  No one man can possess such great power, and possibly use it wisely.

In terms of the post-colonial aspects of Shakespeare's work, again, Forbidden Planet differs significantly.  It is of interest here that both Morbius and Altaira treat Robby as a servant, but this seems no more than an oblique comment on human views of artificial intelligence, hardly applicable to the idea of post-colonial paternalism or racism.

The comparison to The Tempest appears most illuminating in understanding Forbidden Planet's theme: that of man harnessing a tool (whether magic or technology) responsibly.  The brief reference to the "Bellerophon" (the name of the first ship to visit Altair IV) expertly cements this thematic strand.  In Greek myth, Bellerophon is a demi-God and son of Poseidon who commits the crime of arrogance or hubris.  He attempts to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympus to reach the Gods, until Zeus retaliates (with a gad-fly), and Bellerophon falls back to Earth, forever broken by the experience.

Quite clearly, Morbius (a Bellerophon crew member) is the one who dramatically overreaches in Forbidden Planet, attempting to gain access to divine knowledge which is not his right nor his destiny.  Morbius's tale and Bellerophon's myth are both explicitly cautionary tales about human overreach.  In the film, J.J. Adams seems to recognize this in his impromptu requiem for the good doctor, and notes that the name Morbius will one day "remind us that we are, after all, not God.." 

Even the (unseen) demise of the Bellerophon space ship in Forbidden Planet seems to harken back to the myth.  Morbius describes how, during take off, it was pulled back and "vaporized," in flight.  Were the colonists going to share the secrets of the Krell with the outside world?  Were they reaching for Mount Olympus when they were downed?

"...a new scale of physical scientific values..."

An undeniable and perennial pleasure of Forbidden Planet is the style and epic scope of visual presentation.  This is a film that occurs entirely on a distant planet, and therefore involves both futuristic human technology and alien technology with absolutely no relation to Earth and our history or design aesthetics.

Consequently, no earthbound locations are featured -- redressed or not -- in Forbidden Planet, and nor were the film's makers able to rely on our modern digital technology (CGI).  Instead, a vast sound stage is converted into the expansive landing area of the C-57D, and some of the most impressive matte paintings you've ever seen are deployed, along with exceptional miniatures and some opticals, to diagram the world and scope of the Krell technology.

Morbius's house represents a splendid vision of what homes of the future might look like, from the inclusion of a "household disintegrator beam" disposal unit, to metal shutters, to an architectural scheme that incorporates both natural rock and plant-life right into the home's hearth. 

Although the C-57D's familiar "flying saucer" design may seem antiquated to some viewers, the interior of the ship is constructed in full, and in laborious detail: a multi-level affair with a central control station, hide-away bunk beds, and a "deceleration" post for braking (after light-speed).  And the impressive scene in which this craft lands on Altair -- and ladders descend and crew disembark -- plays as absolutely real, in part because so much of the craft's exterior has also been constructed to scale. 

Late in the film, Morbius takes Adams and Doc Ostrow on that extended tour of "the Krell Wonders" and this portion of the film is nothing less-than-awe-inspiring because of the visualizations, successfully living up to Morbius's high-minded description of a "new scale of physical values."   Morbius's matter-of-fact lecture during this tour only serves once more to effectively ground the film in a very substantial form of reality.  This is literally a tour, with a sort of teacher relating to us information about energy usage, power systems and more.  It might seem dry and lifeless to some, but the technical dialogue and professorial delivery actually serve a terrific purpose.  This approach enhances the believability of the enterprise.

This tour -- which plays as educational and real -- is a powerful contrast to the film's most visceral, memorable scene: the Monster from the Id's sustained attack upon the landed cruiser by night.  This particularly riveting sequence, with blazing laser weapons, crackling force-fields, and some unique wire-work (utilized to express the visual of spacemen caught in the grasp of the invisible monster) is still awe-inspiring and terrifying.  The famous monster is visible only sporadically -- an animated energy beast -- and thus terror is rigorously maintained.  The electronic tonalities I mentioned at the outset of the review also help out in maintaining the horror.  This planet and its monstrous denizen not only appear alien, but sound alien as well.  The monster's unearthly howl is not easily forgotten.

Some of the film's vistas also nicely eschew technology human ana alien for more natural settings.  There's an almost poetic shot and matte painting of the grave yard where the Bellerophon dead are buried.  Another shot evocative of the best pulp space art involves Altair at night, with two luminous moons hanging low in the black sky. 

In terms of design creativity then, Forbidden Planet is right off the charts.  Even today, science fiction films visualize holograms, force-fields, lasers and robots in much the same fashion as those concepts are crafted here.  Certainly, robots today are a little more streamlined than the wonderful Robby, but he remains quite impressive (and oddly lovable).  The New York Times' reviewer's words about him still hold up too.  He called Robby "a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What's more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman's gentleman. He is the prettiest piece of mechanism on Planet Altaire."  Easy, then, to detect why this robot has been beloved for several generations now.

In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Forbidden Planet should feel remarkably flattered.  Star Trek adopted the film's "United Planets" template lock, stock and barrel, the captain/doctor relationship, and the Chief Quinn character (a Scotty-like miracle-worker) as part of its core, while Star Wars' C-3PO -- another robot of many languages --  and Lost in Space's B9 certainly owe much to Robby in concept and design.  We call this homage, of course. 

In the annals of cult television history, even The Tempest-like tale of a father and daughter living alone on a distant planet together has been oft-repeated, in Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah" and Space:1999's "The Metamorph" to name but two.  It is also said that Dr. Who's serial "Planet of Evil" derives from Forbidden Planet in name and concept.  It's a story of a scientist's good-intentioned overreach and devolution into a monster on a faraway world.

Forbidden Planet is a product of its time, and that means, among other things, that no racial minorities are featured in the film at all, which today may likely trouble some folks.  Also, Alta is defined in the film largely by her reactions and relationships with the men in her life.   She goes from being an obedient daughter, to being an obedient romantic partner.  She's not the independent spirit we might expect in today's cinema. 

But of course, the film was created in 1956, not 2011 and so was a projection of the future that included the America of that era as the foundation of everything.  Despite such concerns, Forbidden Planet remains a terrific and sometimes startling example of what traditional Hollywood can achieve in the genre when equipped with a good budget, a strong and literate script, and the most imaginative effects and production design possible for the day.

Forbidden Planet isn't a movie that was just "tinkered together" and nor is it "an obsolete" thing.  Contrarily, it's a sci-fi masterpiece that both inspires and warns us about our trajectory heading out there, into the Great Unknown.  

From Prospero in the 1600s to Dr. Morbius in the 23rd century, the human condition, it seems, remains a fragile, mysterious, and magical thing.


  1. steve prefontaine8:54 AM

    I worked out that I`d watched Forbidden Planet over 1000 times before i finally got tired of it.

  2. Seen this one since childhood, and I'm still not tired of it. Great look at this sci-fi classic, John.

  3. Anonymous12:39 PM

    John, I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of Forbidden Planet. The film is simply brilliant science-fiction like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea(1954), Planet Of The Apes(1968) and 2001(1968). I also enjoy that fact Robby the Robot has appeared in my other sci-fi productions too. The original Rod Serling's Twilight Zone series at M.G.M. had heavy re-use of Forbidden Planet footage, sets[C-57D], props, costumes and Robby too.


  4. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Considering that Robby and B9 were both designed by the same guy, it's not surprising they're similar.

  5. jimmie t. murakami6:21 PM

    Robbys best guest appearances were on the 2 episodes of Lost In Space (especially War of the Robots, great episode). He was quite funny in Gremlins and Mork and Mindy as well.

  6. Anonymous7:54 PM

    Here is a link to all of Robby's appearances:



  7. Wonderful film, wonderful review.

  8. Anonymous3:49 PM

    I have watched Forbidden Planet more times than I can count. Currently I'm building a model of the C-52d Star Cruiser. I just have to say, that with all the new computerized special effects now used in movies no one has ever out done the landing scene of the C-52d setting down on Altair IV. Also, the concept of "monsters from the id" was brilliant and has been copied in numerous scifi movies since.



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