Seeing Forbidden Planet today is like meeting an old friend’s great-grandfather and seeing the family resemblance. Sort of a gold standard for the science fiction genre during the fifties, this film has its DNA in much of what we’ve seen since in film and on television, particularly the original Star Trek. From fifty years later, however, the movie is also a wonderfully nostalgic mix of forward thinking and amusingly dated social mores.
Forbidden Planet was unique in a few ways from the spate of similar films from the same decade. For one, it had a budget well in excess of the typical B-movie of the time, giving it production values noticeably higher than similar films. Also, basing it (very loosely) on Shakespeare’s The Tempest was quite high-minded compared to the pulpy origins of other science fiction of the era. Another distinction was the fact that it is the only non-Disney film to feature the handiwork of the Disney animation department.
Early in the 23rd century, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D reaches the planet Altair IV looking for the survivors of an expedition twenty years earlier. They find a lone survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), and his nineteen-year-old daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), living in relative comfort and safety despite telling stories of the rest of his crew being wiped out by some unseen menace. Morbius warns the new visitors to stay away for their own safety but Commander Adams (a stone-faced Leslie Nielsen) has his orders.
When it’s clear that the crew of the C-57D is staying until they’re sure he’s all right, Morbius shows Adams around his home and the underground lair of an extinct civilization known as the Krell, who were apparently as close to perfect as living beings could be but still disappeared over a half-million years before. Meanwhile, members of Adams’ crew are being picked off one at a time by an unseen attacker.
As an example of its genre, the technical aspects of Forbidden Planet are remarkably sophisticated for the era. Actual thought seems to have gone into the props and sets and the gadgets on the C 57D seem to actually do something rather than the usual “push random buttons and make random noises” school of production design that typified the film’s contemporaries. On the other hand, other details seem terribly backwards. The brains behind this movie couldn’t conceive of computers with power they couldn’t imagine being carried to school under the arms of teenager. The film also talks about men walking on the moon late in the 21st century when the first man to do so was already 26 years old.
Like Captain Kirk and his crew a decade later, Commander Adams and his men are creatures of the era that produced the movie, all stalwart, square-jawed defenders of American virtue. Except for the ray guns strapped to their hips, they would be completely at home on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a World War II or Korean War film of the era.
Altaira is also a prototype for the sci-fi heroine of a hundred similar movies. She’s young and sexually naïve but dresses with decorous immodesty and she’s definitely available. Every green-skinned nubile that Kirk ever bedded is Altaira’s god-daughter.
As I said, the production values of this film is quite high and the special effects, while dated, are almost seamless and were definitely ahead of their time. The attack of the id monster sequence, handcrafted by Disney animators, would be hard to do more effectively with modern CG techniques.
If you can get past some of the more dated aspects (and the now-unfamiliar sight of Leslie Nielsen playing it completely straight), Forbidden Planet deserves a place in any sci-fi lover’s film library. The new 50th anniversary DVD features an impeccable print of the film and is definitely worth picking up.