The 50s was a golden age for science fiction cinema. The decade saw the appearance of a succession of genre classics, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World, The War Of The Worlds, and This Island Earth.
The period's movies reflected America's fascination with the possibilities of future technology, and also a creeping sense of paranoia about the subversive potential of Communism, reflected in spectacular ‘Reds under the bed' films such as Invaders From Mars (1953) and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), in which an insidious alien menace stripped mankind of its individuality.
Of all those '50s classics, one film stands among them all as a true sci-fi icon. Released by MGM in 1956, director Fred M Wilcox's Forbidden Planet was the most expensive and ambitious genre film to appear on the big screen in decades, requiring the construction of huge sets and the creation of groundbreaking special effects. The resulting film was so pricey (its budget amounting to almost $2m), that profits were slim on its original release.
Nevertheless, Forbidden Planet has grown into a genre classic; the epitome of a '50s sci-fi movie, its influence and contribution to sci-fi cinema is arguably as great as Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey. As we’ll soon see, Forbidden Planet could even be described as the great grandfather of two of the late 20th century’s towering giants of pop culture: Star Trek and Star Wars.
A decidedly loose 23rd century reworking of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Forbidden Planet stars Leslie Nielsen as Commander John J Adams, the alpha male captain of the saucer ship C-57D. As in James Cameron's Aliens three decades later, Adams and his crew's mission is to head to a colony on a distant planet, Altair IV, established 20 years earlier and now worryingly silent.
Adams arrives to find the Eden-like planet inhabited by just two people, the sinister Dr Morbius (a commanding Walter Pidgeon) and his innocent, 19-year-old daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who are waited on by the hulking mechanical butler Robby The Robot. Morbius reveals that Altair IV was once home to a now long dead alien intelligence, the Krell, and shows Adams around their labyrinthine underground reactor.
That night, Adams' ship is attacked by a giant, invisible monster, which kills a member of his crew. Setting up a defensive perimeter fails to repel the creature when it returns 24 hours later, and its huge, flickering outline is spectacularly revealed as it clashes with the force field Adams' crew has erected. Heading back to Morbius' lair, Adams discovers that the doctor has been using Krell technology to increase his intellect, and that the creature which attacked the C-57D was a manifestation of Morbius' anger, or, as the doctor dramatically puts it, "Monsters! Monsters from the id!"
While certain aspects of Forbidden Planet may seem quaint to a modern audience (and its portentous dialogue admittedly drifts into self-parody on occasion), the film's visual power remains almost entirely undiminished.
Robby the Robot remains an iconic, instantly recognisable character. A quintessential product of his time, Robby vaguely resembles a walking jukebox, and Robert Kinoshita's design is filled with personality and 50s charm. Indeed, Robby is widely regarded as the first true robot character to appear on the silver screen; with his distinctive silhouette and wry humour (“I seldom use it myself, sir," Robby replies to a comment about the planet’s oxygen content, “it promotes rust"), he’s a far cry from the boxy, characterless machines seen in earlier sci-fi films.
In Robby, it’s possible to see more than a hint of Huey, Dewey and Louie, the charming robots in Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 movie, Silent Running. The way Robby was embraced by audiences - and merchandised as a hugely popular toy - was very akin to the way R2-D2 and C3P0 would be embraced in the wake of Star Wars (and lest we forget, Robby also moonlights as a part-time protocol droid, like C3P0; in one scene, Robby boasts that he’s capable of speaking "187 other languages, dialects and sub-tongues as well as English").
Robby’s fame was such that he would long outlast the film itself, going on to appear in another, unrelated movie, The Invisible Boy, and an episode of the TV series The Thin Man. An estimated $125,000 was spent on bringing Robby to life. That sum would ultimately prove to be a worthy investment.
Then again, Forbidden Planet’s lavish production values were unprecedented in general; this was a time when sci-fi was still widely considered to be the preserve of cheap B-movies - a thinking that would only start to change in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Forbidden Planet’s story may take place on a relatively small canvas compared to modern offerings such as Avatar, with its action taking place over a mere handful of locations, yet the size of the sets and the quality of its special effects was, again, unprecedented for its era. The subterranean City of the Krell is given an extraordinary sense of scale thanks to some beautifully-wrought matte paintings and dramatic camera angles; look again at these sequences, and it’s possible to make out more than a passing similarity between the Krell’s architecture and the bowels of the Death Star in Star Wars, or even the alien reactor in 1990’s Total Recall.
Forbidden Planet's key scene is its night time laser battle with the id monster. Created by Disney animator, Joshua Meador, it remains a spectacular sequence, Meador's hand-drawn creature roaring and baying with feral menace. It’s the kind of high-concept, boundary-pushing special effects sequence that cinemas wouldn’t see again for more than a decade.
As the website Moon Gadget points out, another of Forbidden Planet’s special effects sequences may have caught George Lucas’s attention. A scene in which Dr Morbius speaks to his daughter Altaira via hologram is uncannily similar to the moment in Star Wars where R2-D2 projects a holographic message from Princess Leia.
Then there’s Bebe and Louis Barron’s eerie electronic score. The way it pipes and murmurs over the opening title sequence, set against a starry sky, seems to anticipate the opening credits in Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979). Forbidden Planet’s soundtrack certainly made an impression on Ben Burtt, who created the extraordinary catalogue of sound effects in the Star Wars movies - those roaring TIE Fighters and humming Lightsabers? Those were all his.
Burtt saw Forbidden Planet in the cinema as a child, and he was so impressed by it that the film prompted him to start creating music and sound effects of his own using tape machines.
“My father took my sister and I to see it,” Burtt told Wired magazine. “I was at the same time terrified, as well as amazed, because the film created this really eerie, complete world — another world [...] I realized a lot of the effect of that on me was the sound of the movie. The electronic tonalities that were […] both music and sound effects at the same time, which is a wonderful way to do the track of any movie.”
Burtt had Forbidden Planet in the back of his mind when he was given the task of creating the sound effects for Star Wars nearly two decades later. Remember the parallel we drew between the City of the Krell and the bowels of the Death Star? Here’s what Burtt has to say about the sound design in those particular scenes:
“The sounds inside the Death Star, all the different rumblings, the tonal things when Ben Kenobi goes in to turn off the tractor beam. That’s the Krell power shaft. I didn’t try to imitate it directly, but visually it looks like it, and in some way that idea probably came from Forbidden Planet, the idea of this abyss full of energy that goes on forever… I used electronic sounds to support a lot of that. Or I put rhythms of sound together, slowed-down metallic bumping like a heartbeat, inside the Death Star. Which is probably in many ways because I was keying off Forbidden Planet. You couldn’t escape that element to it.”
Forbidden Planet also made a clear impact on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry - even if he didn’t always want to admit its influence. When a reporter asked Roddenberry about Forbidden Planet in 1970, the Star Trek creator’s response was unequivocal:
“Definitely not...the only time I ever thought of Forbidden Planet specifically when I was laying Star Trek out was when I said to myself that here were some mistakes they made in the film that I did not want to repeat.”
Nevertheless, the website Star Trek Fact Check reprints a letter from Roddenberry, written in 1964 and later published in David Alexander’s Authorised Autobiography some 30 years later. Here’s an excerpt:
“You may recall we saw MGM’s 'FORBIDDEN PLANET' with Oscar Katz some weeks ago. I think it would be interesting for Pato Guzman to take another very hard look at the spaceship, its configurations, controls, instrumentations, etc. while we are still sketching and planning our own. Can you suggest the best way? Run the film again, or would it be ethical to get a print of the film and have our people make stills from some of the appropriate frames? This latter would be the most helpful. Please understand, we have no intention of copying either interior or exterior of that ship. But a detailed look at it again would do much to stimulate our own thinking...”
At any rate, the crew's interactions aboard the C-57D are remarkably akin to Star Trek, which made its debut on American television in 1966; Leslie Nielsen's somewhat self-regarding performance as Commander Adams could also be seen as a precursor to William Shatner's Captain Kirk, and as Star Trek Fact Check notes, Adams’ relationship with Dr Ostrow is similar to that of Kirk and McCoy.
There are other similarities between Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, too. The exploration of an unknown world in a faster-than-light ship. The tendency to explain things scientifically rather than fantastically. Most of all, Star Trek shares Forbidden Planet’s fusion of pulp sci-fi and influences from elsewhere in literature; indeed, a far-future updating of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is just the kind of thing Star Trek would do throughout its long run. The Star Trek episode "Catspaw" reworked elements of Macbeth, while other episodes in both the original series and The Next Generation either borrowed from the Bard for their titles or made reference to his work in the episodes themselves (“Dagger Of The Mind,” “All Our Yesterdays”, “Sins Of The Father” and so on.)
One of the most important movies in science fiction, Forbidden Planet rose above the wave of low-rent, creature-feature schlock that cluttered up the genre throughout much of the 1950s. Producer George Pal's Destination Moon may have been a more mature sci-fi picture, attempting to depict a lunar mission with an accuracy that wouldn't be attempted again until Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, but Forbidden Planet was inarguably the more entertaining film, marrying a respect for its genre (and a welcome reference to Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics) with the heroic action of a mainstream cinema filler.
The most beautiful sci-fi movie of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet is also the most enduringly influential.