Forbidden Planet is Still Essential and Subversive Sci-Fi

Feature Jim Knipfel
3/15/2016 at 8:22AM

After 60 years, Forbidden Planet is still dazzling and subversive, and an influence on most major space opera science fiction.

Despite the sudden and unexpected explosion in the popularity of science fiction films in the early 1950s, a number of major studios were resistant to the trend, considering the genre to be B-film fodder at best, and at worst childish gutter trash that was beneath them. When it became apparent just how much money could be made with sci-fi, however, most eventually relented. One neat trick that was used to justify taking the dive while preserving a bit of pride and self-respect was to produce lavish, big budget Technicolor adaptations of established sci-fi literary classics. As a result we ended up with George Pal’s versions of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide. Let Pal toss in his trademark heavy-handed Christian subtext, and everyone was happy: kids, parents, the studio, the censors... everybody.

An even neater trick, it turned out, was to slip the audience a literary mickey, disguising a classic play or novel as a wild, colorful and imaginative sci-fi film with lots of explosions and spaceships, and robots and shit. That way, see, you can sucker the kids into the theater without them even noticing they were being cultured. The studio can cash in clean on some of that dumb sci-fi nonsense, make oodles of money, and pat themselves on the back at the same time for performing their responsible civic duty by enlightening and enriching the masses. See?

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Okay, I don’t know if that was exactly the thinking at MGM around 1955, but that’s pretty much how it boiled down. MGM hadn’t made a science fiction film since the late 1920s, and studio chief Dore Schary seemed intent on keeping it that way. MGM was a prestige studio after all, best known for making lavish epics and musicals. Leave that spaceship and alien monster crap to Universal.

That’s why most everyone at the studio was a little shocked when Schary greenlit a script entitled Fatal Planet. He’d only agreed to a B-film budget, but it was still the last thing anyone expected. Maybe it was that classy Shakespeare angle that hooked him.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest concerns a handful of shipwrecked survivors who find themselves cast ashore on a desolate island, the unwelcome guests of an ornery but powerful wizard and his lovely but sheltered young daughter. It didn’t require much imagination to take that premise and set it in a sci-fi context. Change the wizard to a mad scientist, the island to a small and distant planet, and the shipwrecked crew to a group of astronauts on a rescue mission, and you’re good to go.

So that’s essentially what screenwriters Irving Block and Allen Adler did. Set on Mercury in that mystical and futuristic year 1977, Fatal Planet concerned a mission to check on a scientist and his daughter, who’d crash-landed on the planet some 20 years earlier. Fearing it was all a little too deadly serious and maybe stuck to the source a little too closely, Schary brought in screenwriter Cyril Hume to punch up the humor and generally liven things up a bit.

Block and Adler’s basic storyline remained intact more or less, but along with changing that title to the more crowd-wowing Forbidden Planet, Hume’s rewrite moved the action from a mere two decades in the future to the 23rd century, and from boring old Mercury to the much more distant and exotic Altair IV. He revamped a number of the character names as well, most significantly changing the reclusive mad scientist from “Dr. Adams” to “Dr. Morbius” (a variation on German mathematician Moebius, of strip fame). Most important of all, he staffed the United Planets C-57D with a crew of horny wiseacres and a drunken (and horny) cook, as well as giving a central role to a comically helpful robot with a dry sense of humor.

With a solid script in hand, Schary tapped Fred M. Wilcox, best known at that point for his Lassie films, to direct. Walter Pidgeon grew a goatee to play the accidentally sinister Dr. Morbius, the young and beautiful Anne Francis, who’d just had her first leading role in the previous year’s Blackboard Jungle, was signed to play his lovely but naive daughter Altaira, and Leslie Nielsen came aboard as the stalwart and square-jawed Commander Adams. All three were under the impression at the time they’d just be making a cheap B-quickie.

Although Forbidden Planet began production with a B-film budget, the art department, which had apparently been waiting years for an opportunity like this, went a little nuts, building massive sets and intricate props which quickly ballooned the budget up to near $2 million, unheard of at the time for a (non-Pal) science fiction film. The C-57D, Robby the Robot, and Robby’s transport sled alone cost nearly $200,000 to design and build. But they knew what they were after, and they got it. Even Schary eventually caved, agreeing to shoot the film in glorious Technicolor and CinemaScope

For years, I’ll admit, I all but dismissed Forbidden Planet as fairly routine mid-’50s science fiction fare, albeit writ large. Apart from designer Robert Kinoshita’s iconic Robby the Robot, there wasn’t that much unique going on here, pretty as it all was. You got your generic spaceship, a weird planet, a love interest, and some cookie-cutter smartass crew members lining up to be knocked off. That’s how I remembered it anywa. Going back to it again now, though, I see how very wrong I was, finally understanding why Forbidden Planet had been cited, along with 2001 and Star Wars, as one of the most groundbreaking and influential sci-fi films ever made.

While most sci-fi of the era focused on alien invasions of one kind or another, or visitations from well meaning but misunderstood communist extraterrestrials, or trips through outer space that go somehow terribly wrong for awhile, Forbidden Planet was among the first to try, in wildly imaginative terms, to describe a spectacularly advanced but extinct alien civilization, and all without a single alien in sight.

We are never told what the Krell looked like or how they lived. We’re told precious little about them at all, save for the handful of tools and machines (and what machines they are) they left behind. The only threat here, the only monsters, are recognizably human. It was a very different approach that forced audiences to use their own imaginations to stretch far beyond what they were shown on the screen. But what they were shown on the screen was a pretty good starting point.

Visually, the finished film, with its blend of massive and elaborately detailed sets, matte paintings, rear projection, animation, and assorted other tricks is still dazzling, a clear and deliberate attempt to not only ape the look and feel of George Pal’s earlier sci-fi extravaganzas (particularly When Worlds Collide), but to outdo them. There was one major difference between Pal’s films and Forbidden Planet, however: while Pal always found a way to insert that ham-fisted Christian subtext into whatever he touched, Hume’s script traded out God for Sigmund Freud, nestling him in there neatly beside the Shakespeare. It was a move that not only made it unique among its contemporaries, but still quietly subversive today.

Freud had been a major celebrity in Europe in the ’20s and ‘30s, especially among intellectuals and the upper classes, but his ideas didn’t really begin filtering down to the American mainstream until the mid-’40s, thanks in no small part to Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was more than a little obsessed with psychoanalysis, and began working it into his films whenever possible, starting with Spellbound. By the mid-’50s psychoanalysis had become the new suburban religion in America. Working Freud into an adult murder mystery is one thing, but working it into a science fiction film at the time (even one based on Shakespeare) is another animal completely. I mean, sci-fi films with robots and spaceships were aimed at kids, but Freud is all about sex, right? More than that, he’s all about WEIRD sex! So what the hell?

But it’s all up there on the screen, ranging from obvious shtick like Altaira’s skimpy outfits and the mild mid-‘50s innuendo bandied about by the horny space cadets to subtle literary references (Altaira’s changing relationship with her pet tiger hinting she’s no longer a virgin), to the whopper: Dr. Morbius’ invisible and unstoppable Monster of the Id, which only reawakens when Commander Adams suggests they bring Altaira back to Earth with them, revealing Morbius’ affection for his daughter runs a bit deeper than what might be considered seemly back in civilization.

All that wild sex aside, it remains a film that boasts a number of firsts. It was the first film in which a robot was given his own onscreen credit. It was also the first film to be released with a purely electronic score. Five years earlier, Bernard Herrman’s score for Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still was recognized as the first film score to feature a Theremin front and center, though it was still accentuated by a small but standard ensemble of piano, strings, brass, and woodwinds.

The tweeks and twonks, and blorps composed by experimental beatnik musicians Bebe and Louis Barron (and their homemade Moog) were so unusual at the time they weren’t even called “music” in the credits, but rather “Electronic Tonalities.” Although, a more traditional score had been written for the film, in the end the producers decided to go with the Barrons and threw the original score away. It was a wise choice. Without that strange and bubbling alien music, the picture likely wouldn’t have had the impact it did.

The film was released on the Ides of March in 1956, perhaps just to emphasize that whole Shakespeare thing. Maybe they should’ve read Julius Caesar a little more closely. Audiences loved the film, critics loved it just as much, and on the surface anyway, it seemed to be a big hit worldwide.

But considering it started out with that whopping $2 million budget, and in hard, cold economic terms, Forbidden Planet only cleared a little over $210,000, and so in the studio’s eyes it was a meager success at best, a failed experiment at worst. Schary was forced to step down shortly afterward, rumor has it for backing this folly.

Director Fred Wilcox only made one other film, then died. That fast and bulbous Robby the Robot and the C-57D had long and busy careers afterward, however, both appearing in several episodes of the Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and several other shows. And Gene Roddenberry cites Forbidden Planet as the most fundamental of inspirations for Star Trek, and in fact countless direct nods to the film can be spotted not only throughout the original series, but most of the spin-offs as well.

Six decades on, its influence can be seen in everything from Disney’s The Black Hole to Prometheus, but there’s yet to be another onscreen android as cool as Robby.

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