Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Directed by Roman Polanski
In the year 2200, United Planets Cruiser C-57D lands on the mysterious planet Altair IV, looking for evidence of a colony that had lost contact with Earth. The crew finds Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a scientist who is the last survivor of the original colony, and his lovely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius, it emerges, has become the caretaker of the giant machine of the Krell, an inconceivably advanced civilization that had perished in a single night 200,000 years ago. It is a machine to end all machines, a device of unimaginable power that could create anything the Krell wanted or needed, with no physical instrumentation—the Krell controlled the machine with their minds. Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), seeing in the machine the potential to conquer the evils that plague mankind, wants to take it back to Earth and put it to work in service of humanity--but as he and his crew are about to discover, a machine controlled by the mind can be a very dangerous thing indeed.
By 1956, most would agree, only two "serious" science fiction films had ever been made, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Spaceflight, and science fiction by extension, would not capture the public's imagination until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957, inaugurating the Space Age; throughout most of the 1950s, filmed and literary "sci-fi" was almost exclusively the purview of children and pulp magazines, and offered little more than flying saucers, space battles with ray guns, and alien princesses. Forbidden Planet, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, rose above schlock and demonstrated that a thoughtful, mature story could be presented in a science fiction milieu.
Forbidden Planet is often cited as one of the prime influences of the original Star Trek--creator Gene Roddenberry admitted as much--and the similarities should be evident to anyone who's seen both. While modern audiences might chuckle knowingly at scenes or characters that strongly resemble scenes and characters that would eventually appear in Star Trek, a more profound similarity can be found in the way both creations use the "space opera" genre to explore the human condition. Like the best science fiction authors of the period, including Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the makers of Forbidden Planet use science fiction to tell a story that can't easily be told without resorting to fantasy. Shakespeare took the same approach: The Tempest, his final play, was also his most fantastic and surreal. But unlike Star Trek, which reflected Roddenberry's fundamentally optimistic view of human potential, Forbidden Planet takes a darker view of the primitive forces that lurk inside everyone--"monsters of the Id," as one character puts them.
Points to ponder:
- Forbidden Planet was the first film to feature an entirely electronic score.
- Yes, that's the same Leslie Nielsen from Airplane! and The Naked Gun, in one of his first film appearances. The blandly handsome Nielsen spent most of his early career as an MGM contract player and second-tier leading man, eventually landing in the big-budget disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He appeared in Airplane! (1980) as a sendup of his no-nonsense image; since then, of course, his image has been nothing but nonsense. It's all work, I guess.
- Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius' Michelin Man-like sidekick, quickly became the archetypal sci-fi robot upon the film's release, and remained a cultural icon for many years. Robby's glass-domed hull served as an obvious inspiration for Lost in Space's nameless Robot ("Danger, Will Robinson!"), and Robby himself would make guest appearances on several TV shows and movies for nearly three decades, including Gremlins (1984) and a 1979 episode of Mork and Mindy. I cannot tell you how many of these appearances were intentional homages, as opposed to cases of parsimonious producers reusing a serviceable prop.