Forbidden Planet, was the noble attempt to legitimize Sci Fi in the fifties. At the time Sci-Fi was strictly the stuff of B-Movies. Films made on the cheap with cardboard sets, and cardboard actors. Black and White filler made to put something on the screen while the kids necked at the drive in. The idea of Forbidden Planet was to do the sci-fi film as an A-picture. A Big Budget!!! A story (loosely) based on Shakespeare!!! Cutting edge special effects!!! This thing would have class coming out the wazoo!!!
Of course now Forbidden Planet looks if anything like more of an artifact than the Drive In Fodder it was supposed to outclass. This is mainly due to the fact that the producer’s definition of an “A-Picture” was clearly a B-Picture with a lot more money thrown at it. Narratively the film remains strictly in the realm of the unremarkable, (Compare it to the still powerful The Day The Earth Stood Still to see what I’m talking about here.) centered around a deadpan performance from Leslie Nielsen indistinguishable from his later work as Frank Drebbin. In short they may have lost the cardboard sets, but kept its use in other places.
The film follows a crew of astronauts, that lands on a planet deep in space, searching for the remnants of a crew of scientists that had been sent their earlier. To their surprise they find a survivor, Dr. Morpheus, who with his daughter is living among the ruins of a the civilization of an extinct race of aliens called The Krell, who were far beyond humans in their technological advancement. Morpheus has dedicated his life to studying the Krell and does not take kindly to the threat to his control that their presence represents. He warns the crew that the threat doesn’t come from him, but a monster who lurks on the surface of the planet.
The film was directed by Fred Wilcox, one of those directors who made their career in the studio system making any damn film the studio gave them. To give you an idea of his passion for Sci-fi it’s worth noting that the film he directed directly after Forbidden Planet was I Passed For White and his debut features were two of the Lassie Films.
The true people behind the film were Irving Block and Allen Adler. Who developed and pitched the film as a chance to show what the cutting edge special effects work they were capable of doing, but were unable to because of Sci Fi’s B-Budget. The efforts paid off, Forbidden Planet’s visual effects were above and beyond anything that had been seen at the time, though they appear charmingly retro to our post 2001: A Space Odyssey eyes. The film shows every sign of being one conceived of by special effects artists. At one point Dr. Morpheus turns to the spaceship crew and basically says “Would you all like to take a tour of our very expensive sets?” to which Nielson and Co, reply “Yes, yes we would like to take a tour of your very expensive sets.” They then spend the next thirty minutes walking from room to room, gazing in slack jawed wonder at what a couple of million dollars could buy in 1956.
And yet as improbable as it may seem these sequences actually offer the most haunting moments of Forbidden Planet. Sure large chunks of the film come off as corny, and the effects seem more like kitsch today. But not all of it, when the film shuts up, pulls back, and observes, it regains some of its haunting power that it must have had upon its first release. As we watch the human cast, dwarfed to the size of pinpoints by the enormity of the sets, crawling across the surface of great mechanisms of a past civilization, as ignorant and insignificant as insects, it is impossible not to feel, if only for a moment, that eerie awe that the genre is capable of producing at its best.