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Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of those rare science fiction movies that is admired even by filmgoers who don't usually enjoy the genre. Though originally intended for younger audiences, Forbidden Planet draws on real sci-fi ideas and boasts a groundbreaking electronic music score that gives it unexpected substance. In fact, the basic storyline is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest but it's a free adaptation in the same way that Clueless (1995) was loosely modeled on Jane Austen's Emma: If you recognize the source fine, but it's not essential to your enjoyment of the film.

The basic premise of Forbidden Planet would serve as the blueprint for a slew of sci-fi films and TV shows in its wake such as the television series, Star Trek. The film opens with the approach of Cruiser C-57D toward Altira IV, a planet with a strange history. It seems an exploration ship vanished there twenty years earlier. The cruiser's crew (commanded by Leslie Nielsen) discovers that only two people are left from the previous expedition: the scientist Morbius (two-time Oscar nominee Walter Pidgeon) and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). These two have built a home above the remains of an ancient civilization (one of the benefits of which is their servant Robby the Robot). However, Morbius surprisingly refuses to return to Earth, a decision that becomes all the more mysterious when an invisible force attacks the ship.

Forbidden Planet was initially conceived as a much different - and decidedly cheaper - film. The producer/writer/special effects team of Allen Adler and Irving Block ran a popular optical effects company, working on numerous schlock films but also classics like The Night of the Hunter (1955). They came up with the idea for something called Fatal Planet as a potential project for one of the B-movie studios. Instead they pitched it to the high-rollers at MGM, a process that required the duo to act out the story, including an impersonation of the invisible monster, for the benefit of the investors. To everybody's surprise, the studio decided to make this their first science fiction film and budgeted the film at $1 million, later expanding it to almost double that amount.

For the script they enlisted novelist Cyril Hume, a descendant of philosopher David Hume whose main claim to film was writing screenplays for the popular Tarzan series (He also worked on the first version of Ransom (1956) and Nicholas Ray's classic melodrama, Bigger Than Life, 1956). Luckily, Hume's script for Forbidden Planet brings unusual depth to what might have been yet another tacky science fiction film. It also has its down side: MGM insisted Hume add several "humorous" scenes revolving around the ship's cook, Cookie (played by Earl Holliman). It's Hollywood executive decisions like this that lead some viewers to agree with literary historian James Kincaid's famous essay, "Who Is Relieved by Comic Relief?" Interestingly enough, a scene where the cook's constant comments about the scarcity of women on the planet are answered by Robby bringing him a female chimp was never filmed.

Forbidden Planet was made inside MGM studios (except for a handful of shots) and used a 10,000 foot circular painting as a backdrop. One oddity about Forbidden Planet is that the film we see today is more or less an unfinished rough cut. What happened is that experimental composers Louis and Bebe Barron had been asked to supply the music for the film. (They'd previously only scored a few avant-garde shorts.) It would turn out to be a landmark score, utilizing only generated sounds (no conventional instruments like violins or pianos) and paved the way for both new forms of film scoring and for a more open approach to music. But the studio was a bit uneasy about the eerie score so they arranged a sneak preview to see how audiences would react. The response was so positive that MGM decided to release the film as it was, not even letting the editor tighten up the pacing or rework some rough patches.

Robby the Robot was such a hit that he was used again the following year for The Invisible Boy (1957) but then vanished from the screen until a cameo in 1984's Gremlins (where he reuses some dialogue from Forbidden Planet). The 6-foot, 11-inch creation required a person inside to man the controls as well as some outside electronic manipulation, none of which kept Robby from occasionally toppling over (One popular rumor reported that Robby was a drunk). The robot's voice was supplied by Marvin Miller who did vocal chores on projects ranging from MASH to Electra Woman and Dyna Girl though he also did acting in front of the camera (he was the guy giving out checks on the TV show The Millionaire). Miller even won two Grammies for audio versions of Dr. Seuss stories.

The mysterious marauding monster was the creation of Disney animators, one of the few times they have ever worked on an outside film. But it's the unique look of the surreal landscapes of Altira IV to the detailed spaceship to the design of the strange underground civilization that earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Special Effects (the award went that year to The Ten Commandments).

If you're a hardcore Forbidden Planet fan, here are some more fun trivia facts. For example, actor Harry Harvey Jr., who plays Randall in the film, also appeared in the exploitation classic Reefer Madness (1936) and ended his career with an uncredited role as a slave in Spartacus (1960). James Drury (future star of the TV series, The Virginian, 1962) and James Best (Shock Corridor, 1963) also turn up in supporting roles. Also, you might notice a sudden jump in a scene toward the end of the film that looks like something was cut: It was but not by TCM. The filmmakers wanted to speed things up and just clipped out a few seconds thinking nobody would ever care.

Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Producer: Nicholas Nayfack
Screenplay: Cyril Hume (based on a story by Irving Block and Alan J. Adler)
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Editing: Ferris Webster
Electronic Tonalities: Louis and Bebe Barron
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Dr. Morbius), Leslie Nielsen (Commander John J. Adams), Anne Francis (Altaira Morbius), Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow), Earl Holliman (Cookie), Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn), Jack Kelly (Lt. Farman), Robert Dix (Grey).
C-99m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.

by Lang Thompson



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