Forbidden Planet (1956)

Monsters…of the id!

I’ve always thought it would be fun to open up my own movie theatre. In addition to a bunch of new releases, I’d have one or two theatres reserved for old favorites, black-and-white gems and old-fashioned double features. We’d do everything from crime films (Bogey, Marty, etc.) to westerns (Leone, Eastwood, the Duke, etc.) to campy sci-fi films (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Revenge of the Creature, etc.).  I don’t know what I’d call the place; I haven’t given it that much thought.  After about two minutes my thoughts usually land on the fact that it costs about $3000 to rent a film, but as far as a name, I suppose I wouldn’t want something too kitschy.  I wouldn’t name it after a movie or a genre or anything; that’s limiting.  No star destroyer on the roof.  Nothing with my name in it either.

Naturally, the old-school end of the theatre would be graced by Anne Francis’ face as often as possible.  Who could forget her role in Fred Wilcox’s 1956 camp classic, Forbidden Planet?  This film not only capped Leslie Nielsen’s career and became one of the greatest and well-known science fiction films of all time, but its hand of influence has extended a long way.  Look at ABC’s LOST and the entire concept behind the smoke monster.  It started out as a nod to Wilcox’s film, in which the id monster starts out as an invisible entity that kills people, everyone who sees it seems to see something different, and the inhabitants of the planet set up a series of electronic pylons to protect themselves from it.

If you don’t know the story, a group of military space-travelers from Earth investigate a planet called Altair IV to discover the fate of a colony expedition from twenty years earlier.  There, they find Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who has set up an entire community to live in with his daughter, Alta (Anne Francis).  The commander of the Earth people (Nielsen) takes charge, though Morbius and Alta seem quite content to stay and be left alone.

The film deploys a few devices that are now filed under a “classic” column of their own category, including Robby the Robot, who would go on to be used in other films, and the infamous flying saucer that the Earth crew fly around in.  The performances, while occasionally a bit stony, are par for the course: Pidgeon makes a convincing “mad doctor” who is actually the only one who knows what he’s doing, and Jack Kelly makes a great pervert/womanizer, and we just know he’ll be the first to get the ragdoll treatment from the monster.  Some of my favorite scenes involve Earl Holliman as the ship’s cook, who asks Robby the Robot to make him “60 gallons” of his favorite whiskey.  They’re not just silly in an “old movie” sort of way, but they still hold up comedically today.  The cook, the spunkiest of our crew of heroes, is audacious (and perhaps drunk) enough to give it a go with the metallic Robby, wondering “Is it male or female?” right out of the box.

This interesting “partner” dynamic glows from every corner of the film.  The voyeuristic misogyny surrounding Alta is exemplified in Jack Kelly’s character immediately trying to bed her, and even though she doesn’t like him, she doesn’t mind kissing him a bit since she has no concept of love, sexuality or physical intimacy.  Oddly (and inevitably) enough, she discovers these essentials in the confident commander, who is initially quite rude and snakelike towards her.  What does her instant falling for him and acceptance of sexuality indicate?  Is this a signifier for complete sexual liberation?  The thought that humans are inherently sexual or otherwise primal enough that even when deprived of our essential functions and learnings for decades of life, we’ll instinctively find our way to them?  Or it is as simple as the innocent woman always falling for the brawny asshole who doesn’t even try?  Take away from it what you will, but you can’t deny the deliberate sex appeal Wilcox was going for with a scantily-dressed barefoot virgin who communes with wild tigers on her own planet.  Francis’ scenes are stunning and it’s almost unfair how bland the others (even Nielsen) appear next to her.

The abstract tonality of Leo and Bebe Barron’s, shall we say, “unmusic” is truly something to behold.  At first, its subtlety may cause it to slip by unnoticed in the background, but the true genius of the soundtrack lies in the fact that it doesn’t cause us to expect anything.  It doesn’t build up to crescendo in tense moments, it doesn’t get loud when the monster shows up and starts flinging crew members around like flapjacks.

The film also has an interesting resolution – one that I did not find as predictable as I thought I would.  It ends abruptly after the main mystery is figured out, but in those days, there wasn’t much to hang onto, as many of these films function purely on a plot twist or central mystery that remains the sole focus of the narrative, even surpassing the characters themselves in importance.

Until my imaginary movie theater opens, I’ll have to keep revisiting these influential jewels on my own (or going to Disney’s Sci-Fi Theater – is that still open?).  I hope no one forgets about them.


Forbidden Planet (1956); written by Cyril Hume (based on a story by Allen Adler); directed by Fred M. Wilcox; starring Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and Walter Pidgeon

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