Forbidden Planet: A Cinematic Sci-Fi Classic

Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen in Forbidden Planet. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Forbidden Planet is the greatest sci-fi film of its time and would pave the way for bigger and better sci-fi blockbusters to come.

If you’re up for waking up bright and early on Saturday morning or wish to set a DVR, the film is airing as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming. It earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects at the 29th Academy Awards. Not surprisingly, the film lost to The Ten Commandments, which almost certainly won just for the parting of the sea. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t watched yet, you owe it to yourself to watch at least once in your life.

The genre owes a great deal to Forbidden Planet. It might appear to be a low-budget film by today’s standards–you’ll get no argument from me–but one can see the makings of bigger things to come. Until this point in cinema history, audiences had never seen humans traveling at lightspeed on a starship of any kind. The other thing here is that no other movie had been set on a planet far, far away from Earth. Even when it comes to Robby the Robot, here’s a robot that has an actual personality. They aren’t just there to walk around and do things for the people that made them. Concerning the films plot, it also shows that one can remake Shakespeare classics in a loose way but set it within an entirely different genre. In this instance, Shakespeare’s The Tempest gets the sci-fi treatment.

The film is set in 2200 so yes, I have some questions. Why are there no women on C-57D? At the very least, there could be some women on the bridge. I guess this is what society thought of women in the 1950s but I digress. In any event, the ship–commanded by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen)–is on a rescue mission to provide relief to Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) on Altair IV. It comes as a surprise to the crew that there are only two survivors remaining. While Dr. Morbius tells them to turn back, they insist on landing anyway. Robby the Robot takes Commander Adams and Lieutenants Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens) to the residence where they learn of the recent history.

The film’s screenplay evolves quite a bit following Cyril Hume’s rewrite. Taking over a script first written by Irving Block and Allen Adler, names, locations, and years would change. Otherwise, it’s the same basic plot although Morbius ends up dying in the film.

Robby the Robot would become one of the most expensive props for its time. At the time of production, the robot cost about $125K to make. If you’re wondering, this inflates to about $1 million in today’s dollars. But at the time, the cost accounted for only 7% of production. It’s absolutely absurd but again, if you want to make a decent sci-fi film, it means having a larger budget. MGM was smart and didn’t let Robby go to waste because the robot would make future appearances in The Invisible Boy and other TV series and films.

Musically speaking, this is the first film to feature an electronic score. It was especially innovative for the 1950s since Bebe and Louis Barron were pioneers of electronic music on screen. Fun fact: the synthesizer would not be invented until the 1960s so Louis Barron had to invent the electronic circuits himself.

I grew up only knowing Leslie Nielsen from the likes of Airplane, The Naked Gun, etc. As such, it does feel a bit weird to see the actor on screen during a much younger time in his career. There’s no gray hair on his head! Moreover, because of the films I’d seen him in, I had only known him as a comic actor. Even though I knew he did dramas pre-Airplane, it still feels weird to actually see a dramatic performance on screen.

Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron would be among the filmmakers influenced by the film. Again, this film has an important place in the sci-fi genre. We do not have Star Trek or Star Wars without it! Some of these filmmakers would utilize further advances in technology to help make sci-fi what it is today. Or in the cases of Lucas and Cameron, they would invent the technology since it didn’t exist. Take Altair IV, for instance. The exteriors were a mix of special effects, matte paintings, and sets. Cut to 20 years later, George Lucas is on location to shoot the exteriors of Tatooine. It would be repeated elsewhere for both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. My how things had changed!

DIRECTOR: Fred M. Wilcox
CAST: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, with Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Richard Anderson, Earl Holliman, and introducing Robby the Robot

MGM released Forbidden Planet in theaters on March 23, 1956. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.