The science fiction cult classic movie Forbidden Planet was released in 1956. A thought-provoking and spectacular foray to a distant planet, it established many of the conventions which later became enshrined in classics such as Star Trek - a good-looking captain who gets the girl, a more intelligent second-in-command, and the ruins of a once-great civilisation. Forbidden Planet is loosely based on William Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. It is often described as 'a version of The Tempest'. We'll look into parallels between the two works later.
The principal characters in the film were Doctor Morbius, his daughter Altaira, and the crew of the visiting spaceship.
The role of Morbius was played admirably by Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984). Pidgeon had for many years played supporting roles opposite such greats as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Nelson Eddy. He was already 44 by the time of his first lead role, in How Green Was My Valley (1941). He received an Oscar nomination for Mrs Miniver (1942).
Morbius's daughter Altaira was played by Anne Francis (1930-2011). A beautiful blonde, she appeared in a number of short-skirted costumes which showed off her long legs, but she was far from being the 'dumb blonde'. Francis had fought hard to find roles other than the 'starlet', eventually achieving recognition in 1955 with Bad Day at Black Rock and Blackboard Jungle. After Forbidden Planet, she concentrated more on a career in television.
The captain of the spaceship was played by Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010), who later became famous for his series of comic films Airplane and Naked Gun. While most of us think of him as the white-haired, funny guy with the big nose, here he was playing the handsome young male lead.
The second important member of the crew is Lieutenant Ostrow, the ship's medical officer and known as 'Doc'. He was played by Warren Stevens, a character actor who has played hundreds of roles in film and television.
The robot was billed in the cast list as another actor: and introducing Robby, the Robot. Robby went on to star in a B-Movie, The Invisible Boy, and made many television appearances. Robby was actually an elaborate suit with uncredited stuntman Frankie Darro inside. Robby's voice was provided by Marvin Miller.
Forbidden Planet was unusual in that there was no music accompanying the titles, either at the start or end of the feature. Instead, other-wordly electronic sounds were heard. These were state-of-the-art at the time, but sound incredibly dated now.
A spaceship, the C-57D, is sent to the planet Altair IV1 to investigate - another ship, the Bellerophon had gone there 20 years before and nothing had ever been heard of it since. The crew of the C-57D are surprised to find that one member of the earlier expedition is still living on the planet, apparently quite happily. He is Doctor Morbius, a doctor of philology, the study of words and languages. Morbius is a distinguished-looking gentleman in his late fifties, well-spoken and with bushy eyebrows and a neat goatee beard. He tells them that when his ship landed on the planet, he had married one of the other crew-members, but that the rest of the crew were then killed by an unknown force which ripped them apart. Only he and his wife were immune, for reasons unknown.
The couple had a daughter, Altaira, who is now a beautiful young woman. Morbius's wife died of natural causes, so the doctor and his daughter now live alone together. They live in absolute luxury, because Morbius has built a robot 'Robby' who provides their every need. When questioned as to how he, a doctor of philology, could build such a machine which is beyond the knowledge of contemporary science and technology, he dismisses the question.
Morbius warns the crew that whatever killed his shipmates will surely return and kill them too, and urges them to leave immediately. The crew are suspicious and decide to investigate. Sure enough, a few days later an invisible monster turns up and starts killing people.
Meanwhile Morbius explains to the newcomers about the vanished Krell civilisation that once inhabited the planet...
Parallels with The Tempest
The most obvious parallels are between the three major characters of the film and the corresponding ones in the play. Dr Morbius is Prospero. Altaira is Miranda. Commander Adams is Prince Ferdinand.
Their roles are slightly different, though. Prospero is completely in control throughout the play. While he puts Ferdinand in chains early on, it is only as a test and he really approves of the Prince's union with his daughter. Dr Morbius on the other hand officially approves of the Commander but secretly resents him. It is this that brings the monster to attack.
More detailed parallels can be seen in the following table. In some cases a major plot point in one has no parallel in the other, showing that the comparison is a loose one.
The Tempest is set on an island inhabited by spirits. Although a bare island with no trees and no shelter, the grass is green and lush. The only human inhabitants are an old man, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda. Prospero is a man of great learning, and has managed to get the spirits of the island to serve him, providing him with everything he needs. Most important is the sprite Ariel - who can do anything at all at Prospero's bidding.
Forbidden Planet is set on a planet which was once the site of an advanced civilisation. The only human inhabitants are an old man, Dr Morbius, and his daughter Altaira. The Doctor is a man of great learning, and has managed to get the machines of the lost civilisation to serve him, providing him with anything he wishes for. Although the planet is a somewhat forbidding desert world, Morbius lives in a beautiful peaceful oasis.
A ship is wrecked on the island, and three groups of survivors wander around the island.
A spaceship arrives on the planet.
Prince Ferdinand, a young and good-looking guy, wanders alone and meets up with Miranda. Ferdinand tells Miranda that she is very beautiful but she replies that she's no judge of beauty, since she has never seen another woman, and the only men she has seen are her own father and the savage Caliban. Ferdinand falls in love with her and eventually they marry.
The captain of the ship, Commander JJ Adams is a young and good-looking guy. He meets up with Altaira. Adams tells Altaira that she is very beautiful but she replies that she's no judge of beauty, since she has never seen another woman, and the only man she's seen is her father. Adams falls in love with her. By the end of the film, they are inseparable.
King Alonso and various other noblemen form the second group. They are people that have mistreated Prospero in his former life, so he tortures them to teach them a lesson.
The third group consists of two bumbling fools. They meet up with Caliban, a malformed savage who is a slave to Prospero. The three drink a lot of wine and hatch a plot to murder Prospero, which comes to nothing.
|The ship's cook meets up with Robby the Robot, a machine who obeys Morbius's every command, and arranges with him to manufacture many bottles of whiskey. The two characters then stay up all night drinking the booze.|
|The savage Caliban threatens to rape Prospero's daughter Miranda.|
The tame tiger that Altaira has befriended goes wild and attacks her. Before she is injured, the Commander kills it with his ray gun.
|An invisible monster appears and starts killing people. Eventually it is clear that it is coming to get Captain Adams. The ship's doctor 'Doc' Ostrow uses the ancient machines to boost his own intelligence and figures out that the monster is being commanded by Dr Morbius's subconscious mind. Nothing will stop it as long as Morbius is in control. The Doctor must renounce the monster in order that Altair and the Captain can love each other.|
The Making of Forbidden Planet
In the 1950s before television had really caught on, a night out at the cinema would normally involve a number of features. There would be cartoons, perhaps a newsreel, and a 'B Picture', before the main feature. The B Picture was a low-budget film and was usually poor in quality of filming, acting and script. Writers Irving Block and Allen Adler originally conceived the story of Forbidden Planet as a B Picture and presented it to Allied Artists. It was turned down.
They then tried MGM, a major film producer, and it was accepted as a main feature. It was the first science fiction film to be made as a main feature, and the first to be set entirely outside of the Earth. The budget of the film was $1.9 million, and it grossed $3 million, making it a successful venture.
The film was directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox. The screenplay was by Cyril Hume based on Block and Adler's original story, which itself was heavily inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.
The music was by Louis and Bebe Barron and was performed entirely on electronic instruments. These are listed in the credits as 'Electronic tonalities' rather than music - legend has it that the Musician's Union refused to allow such sounds be classed as music.
Special effects were by a team of artists and animators. Special mentions must go to matte painting supervisor Warren Newcombe for the marvellous planetary landscapes, and Joshua Meador for the sequence involving the monster and the force field.
The theatrical trailer described the film as 'Far and away the most provocative and unusual adventure film you've ever seen.'
The marketing poster for the film showed Robby the Robot carrying the unconscious figure of a beautiful and curvaceous blonde girl. There is a scene in the film where Robby appears carrying an unconscious figure, but it is the slightly less attractive Lieutenant 'Doc' Ostrow.
Forbidden Planet is a simple film - there are only a few characters, and only one simple plot. There are very few sub-plots - virtually the only thing that happens in the whole film that is not directly relevant to the plot is the Cook and the Robot's drinking session. As a result, the whole film seems more like an episode of a TV series than a modern film. Once you get used to this feeling, you can appreciate the film for what it is, rather than comparing it with a modern blockbuster.
The story is well told, with the secret of the monster only gradually being revealed so that we are kept in suspense.
The special effects are very good despite being about 60 years old at time of writing of this Entry. The two best effects involve the invisible monster. In one, the crew erect a force field around their ship to keep the monster out. When the monster tries to break through the force field, we see it as a vague figure outlined in sparks and the energy glow of the force field. It appears to be a huge horned beast similar to a lion or bear, although we never get a clear enough view to be sure2. The second time the monster appears, it is behind a blast door and is attempting to melt its way through the door. Again we never quite see the monster, which makes it all the more frightening. As the door starts to melt, we see the energy usage dials on the Krell Machine control panel jump up to several million times their normal level.
Other special effects such as the landing of the flying-saucer-shaped spaceship on the planet look dated now but don't detract from the film.
The shots showing the giant machine don't work well. An attempt is made to show a machine extending 20 miles in each direction; to give it scale, Morbius and Adams are shown standing on a walkway in front of the machine. The figures are so small that they are easily missed, particularly on the small TV screen, leaving what looks like an incomprehensible jumble of pipes and air vents.
All in all, the film is enjoyable, thoughtful and as it proceeds to the climax, exciting. It fully deserves to be a considered a modern classic.
Under the Influence of Forbidden Planet
It has already been pointed out that the general structure of Star Trek episodes follows the pattern of Forbidden Planet, with the spaceship arriving at a new planet each week: the good-looking captain gets to kiss the girl while the more intelligent but less well-rounded second-in-command solves the mystery. One episode was even more indebted to Forbidden Planet: in 'Requiem for Methuselah', the crew of the Enterprise beam down to a planet in search of an antidote to a plague. They find an old man, Flint, who dresses like a Roman, appears to remember life in mediaeval Constantinople and has a wonderful collection of da Vinci paintings. He lives alone on the planet except for a robot and a beautiful young woman, Rayna. But things are not what they seem to be. Star Trek also borrowed special effects from Forbidden Planet. The inertial dampers used to protect the crew during the transition from faster-than-light travel in the film reappear in Star Trek as the transporter units.
The name of Morbius was used in the Doctor Who adventure, 'The Brain of Morbius'. There was also a Doctor Who adventure called 'Planet of Evil' which was heavily based on Forbidden Planet. As the C-57D spaceship is landing, one of the officers announces 'We're reversing the polarity'. This became a favourite phrase in Doctor Who, where reversing the polarity of various things became the standard techno-babble for any sort of sophisticated science or engineering carried out by the Doctor.
The scene in which the monster attempts to burn through the blast doors in Forbidden Planet is re-enacted in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. In Forbidden Planet, the monster calls on the incalculable power of the Krell Machine to melt through the doors. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn calls on the limitless power of the Force which he focuses through a light-sabre to melt through the blast doors on board the Trade Federation's space station.
Robby the Robot was built by Robert Kinoshita, who went on to design the very similar robot in the long-running TV series Lost in Space. Although this robot did not have a name, it fulfilled very much the same role as Robby.
A stage musical Return to the Forbidden Planet in around 1990 was based on a cross between The Tempest and Forbidden Planet. It was mainly a loosely-plotted excuse to play lots of popular rock and roll songs.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the scene where Slartibartfast shows Arthur Dent the Magrathea planet-building workshop was directly inspired by the scene where Dr Morbius shows the visitors the inside of the giant Krell machine, even down to the tiny train capsule they climb into at the start.
The name 'Forbidden Planet' has been used for a chain of Science Fiction/Fantasy bookshops in the UK and Ireland.