Well, not quite. FORBIDDEN PLANET is very loosely based on The Bard’s THE TEMPEST, drawing on some of its themes and characters, and putting them in an outer space setting. But the film is much more than that. It’s full of screen firsts, and one of the most influential science fiction movies ever. While watching I was more than reminded of STAR TREK, and wasn’t surprised while doing research that Gene Roddenberry cited it as “one of his inspirations”.
Today no one thinks twice about movies being set completely in outer space, but FORBIDDEN PLANET did it first. The art and set direction by MGM vets Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan are wonders to behold, shot in beautiful CinemaScope and Eastmancolor by George J. Folsey. The cinematographer began in silent pictures, and carved a niche with big, splashy musicals like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, earning 13 Oscar nominations in the process. Folsey’s camerawork, along with a battalion of special effects technicians (including Disney animator Joshua Meador), help make Altair-IV a believable world without any CGI (most of you know how I feel about CGI by now!)
The film follows the adventures of the crew of United Planets ship C57-D, on a mission to find the long-lost Bellerophon expedition on Altair-IV. Commander Adams and his crew are warned not to land by Dr. Morbius, one of the expedition’s scientists. But Adams has his orders, and they arrive to meet Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira, along with their servant Robby the Robot (we’ll talk more about him later!) Morbius tells Adams and company the other members of the party were killed, “torn limb from limb”, by some strange, unknown creature. He’s spent the last twenty years studying the ancient knowledge of the Krell, a race of highly intelligent beings who trod Altair-IV nearly 2000 centuries ago. The Krell’s sophisticated scientific advances have given Morbius a superior IQ through their machinery. But something strange is happening again on Altair-IV, as the C57-D’s crew members begin getting picked off by an invisible monster.
Adams and his men try to combat the thing, but their weaponry is useless against the monster. When Adams and Doc return to Morbius’s lair, Doc tries the IQ machine on himself. It’s power kills him, but before he dies, he uncovers the truth about the monster. It’s a manifestation of Morbius’s own subconscious, a monster from the Id that must be stopped or the crew of the C57-D will be destroyed by it!
The cast of FORBIDDEN PLANET is terrific, with veteran star Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius leading the pack. Pidgeon made seven films with Greer Garson, including the wartime drama MRS. MINIVER, and was a well-respected actor on the MGM lot. Adams is played by Leslie Nielsen, another serious dramatic actor, that is until 1980’s AIRPLANE! discovered his untapped comic talents. Beautiful Anne Francis (Altaira) starred in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE before being cast in the mid-60s Private Eye cult series HONEY WEST. Warren Stevens (Doc) is remembered best for his many guest shots in episodic TV, while Adams’ second in command Lt. Farman was Jack Kelly, later one of the MAVERICK brothers. Earl Holliman (Cookie) is well known for his Western appearances, and his stint as Angie Dickinson’s boss on POLICE WOMAN. Other crew members include George Wallace (Commando Cody in the Republic serial RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), James Drury (TV’s THE VIRGINIAN), James Best (DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Rosco P. Coltrane), and William Boyette (ADAM-12). Director Fred McLeod Wilcox handles the ensemble well, though he’s better known for directing another MGM star in several films, Lassie!
Then there’s Robby the Robot. The now-iconic Robby made his debut here, and unlike robots before him, he has a personality and character all his own. Robby’s a servant in name only, he’s more like one of the family to Morbius and Altaira. The erudite robot was voiced by Marvin Miller, long-time radio actor and film narrator who gained success in the TV series THE MILLIONAIRE. Inside Robby was former juvenile lead Frankie Darro. The diminutive (5’3″) Darro manipulated the controls in the robot costume, uncredited until it was revealed in 2000. Darro starred in a series of Monogram comedy mysteries in the early 40s with black actor Mantan Moreland, a rarity in that Moreland was portrayed onscreen as Darro’s pal rather than the stereotyped subservient role. Robby itself went on to costar in THE INVISIBLE BOY before a slew of TV guest shots in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MORK AND MINDY, and LOST IN SPACE, where he was teamed with the Robinson’s own iconic Robot.
The score for FORBIDDEN PLANET was another screen first. Bebe and Louis Barron were pioneers in the electronic music world, and the film was the first to feature an all-electronic score. Most filmgoers had never heard such sounds, and the movie’s weird music adds to the feeling of being on a distant planet. Probably the most well thought out science-fiction film of the 50s, certainly the most expensive, FORBIDDEN PLANET stands out among its peers as the greatest space opera of its era. It’s a film that should be seen by not only sci-fi buffs, but by everyone that has an interest in movie history.