Film

The Foreign Visual Spectacle of “Forbidden Planet”

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Forbidden Planet is a 50s sci-fi film starring Leslie Nielsen (for real) as Commander John Adams, leader of an expedition from earth to Altair IV to determine the fate of a twenty-year-old expedition. Once arriving on the planet, a robot named Robby the Robot transports Adams and his Lieutenants Jerry Farman and “Doc” Ostrow (Jack Kelly and Warren Stevens) to the lair of Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). Morbius explains that upon arrival, the entire expedition with the exception of himself, his wife, and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), were killed by a mysterious, phantom force. As Adams and his crew discover, Morbius is hiding an ancient alien technology far superior to anything humans have accomplished. When Adams presses Morbius to turn over his discoveries to Earth, Morbius refuses, insisting that the technology is far too dangerous for man to possess. But don’t be fooled; the summary is far more interesting than the film itself.

Beyond intellectual ties to The Tempest, which I wouldn’t have thought of without having read about them online, the film is less valuable for its story than it is for its impressive visuals. The stunning special effects, futuristic if muted set designs, and integration of matte paintings, animation, rear projection, and live action to bring to life its various environments are striking. It was also shot in Eastmancolor, which enhances the vibrancy of the differing locations.

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Morbius guides Adams and Ostrow through the labyrinthine Krell machine complex.

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Another corridor of the Krell machine complex.

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Adams and his men fend off a phantom attacker.

Though the film is credited with helping to establish several science fiction tropes, it’s the visual aspects of Forbidden Planet that are most arresting and memorable, and their influence still rings through today. Take the shuttle Morbius uses to escort Adams and Ostrow to the inner workings of the immense Krell machine complex. A simple, short scene only a matter of seconds which has spawned indirect copies that are more iconic images than the original.

This isn’t to suggest that Forbidden Planet is the sole or even a major visual influence on films like Star Wars or 2001. It was not much of a financial success, earning the equivalent of about $24 million today against an unprecedented ballooning budget for the time. And though it is credited with establishing the science fiction trope of space travelers isolated on a planet far away from Earth, its dramatic impact is diminished by the fact that the denizens consciously choose to remain on Altair IV to conduct their investigation, and are not marooned there because of a crashed vessel. So while not compelling in this instance on the silver screen, the premise of an adventurous interstellar crew in deep space was the standard fare of Star Trek a decade later. To demonstrate how the film still resonates in popular culture today, Prometheus rips large pieces of its plot directly from Forbidden Planet.

Of the sci-fi films of the era, Forbidden Planet is one of the few that took great care to deliver a visual spectacle. Most were low-budget schlock that took the ‘artistic’ route of keeping its monster off-screen moreso because they couldn’t afford to show it (or were a bit embarrassed) than to heighten the tension. As a result, a great deal of sci-fi flicks are men in lab coats talking to each other on sets that look like high school chemistry labs. The only other notable movie of the time to go to such great lengths to achieve new levels of special effects is Byron Haskin’s 1953 classic The War of the Worlds, and unlike The War of the Worlds, which won Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards, Forbidden Planet was unfortunate enough to be nominated against only one other contestant—the epic The Ten Commandments.

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One thought on “The Foreign Visual Spectacle of “Forbidden Planet”

  1. A very flawed film, but still one of my favourites. The excitement I feel when the title appears and you see the space ship flying through space, no other film brings out the little boy in me like this one does.

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