Skiffy Flix: Forbidden Planet

This 1956 film is still regarded as an important early science fiction films, and one of the best of the 1950s, even if it shows its age 60 years on. It influenced both Star Trek and Lost in Space, and in turn our notions of what adventures in outer space might consist of.

(“Skiffy flix” is my derisively affectionate term for bad science fiction movies, which is most science fiction movies, and certainly by most standards all science fiction movies before 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Yet the older ones, especially those from the 1950s, retain a fascination for me, for reasons discussed in thes posts — they are not to be taken as serious science fiction, but they reveal things about what was *thought* to be science fiction, or what filmmakers *thought* the universe was like, or how filmmakers deliberate misrepresented that universe in order to appeal to what general audiences *wanted* the universe to be like.

“Skiffy” is a deliberately derisive pronunciation of “sci-fi,” which is a much-loathed abbreviation for “science fiction”; it was coined in the 1950s in analogy with “hi-fi” (that is, high fidelity record players) and its association with the crude science fiction movies of the time made it anathema to writers (and readers) of the usually far more sophisticated SF novels and stories. And “flix” of course is Hollywood headline abbreviation for “flicks,” that is, movies.)

In these movie review posts beginning in 2018, I’m adopting the format of my Star Trek episode reviews: rather than a narrative review or analysis, this is a set of bullet points, annotations as it were, as I step my way through the film, with just enough plot synopsis to put the comments in context. And as with those Trek posts, my comments align along several themes: how the story and premise make sense on their own terms; how they reflect accurate or inaccurate conceptions of the universe; and how they reflect cultural values at the time, which we may or may not sympathize with today. And how film and TV SF differs, in scope and ambition, from the literary variety.

  • This film predates the original Star Trek series by a decade – or a bit less considering when Trek’s first pilot was being drafted and sold. The basic conception is very similar. In the film, we follow an interstellar spaceship, here mundanely named the C57D, on a mission to Altair IV to check on the status of a scientific expedition sent there 20 years before. (Sounds a lot like certain Trek episodes!)
  • The spacecraft C57D, appropriate for its time (the 1950s saw the peak of UFO/flying saucer sightings) is shaped like a flying saucer – round, with a thin wide center disk, and round bubble top and bottom.
  • Typical of most science fiction in any medium, the film under-estimates the rate of future technological progress. At the very beginning, a narrator intones, “In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 A.D., they had reached the other planets of our solar system.” As it turned out, men (no women) landed on the moon in 1969, and it’s only lack of will – not technological know-how – that prevents anyone in 2018 from designing ships to reach other planets in much less than another 200 years.
  • The narrator goes on to say that, “almost at once” after 2200 A.D. “hyperdrive” was discovered by which the speed of light was “greatly surpassed,” and thus “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” The film does not indicate how soon after this event in 2200 A.D. our story is set.
  • (The best set of quotes from the film I’ve found is here: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Forbidden_Planet )
  • Still, we are told that this “United Planets Cruiser C57D” is “now more than a year out from Earth Base” on a mission to Altair.
    • As occasionally in Trek, one spots the unexamined assumption that, despite however long hyperdrive has been available, and planets of other stars have been settled upon, this year-long mission to Altair is setting off *from Earth.* Aren’t there other places it might have set off from, in an interstellar neighborhood made accessible by decades or more of hyperdrive?
    • For that matter, is it plausible that this ship full of several dozen men should be sent on a *year-long* mission just to check out what happened to an earlier expedition? (Does this have precedence in the sea voyages and colonization efforts of the Europeans over several centuries?)
    • And we are told that the earlier expedition was sent out 20 years ago! Why has it taken 19 years to send the follow-up?
  • The opening scenes reveal several design and plot points stolen by both Star Trek and Lost in Space.
    • Trek of course adopted the idea of a starship running various missions.
    • Lost in Space adopted, or stole, several very specific design points: the navigation sphere in the middle of the control room of the ship, with a model of the ship in the center; the “D.C. Station” pads that the crewmen stand on as the ship decelerates out of hyperdrive (LIS had tubes in which the crew, in the very first episode, were suspended to be shielded from the shock of the launch); and of course the flying saucer structure of the craft, complete with three legs with steps; and the ‘tractor’ (in LIS called the Chariot). As well as the idea of a robot, and the plot point in which an invisible creature leaves heavy footprints.
    • In a minor Trek, or Trek TNG, allusion, there’s even a line here about having to “reverse polarity.”
  • The plot gets underway as the ship from Earth, captained by Leslie Nielsen (familiar as a comedic actor in later decades in Airplane and many others) as Commander Adams, with Warren Stevens (familiar from Trek) as Doc Ostrow, lands on the planet, despite a voice message from Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius warning them away, because not only do they need no help, but because Morbius cannot guarantee their safety if they land. (Sounds familiar.)
    • The special effects are good, but not great; you can see the model of the spaceship wobble as it descends the surface of the planet.
    • This is the place to mention the story’s debt to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which I will not further explore.
  • A landcar approaches – seen via a plume of dust coming in from a distance – and arrives, piloted by what the crewmen realize is a robot. This is the famous Robby the Robot, who had a later life in other movies and TV shows. Robby speaks and invites the captain and his men to visit Dr. Morbius.
  • Who lives in a palatial structure of 1950s Moderne design, complete with fountains and abstract art objects.
  • Morbius explains that he lives here all alone, that the rest of the crew of his ship died of some “planetary force,” which vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon, as they lifted off to return to Earth (leaving Morbius behind).
  • But after lunch we see Morbius is not all alone – he has a daughter, a young woman named Altaira (how unimaginatively cliché) (played by Anne Francis), who without explanation is wearing a very skimpy dress. Apparently Morbius didn’t think to count her as another person, as he’d said he was on the planet all alone.
  • Here is where the film goes off the rails, by any standards I would think; perhaps these scenes merely reflect how sexual innuendo was handled in the 1950s. We are told that Altaira has been raised in isolation, and has never seen other people aside from her father.
    • And yet, she has no trouble complimenting the three men from the Earth ship as prime specimens. How does she know? And she’s not in the least bit shy, despite apparently not having seen any other human beings than her father in her entire life.
    • (Perhaps Altaira has been exposed to videos of Earth people, perhaps in movies? If so it’s not mentioned.)
    • And then follows several scenes of excruciatingly embarrassing dialogue as one crewman and later the commander tries to make small talk with her and get to know her. She is innocent and misunderstanding, or pretending to be so, even as she keeps showing up in one after another skimpy dress, in later scenes; or the scripters are playing the situation for laughs.
    • Several of these scenes are just badly directed. When the first crewman to chat her up corners her by the coffee machine, what are Morbius and the others doing? We don’t know. Morbius seems to be unconcerned about the culture shock of his daughter meeting new people; Adams unconcerned about one of his crewmen’s obvious intentions at attracting her attention.
      • As an aside, Walter Pidgeon’s acting has all the warmth of a documentary film narrator. He has a sonorous voice, but otherwise is leaden.
    • And for no particular reason we see that Altaira has several ‘friends’ outside in the garden: a couple tame deer and even a tame tiger. These are cited later as evidence the local aliens once reached Earth, but why should Altaira have some magic charm over them? A later implication is that she possesses some essential innocence, that becomes lost when her sexual feelings for one of the men wakens; but do young innocent women normally have magical charming effects on large animals?
    • For that matter, it’s easy to wonder if there isn’t some subconscious motivation on Morbius’ part, that he should let his daughter dress so.
    • Later Commander Adams intervenes when his crewman is ‘teaching’ Altaira how to kiss, and incredibly Adams gets angry at *her* for leading the crewman on, never mind how they’ve been told how isolated she’s been and have heard how naïve her responses are.
  • The next scene involves Adams’ need to get instructions from Earth about what to do, given that Morbius has no interest in being rescued or leaving the planet. Yet contacting Earth seems to require a huge construction project to build a “klystron transmitter” that involves cannibalizing parts of the ship. Perhaps Adams should have been given authority to make decisions on his own, if the technology to phone home is that difficult to deploy.
  • A running comic relief character is Cookie, the ship’s chef, who’s always wiping his hands on his apron. At one point he corners Robby (how is it he has the authority to tell this alien robot where to go and what to do?) and asks for some “real stuff,” you know. No Robby doesn’t know. Cookie produces a bottle of booze. Robby can reproduce any substance, it seems (how handy; but then, robots and aliens routinely have supernatural powers in movie and TV sf) – by pouring a sample into his ingestion port! — and promises 60 gallons of the stuff.
  • And then the plot begins. One night something unseen breaks into the ship and sabotages some components. Adams and Ostrow confront Morbius the next morning about what that might have been. Morbius, without answering their question, tells them about the Krell, the ancient race that inhabited this planet, who reached vast heights of intellect and ethics – before vanishing in a single night.
  • And Morbius takes them on a tour: first of his lab, a large room full of modernesque screens and gauges, and a “plastic educator” or teaching machine that Morbius says he used though it almost killed him, but still doubled his IQ. [Despite which he uses the phrase “almost literally to the power of infinity” which is problematic on three grounds.]
  • Morbius then leads them onto a shuttle car that shoots down an endless tube. We then see them, from high overhead, walk across a bridgeway over a vast vertical shaft – a vision copied by Irwin Allen in another of his 1960s series, Time Tunnel, in its initial episode – and tells them there are 7800 levels and dozens of similar shafts, all atomic reactors.
    • These apparently vast sets and enormous machines are the sense-of-wonder highlight of the film, a reasonably sophisticated vision of alien technology and knowledge that suggests how far advanced it might be over anything human.
  • Adams argues with Morbius about who should control access to this vast store of knowledge left by Krell. Morbius insists only he is capable of deciding what knowledge to release, presumably because of his now vast IQ.
  • Back at the ship, the crewmen construct a force field around the ship – another gizmo stolen by Lost in Space. Yet that night something invisible breaks through it, leaving large deep footprints in the soft soil as it walks, enters the ship (bending the steps, though they are unbent later), and we hear a scream as a crewman is murdered.
    • A crewman constructs a model of the foot that made the footprints, a shape that defies evolution. But what has this to do with – as we find out — the monster from the Id?
  • The crewmen arm themselves as radar detects the creature returning – and they realize now that it’s invisible. They fire their blasters (common SF gizmos of the pulp era, later adapted into LIS lasers and Trek’s phasers), and the splash of the blasters makes the creature visible, a fiery outline of a monster with a gaping, screaming mouth. It grabs men who get too close and tosses them aside. (The invisible monster that becomes visible is seen again in Jonny Quest, in a quite similar depiction.)
  • The monster abruptly vanishes – because, we see, Alta was having a nightmare and wakes Morbius from his sleep. Hmm.
  • Adams tells the crew to prepare to depart; he and Ostrow head to Morbius’, planning to use that machine for a brain boost. As Adams comforts Alta (as in Trek, the Captain has gotten the girl), Ostrow sneaks off to use the brain booster, and returns, shaken. He reveals that the great underground machines enabled the Krell the materialize anything they could imagine – even, he says as he dies, the “monsters from the Id.”
  • Adams confronts Morbius, having figured out what’s really going on. (In these final scenes, Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon do some genuine acting, or at least have a chance to raise their voices.) The machines respond not only to conscious commands, but also motivations by the subconscious – the Id! (An old-fashioned term, Morbius says, trying to brush the theory aside.) And the monster is him, Morbius — he was the one who destroyed the Bellerophon, in anger at being abandoned, and he’s the one attacking the Adams’ now, as his daughter threatens to leave him for Adams.
  • The monster now approaches Morbius’ residence, tearing it apart; the humans flee into the Krell chambers below, as the monster approaches, melting a door. Morbius, collapsing in grief, instructs Adams to set a self-destruct device, and dies.
  • And at the end we see the ship fleeing the planet, with both Robby and Altaira safely aboard. They see the planet explode behind them. Adams comforts Altaira: “About a million years from now the human race would have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.” The end.
  • One can quibble about the revelation of this surprise ending. How is it Ostrow, with a quick, unskilled brain boost, perceives what the great Morbius hadn’t? Why did the monster vanish when Morbius woke up, then reappear? Because he was arguing with Adams? And so on.
  • On the other hand, what gives this film most of its points is that it’s not *just* a monster movie in which the great white captain saves the nubile young woman; there’s a reason for the monster to exist, one that indicts human (and Krell) ambition and scientific hubris. And in that, the story is pop sci-fi that submits to homespun verities about how “there are some things man was not meant to know” and the dangers of scientists “playing god.” There’s an underlay of significance here, but not one to be respected; in this, it’s a flavor of what’s been called anti-science fiction, like all the thrillers in which the scientific discovery gets out of control and must be vanquished; the story ends with restoring order, not in any discovery or advance.
  • Thus also the offhand piety. Early in the film, a crewman notes that “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds.” And the final lines underscore the lesson that scientists must refrain from godlike ambition. Thus the audience is assured that their supernatural order is safe and secure; nothing has changed.
  • And this is why – that this, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, represent the best SF films could offer in the 1950s – SF films and TV have always been far more inhibited than the best SF literature, which truly does seek to overturn verities, make discoveries, change the world, and discover new ones.
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