Retro-Musings #2: “Forbidden Planet”

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1956’s “Forbidden Planet” is one of the seminal sci-fi movie classics, and for a host of good reasons; it was a prototype that many followed (it’s practically a theatrical pilot for 1966’s Star Trek), it has colorful, dazzling special effects, an able-and-willing cast, high production values (rare for ’50s science fiction movies), and its screenplay (by Cyril Hume) is based on no less than the work of The Bard himself (“The Tempest”).  Of course, when I first saw it on Sunday afternoon TV many years ago, I didn’t really know or care about that, nor did I realize it was a very loose, clever retelling of “The Tempest.”   But I knew it had a really cool robot (Robby, who would be recycled in pop culture for decades to come), it reminded me of Star Trek, and it was a lot of fun.

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The story begins with the crew of the interplanetary cruiser C-57D (which looks like a detached Enterprise’s saucer section) investigating the MIA spaceship “Bellerophon”, which landed on the ‘forbidden planet’ of Altair IV twenty years ago and has not been heard from since.  So far, this sounds like a TV Guide description of a typical Star Trek episode, right?   Captain “J.J. Adams” (played by a deadly serious, pre-“Airplane!” Leslie Nielsen) and his crew come out of hyperspace and receive a radio message from Bellerophon lone survivor Prof. Morbuis (Walter Pidgeon); who warns them to keep away and that all is fine on Altair IV.   But Adams has his orders (from the “United Planets”) and he tells Morbius that (welcome or not) he and his crew are landing (I half-expected them to say they were beaming down).

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Upon landing, Adams and his crew are met in what looks like a very 1950s, pre-Star Wars landspeeder that is piloted by mechanical marvel “Robby the Robot,” who offers to take them to see Morbius.   Adams takes along his medical officer, Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens), as well as his lascivious first officer Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly).   Among the crew left behind at the ship are mechanic Chief Quinn (a pre-“Six Million Dollar Man” Richard Anderson) and Earl Holliman (“Twilight Zone” “Police Woman”) as the ship’s comic relief/cook.

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Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) shows off his ‘home of tomorrow’, along with his robot Robby (suffering a temporary feedback loop to demonstrate his inability to kill intelligent beings, even when ordered to do so).

As they arrive at his home, it turns out ‘lone survivor’ Morbius has some pretty amazing digs; a very 1950s-style ‘home of the future,’ complete with emergency shutters, a disintegrator disposal unit and all kinds of other cool gizmos.   And… surprise, surprise… an intelligent-and-nubile teenaged daughter “Altaira” (Anne Francis).   She was born shortly after the landing of the Bellerophon (her mother, like the rest of the crew, are all mysteriously dead).   Altaira has had no contact with any other human being, save for her seemingly overprotective (though oddly pimp-ish) father, who shows her off like a prized pet.

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Her isolation, of course, means she doesn’t quite understand the crew’s “Mad Men”-esque sexual harassment (the wolf whistles and various attempts to forcibly kiss her still make me squirm…).   The crew also expresses distrust of hulking mechanical manservant Robby, until Morbius demonstrates how Robby is incapable of murder by ordering it to fire a blaster at Capt. Adams; the robot nearly shorts out till Morbius cancels the order.

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The officers are taken on a tour of the impressive Krell laboratories, deep beneath the ‘forbidden planet’ of Altair IV…

(***SPOILERS TO A 61 YEAR OLD MOVIE***)

When pressing Morbius about just how he created all of these technological marvels, the three officers are taken on a tour of a giant, miles-deep lab complex deep beneath the planet’s surface.  Turns out the planet was once home to a benign, intelligent, near-omnipotent race known as the “Krell”, who at the height of their technical (almost godlike) abilities, mysteriously vanished, much like the crew of the Bellerophon (see any connections yet?).   The Krell had used a special apparatus to literally will their mind’s desires into concrete reality;  Prospero the sorcerer repackaged for the dawn of the early Space Age.  No surprise that the movie came out just a year before Sputnik, when nearly anything seemed possible through the magic of post-Eisenhower/pre-Kennedy optimism.

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Creepy Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) harassing the hell out of Anne Francis; love the cool, ’50s industrial landspeeder, though…

The mental enhancement device can also be used (dangerously so) to augment existing brainpower, which is how Morbius was able to boost his own IQ beyond genius levels and create his own little electronic paradise on Altair IV.   The brain-booster also has the unfortunate side-effect of unleashing a separate, uncontrollable entity made up of Morbius’ own raging subconscious… an invisible, colossal beast born of the negative traits of Morbius’ own darker impulses; jealousy, rage, anger, etc.   The parts of one’s self that are ordinarily denied or repressed.

Morbius’ ‘Id-Monster’ begins to pick off members of Adams’ crew and sabotage their jerry-rigged communications equipment, just as Altaira begins to return the attention and affections of the stalwart (yet sexist-as-all-hell) Capt. Adams.

Seems Morbius is very, very jealous of his own daughter, and deeply possessive of her emergent sexuality.

Yes, I know…

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Indeed.

Anyway, moving on…

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The crew’s fiery last stand against Morbius’ Id-monster… amazing stuff!

The invisible monster clashes with the remaining crew in a spectacular FX sequence as the Id-Monster (which grows in strength via Morbius’ exponentially expanding mental power) hits a force field rigged up by Quinn, and is fired upon by multiple blasters.  The sequence was realized by an animator on loan from Disney.  It’s a beautiful, exciting and charged sequence, with cherry red force beams bouncing off of an electrically outlined invisible rage monster.   I can only imagine seeing this moment in a darkened theater.   This movie was truly the Star Wars of its day.

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Trying Morbius’ brain booster on himself, Doc Ostrow (Twilight Zone, Star Trek TOS-vet Warren Stevens) is mortally injured, but not before Ostrow solves the big mystery and (with his dying breath) warns his captain about the ‘monster of the id.’

The Krell created their own id-monsters and destroyed themselves, many centuries ago; just as Morbius’ id monster killed the Bellerophon crew for wanting to leave 20 years earlier, and is picking off Adams’ own crew now.   Adams confronts Morbius about the creature.  At first he refuses to believe it until it becomes clear that Altaira has fallen for Capt. Adams (don’t ask why; he’s not exactly the most lovable guy in the universe), driving Morbius (and his own self-made monster) into a white-hot rage.  Morbius is then forced to confront both the truth within himself… and without; the id-monster is no longer within his control.   It has become a separate entity.

The guilt-stricken Morbius, in one final selfless act, warns Adams to take his daughter back to the ship, as he sets the Krell infrastructure to destroy itself; taking the planet with it.   Adams, Altaira (and Robby) are safely back on the ship, aloft in space, as the planet is reduced to a glowing cinder in space.    Wow.

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“Forbidden Planet” is not some 1950s giant spider-on-the-loose drive-in movie; this is SERIOUS science fiction adventure.   A clear forerunner to later space operas like “Star Trek”, “Star Wars” and all of their imitators.   It’s truly impressive.

Is it perfect?  Not at all.   Some of its flaws glaringly stand out today, especially 60 years later in an arguably more enlightened time.

For example, the all-male, all-white, apparently all-American crew of the C-57D seems about as ‘futuristic’ and progressive as “McHale’s Navy.”  Their attitudes also feel very post-WW2 military, and don’t really seem like an integrated, post-NASA far-off future.  Then again, Star Trek’s multi-racial/gender crew was still ten years away…

Blatant (and wildly dated) sexism is also displayed both towards and by Altaira herself, and it is downright painful to watch.  She is kissed repeatedly against her will (!), told to put on clothes to avoid the leers (or worse) of the all-male crew, forced to ‘choose’ between men who want control and manipulate her (father/lover), and is ultimately powerless against  the alpha-male pull of the captain who, frankly, is a bit of a d!ck.    Basically Altaira is the classic femme fatale.   We’re told she is very intelligent (thanks to her father’s teachings), but we see no evidence of that.   Her life is not her own.  She only has the ‘choice’ of choosing to be dominated by her vaguely incestuous father or the macho, chauvinist captain.   She is treated like a thing, not a person.   This is a genuine shortsighted failing of the movie, sad to say.

But in fairness, ass-kicking female sci-fi heroines like Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, ALIEN’s Warrant Officer Ripley, Buck Rogers’ Col. Wilma Deering, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even X-Files’ Dana Scully, were, like Star Trek’s multiracial crew, still years away.   They’re fairly commonplace today.   We’ve seen real-life female astronauts commanding missions aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station.  In fact, as of this writing, astronaut Peggy Whitsun just broke the American record for space endurance!    Such a shame that so many otherwise brilliant movies projecting the future in space were so painfully and firmly grounded in the era in which they was made.

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Peggy Whiston: In your face, Altaira…

This next one may get me a bit of hate (yeah, I wish I had enough readers to generate backlash…), but the electronic ‘tonalities’ by husband/wife musical pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron is a headache disguised as a musical score.   I realize that Forbidden Planet’s soundtrack has its fans and I give it points for thinking outside of the music box,  but… I just can’t stand it.  It sounds like R2-D2 having sex with a theremin.   It’s a mix of bleeps, bloops, and what sounds like a particularly noisy popcorn maker.  There is no resonance, no depth.   Many scenes, such as the journey through the Krell labs, or the attack of the Id Monster, could have (and should have) been so much richer if they’d had a lush, more traditional musical score to enhance them.

The tonalities’ score was appropriate when it was used as a sampling of ‘ancient Krell music’ (in one scene), but for the rest?  It just feels ill-fitting.  Apparently there was some anger at the Academy of Motion Pictures back in the day or not recognizing the Barrons’ ‘tonalities’ as a proper score, and thus not allowing it for Oscar consideration.    Well, for once, I agree with ‘the Man’ on this one; it’s NOT a proper score… it’s little more than noises and sounds that could’ve been far more effective as control station sound effects than actual music.

Electronic ‘music’ is another trap that Star Trek and Star Wars later avoided; perhaps it’s also a reason that people still hum those themes 50 and 40 years later…

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^ The C-57D crew; all-white, all-male and all-American. First thing to go if this movie ever gets remade; and I can’t say I have a problem with that either…

These issues may seem to be minor, but they are troubling for modern audiences who are trying to relate to this (admittedly) 60-plus year old movie, and who didn’t grow up watching it on television as I did.  In fact, I’m a bit surprised that, given Hollywood’s penchant for remakes and reimaginings, we haven’t seen a remake yet.   A modernized remake could ‘iron out’ some of the rougher patches of the movie.   I could imagine a new space cruiser crew being a bit more reflective of the real world; just as the International Space Station today is routinely crewed by different nationalities and genders.

Maybe a remake’s daughter of Morbius could be a lot more proactive or critical to the story somehow (or ‘she’ could be the young son of a female Morbius; much as Helen Mirren played the once-male magician “Prospero” in a 2010 cinematic version of “The Tempest” which was the inspiration of the original “Forbidden Planet”).   Even beloved robot “Robby” could be something a bit more modern and less clunky; more Star Wars’ BB-8 or Wall-E’s Eva than a big, walking Ford Crestliner.

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I’m not saying Forbidden Planet is unwatchable today.  Far from it;  it’s still very entertaining.   But for younger audiences who’ve never seen it?   There may be some real stumbling blocks towards fully enjoying and appreciating it in this era.

At any rate, Hollywood will probably (someday) reach into their vaults and decide to remake this one.    And despite the affection that I have for the original?  I can’t say I’m entirely averse to this idea, either.   Just as “Rebel Without A Cause” is still a well-made and haunting movie, it is best remembered as a 1950s time capsule rather than a still-relevant study of youth in rebellion.   The same goes for my feelings of “Forbidden Planet”; it is a landmark science fiction film which I have great affection for it, even if it hasn’t aged as well others of its class, such as “Star Trek” or “Star Wars.”

Anyway, onto my more personal memories/recollections regarding “Forbidden Planet”…

In addition to watching it on Sunday evening TV a few times as a kid (and many more times as an adult), I also had the rare and exciting privilege of attending a 50 year anniversary panel of the film at San Diego Comic Con 2006.   I waited for hours to see that panel, and it did not disappoint.

The panel began by showing video clips of bonus features from the then-upcoming 2-disc DVD set (which I promptly bought and still own), which included outtakes, deleted scenes and an interview with the creator/designer of Robby the Robot, as well as “Lost In Space”‘s B-9 robot as well.

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Robert Kinoshita, co-designer of Robby the Robot, from a clip of the 2006 bonus features of the “Forbidden Planet” 2-disc DVD set. Kinoshita also designed the “Lost In Space” B-9 robot as well…
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(Left to right): Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn, Steve Austin’s former boss), Warren Stevens (Star Trek, Twilight Zone vet), and Earl Holliman (Police Woman costar and fellow Twilight Zone guest star).
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An animatronic Robby the Robot speaks! 

After the video segments, the panelists were brought to the stage:  Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn),  Earl Holliman (Cook), and Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow) were all there.  Anne Francis sent a video message but was unable to attend (this was 5 years before she passed away).   There was also an animatronic Robby the Robot that ‘spoke’ in synch with the same blue florescent lights flashing across its grill that we saw in the movie (!).   The panel was utter nerd-vana.   Afterward, I quickly met Warren Stevens and shook hand (this was a few years before he too, passed away).   I also got a chance to meet Richard Anderson the following day in the autograph area.   I remember the 50th anniversary of Forbidden Planet very well…

I also had one more very fond remembrance regarding the cast of Forbidden Planet; six years later, at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, I was relaxing at one of the table in the Sails Pavilion area (where most of the autographs are usually done).   The tables were a bit crowded when I noticed an elderly gentleman (one of the few attendees wearing a tie!) and his ‘celebrity handler’ come over to the table where I was sitting and relaxing.  Well, the gentleman was none other than “Quinn” and “Six Million Dollar Man”‘s Oscar Goldman himself, Richard Anderson.   All of 86, but still dapper and sharp, even if his voice was a bit thinner.    They sat, and I tried not to stare or appear ‘overly geeky’ at the prospect of sitting next to Anderson.  I kept my cool (whatever few crumbs of it I might’ve had left).   After awhile, Anderson’s assistant wanted to see more of the convention, and asked me (yes, moi!) if I wouldn’t mind looking after Mr. Anderson for a few moments (!!!).   I said of course.    My inner self felt like squeeing out loud; this was not only the co-star of “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Forbidden Planet” but also of (arguably Rock Hudson’s finest film) “Seconds”, as well as countless other movies and TV shows.  I grew up watching this man’s work.   And here he was, just chilling…

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Richard Anderson (“Chief Quinn” “Oscar Goldman”) and a somewhat heavier me sharing a table at 2012 Comic Con. We had a nice, 40-odd minute chat. To this day, it remains one of my fondest memories of Comic Con…

We began chatting, and I let a few geeky references slip; yes, I knew of his work (duh, right??).   Of course he wouldn’t remember our quick meeting from six years earlier, so I never mentioned it, but we began chatting about all kinds of things.   He made me laugh a bit when he told me he was “the same age as the Queen.”  I then asked what he thought of Comic Con, and he was just amazed at the outpouring of fan affection and creativity.  He told me that “if they had one of these in every city in the world… there’d be no wars.”   Words of wisdom I remember to this day.

We also talked about his “Bionic” shows; I’d learned Anderson was instrumental in bringing back Lindsay Wagner’s “Jamie Sommers” from the dead (she was initially killed in her original 2 part episode).   We also had a chat about real-life medical progress since those days, and his own amazement at the advancements made in prosthetic limbs.

I then asked him about his days working on “Forbidden Planet”; I could see his eyes going back to that time.   He recalled walking onto the set with the “giant spaceship” and the huge green-sky cyclorama, and he was just floored.   He told me he would show up even when he wasn’t needed on set, just to soak it all in.   He also reminded me that most studios didn’t spend that kind of money on science fiction movies in those days; MGM was making a rare exception.   “You could see the money spent”, he said.   Anderson also told colorful stories about his being a young contract player at the studio (including a teensy crush on costar Anne Francis).   I was entranced.  My only regret of the talk?  I never asked him about the 1966 movie “Seconds,” and what it was like to work with John Frankenheimer and Rock Hudson.    But… I didn’t want to push my luck; Anderson was more than gracious with me, so l let him lead the conversation.

After awhile, Anderson’s assistant came back and they had to leave to set up Anderson’s autograph table.   His assistant thanked me for looking after Anderson (like I needed to be thanked, right?).   Both men shook my hand, and Anderson even gave me a couple of pro bono “Oscar Goldman” pics with autographs for my time (!).    It was, to this day, still one of my favorite ‘celebrity meets’ at a convention ever.   He was a true gentleman.

Those are my thoughts, memories, and personal musings on the 1956 classic, “Forbidden Planet”; an imperfect, very entertaining, landmark film for the ages.

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