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EMPIRE ESSAY: Forbidden Planet Review

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When Adams and his crew are sent to investigate the silence from a planet inhabited by scientists, he finds all but two have died. Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira have somehow survived a hideous monster which roams the planet. Unknown to Adams, Morbius has made a discovery, and has no intention of sharing it with anyone.

★★★★

For an American moviegoer in 1956 the opening minutes of Forbidden Planet must have been extremely comforting. While other science fiction films of the era rode the Cold War paranoia wave prevalent at the time (The Thing From Another World, Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers and Invaders From Mars to name but three) Forbidden Planet firmly established a future for America that many people at the time harboured severe doubts it had.

A voice-over informs us that "By 2200 AD they had reached the other planets of our solar system, almost at once there followed the discovery of hyperdrive... And so at last mankind began the conquest and colonisation of deep space." And as we are introduced to the crew-cutted crew of the United Planets Space Cruiser C577-D we are left in no doubt whatsoever as to which country has pioneered this impressive expansion. From global policeman to galactic frontiersman it seems that America is set to triumph and prosper well into the future. Sing hosanna and break out the sasparella and apple pie! Plus, of course, a thinly-veiled ya-boo sucks to you Ivan.

It's hardly any wonder that, on the surface at least, Forbidden Planet is a futuristic fanfare for America. The studio that produced it, MGM, was among the most fervidly patriotic of the Hollywood majors, delivering American family value fayre like Mickey Rooney's stultifyingly wholesome Andy Hardy series and spectacular though vacuous musical extravaganzas such as Ziegfeld Follies. However, although at first glance the film (famously and pretty loosely based on The Tempest) is a tale of American derring do and scientific smarts triumphing over adversity on the new interstellar frontier, deep in its psyche it's something much more intelligent, prophetic and terrifying: nothing less, in fact, than a Promethean exploration of the dangers of technology out of control and its capacity to destroy its creators. It's a theme picked up in the 60s and 70s by films as diverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminal Man and Westworld, and it remains frighteningly prescient in light of 21st century anxieties over AI and genetic modification. And all, believe it or not, from the guy who directed Lassie Come Home.

Space Cruiser C577-D's mission is to search for survivors of the spaceship Bellerephon which crashed on deserted planet Altair-4 two decades earlier. However, when Commander Adams (Leslie Neilson before discovering that spoof-heavy comedy was his true metier) and his crew arrive they are greeted less than enthusiastically by Dr. Morbius, played with true mad-scientist verve by Walter Pidgeon, although his daughter Altaria (Anne Francis) is more curious about the delivery of interstellar beefcake; in one classic scene a frustrated Commander Adams bemoans her effect on his sex-starved crew, "Oh get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard... and then I'll put more guards on the guards!" he wails.

Morbius reveals that Altair-4 was previously occupied by a super-intelligent race, the Krell, who have not only provided the designs for the amazing robot Robby (who would become the main poster image for the movie and a celebrity in his own right, making many personal appearances and popping up, much later, on an episode of Mork And Mindy voiced, weirdly enough, by Roddy McDowall) but have left massive laboratories that the good doctor has been fooling around in. As the cruiser is repeatedly attacked by a mysterious invisible force — "monsters from the id" — it eventually emerges that the fantastic power of the alien technology has liberated Morbius's subconscious from his teeming noggin and sent it on the rampage.

Forbidden Planet has its weaknesses. Hume's dialogue often creaks horribly, while Neilson and Francis are a couple so wooden you get the impression that if they ever did do the nasty the resultant progeny would resemble Pinnochio. The cutting edge special effects and cavernous sets influenced numerous other films including Star Wars. Robby, the robot with a personality, is an obvious ancestor of C-3PO while the concept of a militarised United Planets would mutate into Star Trek's starfleet.

The soundtrack (of rather "electronic tonalities by Lois and Bebe Barren") comprises the first use of electronic music in a mainstream film and Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Loneran's sumptuous production design makes excellent use of Technicolor (hey, a green sky... we must be in outer space!). But it is the movie's theme, that even at the heart of a Promethean exploration of technology out of control and its capacity to destroy its creators an advanced, technological society (precisely what America believed itself to be with it's endless supply of "clean" nuclear power and a plastics-powered consumer boom) lurks the base nature of humanity that finally distinguishes it as a major work. And one that delivers a timely lesson in the decade that used science to invent aerosol cheese.

The film's amazing strengths easily outweigh the odd outbreak of hammery.