Saturday, July 30, 2011

Monster Mash Blogathon: Forbidden Planet (1956)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Movie, a local film critic and an acquaintance of my family. Mr. Movie hosted a popular radio show in which he shared his knowledge and love of films through in-depth discussions with his listeners. Forbidden Planet was Mr. Movie's favorite  film of all time, and he claimed to have watched it 178 times. Mr. Movie, whose real name is Steve Friedman, passed away two years ago. Mr. Movie Obit

Welcome to Day 3 of the 50s Monster Movies Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear! So far there have been great posts, with more to come through August 2nd.


Forbidden Planet (1956) is one of the classic science fiction movies, not just of the 1950s, but of all time. But is it a monster movie? I'll get to that in depth later, but the quick answer is yes, although the monster is unconventional and the focus of the film is on exploration. Before I get any further I have to address the film's iconic poster. Although it looks cool and is recognizable by many who haven't even seen the movie, it is also very misleading. Robby the Robot is not the monster of the movie and the scene depicted in the poster never takes place in the film. The closest thing to this that happens is that Robby the Robot carries the doctor for a moment, but it is not out of menace as the poster seems to indicate.


Forbidden Planet was one of the first science fiction films that does not take place on Earth at all. The movies opens with the space ship, United Planets Cruiser C57-D with a hyper-drive and light speed capabilities, arriving at the Planet Altair IV. The mission of the ship's crew is to discover what happened to the colonists sent to the planet 20 years ago. Led by Commander J.J. Adams (played by a young Leslie Nielsen), the crew discovers that the only survivors are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his lovely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Dr. Morbius insists that the ship leave immediately since he says the planet is dangerous, although he wants to stay there with his daughter. However, the crew has orders to investigate and bring back any survivors  

Once the ship lands, the crew is greeted by Robby the Robot, who speaks English as well as 187 other languages! This makes sense since he was created by Dr. Morbius, a linguist. While it seems strange at first that a philologist would be able to make a robot, it is later revealed that Dr. Morbius was able to create Robby because his mind was enhanced by a machine left behind by the Krell, a now vanished alien civilization that lived on Altair IV 200 centuries ago. Robby the Robot is the most well known part of the movie. Forbidden Planet is Robby's film debut, and he is credited as himself! Although Robby was expensive to create, it was certainly worth it as he isn't merely a prop but a fully developed character. Robby is often used for comic relief even though he never gets what is funny about what he says, which is clearly an influence on C-3PO from Star Wars, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and countless other fictional automatons of the last 50 years. Robby the Robot has since appeared in many other movies and TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space.


Robby takes the crew to the Morbius home in which we first meet Dr. Morbius and his daughter. Dr. Morbius explains that the colonists encountered some sort of planetary force which caused the deaths of all the colonists except for Morbius, his wife who he claimed later died from natural causes, and his 19 year old daughter who is now experiencing her first human contact outside of her family. Although the crew wonders if Robby the Robot had anything to do with this, we find out early on that he is a red herring as we get a demonstration that he cannot harm people. Robby is essentially bound to Isaac Asimov's three laws of Robotics.


After we find out about Morbius and the deaths of the colonists, the crew tries to get to the bottom of what really happened. In the mean time several members of the entirely male crew try to get with Morbius' daughter! I can't say I blame them as Anne Francis is absolutely stunning. I have no idea how they got away with the mini dresses Altaira wears throughout the film as they are sexy today and must have been even more provocative back in the 50s.


Eventually our crew gets their hormones under control long enough to discover
a giant laboratory underneath Morbius' home that belonged once belonged to the Krell. The Krell were a highly advanced alien civilization who inexplicably (at first) died out 200,000 years ago. There are some animals on the planet, and Morbius says the reason behind this is that the Krell visited Earth long ago and returned with specimens. It is never revealed what the Krell looked like and the only hint we get is the triangle shape of their doors. Morbius gives Commander Adams and the ship's doctor (Warren Stevens) the grand tour of the massive Krell power system. There is a Krell computer shown which is the size of a table but described as a powerful computer. It even has a touch screen! Eventually Morbius shows off a piece of Krell equipment which they used to expand their minds, and Morbius admits that he used the machine on himself to increase his intellect. The Krell used this technology in the hopes of using their minds to create anything. As we find out later, it turns out that this ending up being their downfall.


Forbidden Planet is only 98 minutes, yet the first death in the movie does not occur until over an hour into the film. Of course there are plenty of hints that there was a monster such as the deaths of the colonists almost twenty years earlier. At first the monster is completely invisible which adds to the suspense. Unlike most monster movies of its time, Forbidden Planet doesn't show you the monster until late in the game which works in its favor. We don't actually see the first death although we are shown the scene leading up to it with the invisible monster entering the ship. The chief gets killed and his death is described as quite grisly since it is said his body was splattered on the ship!


Eventually the monster returns, but this time the crew is more prepared as they set up a strong electric fence, stationary guns, and many armed guards. The electric fence partially reveals the monster and a few members of the crew die fighting the creature until it eventually disappears. This is the only time we really get to see the monster, as it shows up again near the end, but is mostly invisible. When Dr. Morbius enhanced his mind it caused the monsters of his id to come into existence in the physical world. The monster killed the other colonists because Dr. Morbius wanted to stay and they were pressuring him to leave. The monster returns when the crew comes to the planet because Morbius doesn't want to leave and is not pleased with the crew's advances on his daughter. It won't give away the ending, but it is a satisfying conclusion.


So is Forbidden Planet a monster movie? The film is science fiction first as it is primarily focused on the mystery of what happened on Altair IV and the exploration of the planet. The monster is a secondary concern. Of course the exploration of the planet leads to the discovery of the monster of the id caused by Dr. Morbius and his usage of the Krell's machines. Unlike most monster movies which tend to be about man vs. nature, the monster in Forbidden Planet is about the struggle of man vs. self. The
monster is not made by humans, but by the technology originally created by the Krell which Morbius uses on himself. The monster of Dr. Morbius' id is much like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Forbidden Planet is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, which is one of the few Shakespeare plays I actually haven't read so I can't really comment on that. There are also several Greek mythological references such as Bellerophon (the name of the colonists ship), and a line that mentions the Gorgon. Adapting elements of Shakespeare and the Greek myths to a science fiction setting is now common place, but this hadn't been done as much when Forbidden Planet first came out.


The special effects hold up surprisingly well. To be fair this was an expensive movie for its time, unlike most of its science fiction and monster movie contemporaries which tended to be B-movies. The matte paintings blend in so well that it is hard to tell where the set ends and the painting begins. Forbidden Planet was nominated for an Oscar in the category of best special effects, but lost out to Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.


Forbidden Planet is interesting in that it is one of the first science fiction films to be heavily influenced by the
Sci-Fi literature of the 1930s through 1950s. The concept of all-male space ship crews exploring other planets outside our solar system had been done before, but this is one of the first times it had been filmed. Works such as A.E. Van Vogt's Space Beagle stories and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles are quite similar. What is important is that Forbidden Planet made a serious, big budget movie out of these ideas at a time when most people didn't give science fiction much respect as a legitimate genre. A lot of detail went into the uniform and equipment of the crew, as well as the design of the spaceship and planet. The crew has a bunch of cool gadgets such as the mini camera/communications device/cell phone shown off by Commander Adams! Oh and don't forget the spiffy laser gun!


It is impossible to understate the influence Forbidden Planet has had on Sci-Fi films and TV shows. The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Aliens all owe debt to Forbidden Planet for paving the way to allow thought provoking science fiction adventures to enter the mainstream. Even video games such as Halo and recent movies like Moon and Avatar should all thank Forbidden Planet. Of course Forbidden Planet's most obvious direct influence was on Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry himself had admitted. The similarities are unmistakable in both types of characters (ship's captain, doctor, engineer, etc.) and story. Although the characters don't beam down to the planet, the screenshot below shows you where Star Trek got the idea for the transporter!


Forbidden Planet is groundbreaking for another reason: it features the first entirely electronic music score. This was so ahead of its time that it isn't even credited as a score but as "electronic tonalities."
The eerie music is unique and fits in very well with the atmosphere of the space ship and Altair IV.


Forbidden Planet also successful manages to combine a serious Sci-Fi story with humor that is never silly or feels forced, thanks in part to its witty dialogue. The cook (Earl Holliman) provides some of the comic relief as he convinces Robby the Robot to replicate 60 gallons of bourbon for himself and the crew! Other Sci-Fi classics from the 50s such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of The Worlds lacked this tone, which we see all the time in Sci-Fi and adventure movies today.


Although stars Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis passed away in Nov. 2010 and Jan. 2011 respectively, several supporting actors such as Earl Holliman, Warren Stevens, Richard Anderson, and Robert Dix are still alive today. Forbidden Planet holds up well over fifty years after its initial release, and will continue to entertain audiences and influence film for years to come.


  1. Excellent analysis of an iconic film. It's hard to justice to a classic but you certainly did! And I like that you stopped to question what makes a monster movie and whether or not Forbidden Planet fits the qualifications. It gives the review that much more meaning.

  2. A terrific post, Chris. It made me appreciate this film more than I originally did when I saw it many years ago. It's now available on Netflix Instant View so I think I will. View it, that is. :)

    My favorite thing about this movie is the way they kept back the 'look' of the 'monster' - Dr. Moribus's Id run amok. I also loved the setting and the multi-leveled world of the Krell. (Also love that name: The Krell) I could have done without the 'love' interest and the silly rampaging libidoes of the crew, but I suppose that was to be expected.

  3. Great review, Chris. It showed true enthusiasm for the movie and was nicely detailed with background information and trivia. I can't say I'm a big fan of the movie (like Yvette, I think the fratboy behavior of Nielsen and his crew doesn't wear well) but I certainly can't dismiss its importance in the science fiction/horror genre.

  4. Your obvious enthusiasm and knowledge about "Forbidden Planet" made for a fabulous post. A most unusual project for MGM, but we are lucky the studio put its resources to use on this true classic.

  5. Chris... Forbidden Planet is one of my all-time favorites, and you did a great job of blending facts with commentary about the film's impact on other films, games and television shows. This movie truly has a sense of wonder which is a rare thing in many current sci-fi flicks.

  6. I love Forbidden Planet, especially that eerie soundtrack and the amazing sets for the underground Krell laboratory. Though I always appreciated the intelligence and high production values of this flick, I never thought about how different it was from the more pulpy sci-fi flicks of the time. Of all the things I liked about your thorough and interesting review, it was this point that I appreciated the most.

  7. Wow, an id monster? Sounds terrifying. This is a well-written review. This blogathon has given me so many movies to put on the to-watch list!

  8. Excellent review, Chris! You are really starting to come into your own as a blogger! I love how you devote as much time to exploring philosophical issues within the film as you do the plot and special effects. Can you really can this a monster movie? I would have never thought of that angle!

  9. Chris, you did a yeoman's job with your superb post about FORBIDDEN PLANET (FP)! FP has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it on TV when I was just a kid, and your lovingly detailed, thoughtful, and enthusiastic review truly did justice to this classic. I've always felt that FP comes pretty darn close to being a perfect science-fiction thriller, firing on all cylinders, even when it comes to little comedic bits like the horny young astronauts' reactions to the delectable Altaira; hey, young men with raging hormones are a universal fact of life, and even more so when they've been cooped up in a spaceship like Leslie Nielsen and company! :-) Great dialogue throughout, too, though I must confess that one of my favorite lines is the exasperated Dr. Morbius's "Id, id, id, id, id!" :-) Pat yourself on the back for a job well-done, Chris!

  10. Thanks for such an informative and well-done post -the background info on what other kinds of sci-fi influenced FP and the kind of influence this film has had on sci-fi since was fascinating. I would certainly agree that the id monster IS a monster; I think the filmmakers made the right choice in only suggesting what it looks like (how can you truly illustrate the id?). Although the film is not one of my all-time favorites, I find the sets to be gorgeous, especially the underground Krell city. And Anne Francis is amazingly beautiful!

  11. Thanks for all the wonderful comments everyone, I really appreciate it!

    Rachel: I'm glad you liked my review! I could see how some people might not consider Forbidden Planet a monster movie at first so I wanted to address it.

    Yvette and Ivan: Interestingly enough in Van Vogt's "Space Beagle" tales the all-male crew was chemically castrated! If Forbidden Planet used this subplot it certainly would have made things different, although I don't know how audiences (then or today) would react to that.

    Caftan Woman: Thanks! As you said, it is a bit surprising that MGM let this have such a big budget for the time. Thankfully it was made and turned out very well!

    Barry: Glad to hear you love this movie as much as I do. I totally agree about the sense of wonder in this film and wish more movies today could capture that feel.

  12. KC: I totally agree, the sets and music give this film a unique feel. Thanks! Let me know if/when you get the chance to see it, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the movie.

    Nate: Thank you! I actually thought about the "is it a monster movie" angle while I was picking this film since its really more of an adventure movie. But upon a re-watch it was indeed a monster movie, just a different one! Thanks again for hosting this blogathon and giving me an excuse to watch this film again!

    Dorian: Thanks for the compliments! I also enjoyed the comedic parts and the great dialogue.

    Grand Old Movies: I agree about the not showing the monster. Even when we "see" it, its only really an outline, which makes sense because it doesn't totally exist in the physical world.

  13. Hah! I'm all over this, as you might guess. Some of the little things I love: the way the dials in the Krell laboratory pulse to full power as Morbius dreams, the way the soundtrack fades into diegetic sound and becomes indistinguishable from it, the Shakespearean connection. I wish the social mores of the film weren't so mired in the 1950s, but what can you do?

  14. Great piece on a great film.

    Of course I would love any movie that had Anne Francis looking and acting the way she did.

    Seriously though, Forbidden Planet is one of the most influential works of the genre -- of any time period. And it is always great to see Leslie Nielsen before his parody days.

    I do think it is funny that (from what I have read) the reason the score is listed as "electronic tonalities" is to keep from having to pay royalty commissions to the music branch of the academy.

    Again, great piece.

  15. Vulnavia: yeah I thought you liked this movie!

    Keyvn: Thanks! I think this is the only time I have seen Nielsen in a serious role (unless you count Creepshow) but he did a good job. According to wikipedia the credit of "electronic tonalities" also made it ineligible for the Oscar categories of best soundtrack or best sound effects!