Thursday, August 28, 2014

Forbidden Planet: A Film of the Future Past

(This post is part of the Journey Across the Cosmos Through Film Blogathon hosted by Hitchcock's World)

When Forbidden Planet premiered on 14 March 1956 space travel was still very much science fiction. To put things into perspective it should be noted that Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, would not be launched until 4 October 1957. John Glenn's historic orbit of Earth aboard Friendship 7 was still a little under six years away. If people wanted to visit the Moon, let alone one of the planets in the Solar System, they would have to do so through movies or TV shows. Forbidden Planet would take audiences well beyond our own solar system, to the planet Altair IV, 16 light-years from Earth.

Forbidden Planet originated with the team of Irving Block (who created special effects for science fiction films and produced a few himself) and Allen Adler (a writer who was the grandson of actor Jacob Adler and hence the great nephew of legendary acting coach Stella Adler). In 1952 Messrs. Block and Adler wrote a screen story entitled Fatal Planet, which owed a good deal to to Irving Block's favourite Shakespeare play The Tempest. The two men conceived Fatal Planet as a B-movie of the sort for which Irving Block sometimes provided special effects, and even planned to pitch it to Allied Artists. Originating as Monogram in the Thirties, Allied Artists was known for its low budget fare. It was Messrs Block and Adler's agent who suggested that they pitch it to MGM instead. At MGM producer Nicholas Nayfack bought the project. He promptly hired write Cyril Hume (who had written many of the early "Tarzan" movies) to write the screenplay. Mr Hume made some substantial changes to Irving Block and Allen Adler's story, but retained its basic premise.  The prospective film was also renamed Forbidden Planet, which was thought to be more appealing than the title Fatal Planet. As the film's director MGM head of production Dore Schary brought in Fred M. Wilcox, who had previously directed such films as Lassie Come Home (1943) and The Secret Garden (1949).

MGM budgeted Forbidden Planet at $1 million. This was an unheard of amount to spend on a science fiction movie at the time, although only slightly above the average budget of major motion pictures in the mid-Fifties. Once the film was in production its budget soon began to grow. Producer Nicholas Nayfack would insure that Forbidden Planet was more lavish than most science fiction films made before it. The special effects were state of the art. Expensive props were made, not the least of them being Robby the Robot. Impressive sets were built, both for the cruiser C-57D and the various structures on Altair IV. MGM head of production Dore Schary was alerted to the film's rapidly ballooning budget, and he visited the set to investigate. Amazed by what he saw, Mr. Schary simply poured more money into the project. In the end Forbidden Planet cost $1,968,000 to make, not among the biggest budgets of the Fifties but very respectable nonetheless.

It would not only be the cost that would set Forbidden Planet apart from most earlier science fiction films. The script for Forbidden Planet also made it different from anything that had gone before. Set in the early 23rd Century, the film followed the crew of  the United Planets Cruiser C-57D as they visit Altair IV to investigate what happened to the colony ship Bellerophon. On Altair IV Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew encounter the lone survivors of the Bellerophon: Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). The original story by Irving Block and Allen Adler drew upon Shakespeare's The Tempest for inspiration. To this Cyril Hume added a mix of Freudian psychology and classical mythology. The end result was a film that was much more intellectual than most science fiction films had been up to the time. And while many science fiction films before Forbidden Planet had been made primarily for children, there was no doubt that Forbidden Planet was meant primarily for adults.

Forbidden Planet was one of the the most expensive science fiction films up to its time (with a budget of $5 million Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of the few to cost more). And it was certainly different from anything that had come before it. It is perhaps for that reason that Forbidden Planet  did not do particularly well at the box office upon its initial release. Costing nearly $2 million to make, it only took in $2,765,000 at the box office. While Forbidden Planet did poorly at the box office, it did receive some very positive reviews from critics, although most of them still regarded it as something more for children and teenagers than adults. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote of the film, "Take it from us, they see plenty—and so, we promise, will you, if you'll take our advice and fetch the family, from 8 to 80, to the Globe (the Globe was the cinema at which it was showing--Terence)." Variety wrote of Forbidden Planet, "This is Space Patrol for adults, but the kiddies will be there too." In Films in Review Hal Maxwell acknowledged Forbidden Planet's intellectual content, but still concluded that it would appeal primarily to pre-teens. Jack Moffitt of The Hollywood Reporter was the one critic who seemed to grasp that Forbidden Planet was something different from anything that had come before it. Not only did he recognise its intellectual themes, but also that much of the science fiction in Forbidden Planet had a basis in scientific theories of the time. Of course, Forbidden Planet did receive some negative reviews. Wanda Hale of The New York Daily News wrote the film off as a "shameful waste of electricity."

Seen today Forbidden Planet does seem a bit dated. Indeed, its introduction alone would be an anachronism within thirteen years of its release, stating as it does that " and women in rocket ships..." landed on the Moon " the final decade of the 21st Century..." I rather suspect most modern viewers will notice that the crew of the C-57D is entirely male and entirely Northern European in descent. The uniforms of the crew of the C-57D also seem dated in much the same way that the costumes from the Flash Gordon series do as well. Quite simply, they look old fashioned in a retro-futuristic way. Much of the dialogue is stilted and at times overly formal. Anyone who has seen his or her fair share of Fifties movies could easily identify Forbidden Planet as belonging to that decade even if they had never heard anything about it before.

While today Forbidden Planet seems dated in many ways, the film still holds up remarkably well and is still very enjoyable today. The film's sets and even many of its special effects remain impressive even by today's standards. While the uniforms of the crew of the C-57D seem old fashioned, Ann Francis's wardrobe still seems somewhat modern. Similarly, while Robby the Robot looks like the Fifties conception of a robot, the design still has a timeless quality about it that allows it to transcend the decade.

Not only does much of the design of Forbidden Planet still stand up, more importantly so does its story. Never mind the fact that it is loosely based on The Tempest and draws upon equal parts Freudian psychology and classical mythology, its story is essentially timeless. For all its special effects and impressive sets, at its core Forbidden Planet is a tale that blends the themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely, the loss of innocence, and the misuse of technology (a theme that seems to become more relevant with each passing day). While many aspects of Forbidden Planet make it easily identifiable as belonging to the Fifties, its story essentially transcends the decades. 

It is perhaps for this reason Forbidden Planet has remained popular over the years and is now considered a science fiction classic. Indeed, despite doing poorly at the box office on its initial release Forbidden Planet would have a lasting impact. As one of the first big budget science fiction films,  it paved the way for the big budget science fiction films of the Sixties, Seventies, and beyond. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and even the entire Star Wars franchise then owe a debt to Forbidden Planet. Forbidden Planet would even have an impact on television. The film was one of the many inspirations for the television show Star Trek. While Forbidden Planet did poorly at the box office and was often dismissed as kiddies' fare on its initial release, it became one of the most influential science fiction films of all time.


John Hitchcock said...

I watched this one for a science fiction class I took last year. I'll confess I had a bit of trouble getting over some of the obviously dated components like the fact that despite the talk of "men and women" going into space the crew is composed entirely of white American men. That, and the fact that those same men display a very 50's attitude toward the one woman in the cast (I did find it a bit amusing when Altair was told to cover herself because she was getting everyone sexually aroused and immediately went to Robby asking for a fancy new dress... because just putting on pants would be unforgivable).

Still, I can't deny the influence this movie had and Robby the robot was fun. I liked the part where he gets drunk with the cook.

jim marquis said...

Funny how many great films fared poorly when first released.

James said...

I remember watching this film on TCM a while ago and being amazing at the film. Also, the film impact is very interesting since Robby the Robot was in The Twilight Zone besides the fact this is one best science fiction film of all time.

I hope that you are having a wonderful day so far Terrence.