Thursday 26 December 2013

Movie Review: Forbidden Planet (1956)

A psychological interplanetary science fiction adventure, Forbidden Planet is an impressive romp through the galaxies, briskly paced but without fully avoiding all the space debris.

In the distant future, humanity has conquered travel at multiples of light speed and colonized deep space. Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) captains United Planets Cruiser C57-D towards Altair IV, a distant desert-like planet with a life-sustaining atmosphere. Adams' mission is to discover the fate of the Bellerophon expedition that landed on Altair twenty years prior, but subsequently lost contact with Earth. Approaching the planet, Adams makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a language expert and apparently the only survivor from the Bellerophon. Morbius warns Adams to stay away from Altair, but the commander insists on landing anyway.

Once on the ground, Adams and his crew meet the resourceful Robby the Robot, who escorts them to Morbius' compound. The scientist explains that an unknown force killed all the other members of the expedition but spared Morbius and his wife, and she subsequently died of natural causes. Morbius now lives with his daughter Alta (Anne Francis), and her innocent sexuality and skimpy outfits cause havoc among Adams' companionship-starved crewmen. Morbius is studying the scripts and inventions left behind by the Krell, a technologically advanced but now extinct race that used to inhabit Altair. With Alta falling in love with Adams, a rampaging, indestructible and invisible monster attacks C57-D and its crew, forcing Adams to untangle the secrets of Morbius and the Krell.

An entertaining gallop to the inner recesses of space and the human mind, Forbidden Planet boasts good special effects for the era, and a combination of wonder, science and mental sparring. Walter Pidgeon dominates his surroundings with a towering, almost theatrical performance as a scientist engrossed in studying superior works, and now with a mental capacity far ahead of his race. The eternally cute Robby the Robot, created by Morbius thanks to his learnings from the Krell, earns his cinematic legend as an essential member of the cast.

Despite the many highlights, the film is not without weaknesses, and director Fred M. Wilcox, working from Cyril Hume's script, sometimes struggles to find the right balance amongst all the puzzle pieces. Once C57-D lands on Altair, too much time is invested in sex-deprived men lusting after Alta. The scenes featuring Adams and his Lieutenant "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) clumsily wooing Alta or castigating her for wearing what she likes are creaky in the extreme and have not aged well. The cast is mostly stuck in 1950s earnest stiffness, Leslie Nielsen failing to add any sort of nuance to Commander Adams and his crewmates playing their role straight out of a World War Two naval deployment.

The film hits its peak with the introduction of the Krell technology, Morbius unveiling the massive machinery, inexhaustible power supply, and intelligence-enhancing inventions left behind by the ancient race. The battle with the monster as it attacks the spaceship is another highlight, the special effects team creating a virtual rampaging presence, able to withstand everything that Adams' defensive batteries can throw at it.

The final explanation linking the monster, the Krell and Morbius is rushed, perhaps to avoid any unnecessary scrutiny as unconstrained scientific achievements collide with the in-built frailties of both the Krell and human minds. The climax is satisfying nonetheless, Forbidden Planet ending with a literal and figurative bang. Traveling in space is dangerous, but the dark secrets of the brain could be as treacherous as any intergalactic expedition.

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