Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956) presents brave new worlds, but there may be danger beneath the surface...

Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic now celebrating its 55th anniversary, is one of those rare instances where the film came first, and the novelization followed. Many of cinema's great science-fiction works have been based on books; 2001 (Kubrick, 1968) by Arthur C. Clarke, Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) by Philip K. Dick, and the list goes on. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), despite being a loose re-imagining of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958), is another classic reverse example - influences are evident throughout the design of Lucas' famed franchise, but the original story came long before the potential for a decade-spanning extravaganza that would take in TV spin-offs, videogames and LEGO sets. Forbidden Planet - originally titled Fatal Planet - never achieved that kind of blockbusting success (although it may of, had the picture been released in the late 70's) but it has become an enduring classic in the minds of cineastes, and a staple of the genre. You can draw parallels to Shakespeare's The Tempest (quite profound ones actually) but the original idea sprung from the minds of Irvin Block and Allen Adler, later transformed into a screenplay by Cyril Hume (who wrote Bigger Than Life the same year, directed by Nicolas Ray). Could they, or even the young Leslie Nielsen, who makes a dashing and well scrubbed hero, have ever predicted the longevity of this ambitious picture? Probably not, but it looks just as bold today as it ever did; its gorgeous landscapes, equally lush and barren, providing a marvel for the eyes on Warner Bros. Special Edition Blu-Ray...

It's the 23rd Century and Commander J.J. Adams (Nielsen) is commanding the United Planets Cruiser C57-D to the planet Altair 4, on a routine mission to establish contact with and provide assistance to any inhabitants. The ship is radioed by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who tells them to stay away, yet the crew insist on landing. After receiving coordinates they touch down on the cold, mountainous landscape, only to be met by Robby The Robot, an impeccably designed machine who acts as servant and companion to Morbius and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), whose naivety and openness is a result of her never having made contact with the Earth. Soon Morbius begins acting strangely, raising Adams' suspicions with the revelation of the "Krell" species, an advanced civilization who mysteriously died on the dawn of their grandest achievement. After the ship is broken into by a supposedly invisible creature, the stakes raise even further. It's pretty complex stuff, but the basics of the relationships - Adams and Altaira falling in love, Morbius confronting his megalomanic hunger etc. - will be recognizable to most film fans, and pretty predictable too. After all, when sci-fi presents an educated man in an isolated state of ego, what usually happens?

The film more than deserves its classic status, but it's not perfect. The biggest problem is Altaira, an underdeveloped female character who is also wildly inconsistent in her decisions. I understand that her exposure to men must be confusing and exciting, and she will be susceptible to lies and charm in equal measure, but her flitting attentions and changing priorities, as well as the mixed message of her strong-will and sexualization, is an unsettled element of the film, and Francis' performance is nowhere near confident enough to pull it off. The screenplay essentially uses her as a tool, and we never buy into the flowering relationship between her and Adams - by the end of the film she's seemingly head-over-heels in love with him, but where and how this developed remains as much a mystery as the Krell themselves. The rest of the crew are underdeveloped too, especially the cook (Earl Holliman), who gets quite a lot of screen-time acting out a gag which never quite works. Perhaps the problem is that the humour has dated, but his subplot seems unnecessary, and almost brings the film to a halt.

But let it never be said that the film is bad; it's anything but. The special effects still look absolutely astonishing, especially in the action set-piece with the Id Monster, whose hulking, carnivorous form wreaks animated havoc when caught in an electrical forcefield, and the entire battle has incredible visual continuity - the presence and weight of the beast, the overpowering use of the colour red and the stream of the crews lasers. It's a magnificent sequence, and one which perfectly complements the world created by the set designers and art directors. From the far regions of outer space to the lush gardens of Morbius' house, populated by monkeys and tigers, the film is a visual masterpiece. The environments have a soft, pastel-shaded aesthetic, equally exotic and dangerous, and their painterly futurism is captivating. In fact, especially during the scenes exhibiting the Krell's advanced constructions, it doesn't seem to have aged a day.

An almost perfect vision of adventure in the 23rd Century, Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended - outside of a few basic niggles, sci-fi simply doesn't come any better...

Forbidden Planet is part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.

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