Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Stars: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
“This thing of darkness I
– Shakespeare, The Tempest
Forbidden Planet is bit off my usual beaten track for Shakespearean films.
The movie retells Shakespeare’s The Tempest, replacing Prospero’s magical isle with the strange and mysterious Altair IV, once home to an ancient and long-defunct race of alien beings called the Krell. Marooned on the planet is Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira, the sole survivors of a scientific expedition that vanished 20 years before.
The starship C-57D (not really the most evocative of names) arrives with a crew of eighteen under the command of Commander John J. Adams (played with perfect seriousness by a young Leslie Nielson). Tasked with investigating the scientific expedition’s disappearance, the crew lands on Altair IV, quickly making contact with Dr. Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), his robot minion Robby and his now grown daughter (Anne Francis). Morbius is increasingly put out by Altaira’s fascination with the young men and their commander (well, as “fascinated” as you can be for the 1950s censors, I suppose….). In turn, Adams and his officers are puzzled by the sophisticated technology that Morbius seems to control, including his robotic servant Robby (who rapidly ends up serving as a bootlegging source of whisky for the crew).
“Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothin'. Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans.”
Morbius reveals that the planet was once home to an alien species, the Krell, that vanished nearly 200,000 years before, leaving their technology, their underground network of machines and a special learning library behind. Morbius has used the learning library to extend his intellect far beyond that of normal men, enabling him to master new technologies.
In the meantime a strange invisible intruder has sabotaged the starship, an incident that rapidly escalates to the murder of a crewman. Protecting the starship with a special forcefield, the crew ineffectively battles the strange invisible monster, ending up with several dead. Strangely the creature vanishes when Morbius awakens from his sleep. One of the ship’s officers, Ostow, suspecting Morbius, sneaks in and tries out the Krell “educator” and is fatally injured by the alien technology. Before he dies, he informs Commander Adams that the Great Machine was built to provide the Krell with anything they could imagine, but that they had made a dreadful error: “Monsters from the Id!” The creature was a manifestation of Morbius’s subconscious mind brought to life by the Krell technology.
“And yet always in my mind I seem to feel the creature is lurking somewhere close at hand, sly and irresistible and only waiting to be reinvoked for murder.”
“And so those mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet all set free at once to loot and maim.”
Adams and Altaira declare their love, Morbius naturally enough, oppose it, the monster rampages anon, the lovers escape in the starship, poor Robbie is fried by his own programming, and Morbius finally admits his mistake and guilt in destroying, unconsciously, the first expedition. He sets off a chain reaction in the Krell reactors, destroying Altair IV and the Krell monster forever.
The film doesn’t not so much directly channel Shakespeare, but certainly provides one of the many, many derivative works inspired by and leveraging the famous works of the Bard. Most of the key roles are almost directly transferable: Morbius as Prospero, Altaira as Miranda, Adams as a wooden-faced Ferdinand, and Robby the Robot as the mischievous spirit Ariel. Released by MGM in 1956, it was, at the time, the most expensive science fiction film ever attempted, and pioneered a number of special effects and tropes that went on to become staples of the genre. The film served as a break-out role for Leslie Nielson, who later leveraged his dead-pan delivery to his more infamous comedy roles as the doctor in Airplane and the hapless Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series. Prior knowledge and experience of his comedic roles lends a certain hidden verve to his fairly flat, melodramatic and square-jawed space commander.
Forbidden Planet became a hugely influential science-fiction classic, directly contributing to the development, look and feel of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series in the following decade and numerous other television shows and films. It ushered in an era of more serious, more grounded science fiction film, and introduced possibly one of the most influential depictions of a robot in film, laying the groundwork for 2001’s HAL9000, the personable and murderous computer support for the doomed Jupiter expedition.
Among other notable achievements, Forbidden Planet’s unique musical score – the first totally electronic composition – paved the way for a long list of science fiction musical compositions including Vangelis’s terrific score for Blade Runner.
In short, Forbidden Planet is a fairly shallow and derivative, but fascinating, spin-off of The Tempest, one I suspect Shakespeare would recognize readily enough. Don’t expect the same depth of character, dialogue or an evocation of the “rough magic” The Tempest provides, but if you watch carefully, you can glimpse it in key moments, flashing past like flickering quick-silvered starlight.
“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest