Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis
“In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon.”
Oh, from this laughable beginning starts the incredibly silly yet legitimately entertaining sci-fi ride that is Forbidden Planet. The film was made in 1956; I mention this because it’s incredibly important when considering the more ludicrous parts of the film. Think of it – this film is pre-Sputnik. Humans had never put anything into space – ever. Star Trek was a thing of the future, and Star Wars was considerably far off. Hollywood is to be somewhat forgiven, then, with their bizarrely stereotyped image of space exploration and adventure.
The crew of an elite (and fundamentally American) space ship is sent to a distant planet for a search and rescue mission stemming from a lost colony 20 years earlier. On landing on the eerily earth-like planet, the captain, played by Leslie Nielsen (yes, THAT Leslie Nielsen, more on that later) is greeted by the somewhat unnerving Doctor Morbeus (Pidgeon), apparently the only survivor of the failed colonization, his beautiful daughter Altaira (Francis), and the helpful domestic Robby the Robot, the first of Robby’s many subsequent Hollywood appearances. Morbeus warns the captain and his crew to leave at once, that the rest of the settlers were killed in horrible ways, that they must flee if they want to keep their lives. The captain says no. While a romance develops between the captain and Altaira, scary and inexplicable things do indeed start happening to the crew. The truth of the horror is, well, a little cheesy and a bit overly complicated, but the film has a satisfying conclusion nonetheless.
Sound at all familiar? It should. It’s Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” set in space. Morbeus, who has been studying the lost culture and powers of the Krell, an extinct race from the planet, is clearly Prospero, the owner and, in many ways, the controller of the planet. Altaira is Miranda, Robby the Robot is Ariel, and even the unknown monstrosity that is destroying the crew is a representation of Shakespeare’s Caliban. While diverging significantly from “The Tempest” in the finale of the film, the similarities are too striking for it to be coincidental. To me, this is what makes Forbidden Planet far more satisfying than just another cheesy 1950’s science fiction film. There’s an interesting psychological battle between Morbeus and Captain Adams, both of whom are men who are used to getting their way, and not least of all because of Adams’ seduction of Morbeus’ daughter. Robby the Robot, clearly sketched out to be domesticated in all senses of the term, still has some sort of creepy unspoken secrets that make him more than a little unnerving, mirroring Shakespeare’s unwillingly domesticated Ariel.
Apart from its literary roots, the film is wildly entertaining. It’s extraordinarily cheesy, but that’s what makes it fun! Leslie Nielsen, people. Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Leslie Nielsen, playing a totally straight role. He’s the incredibly earnest captain of his ship, who blusters around and yells at his crew when they slip up, who makes out with Altaira, who fights with Morbeus. LESLIE NIELSEN. Seriously, I can’t get past that it’s the same goofy guy from The Naked Gun movies. It’s more than enough to keep you giggling on the inside through the entire film. If, for some bizarre reason, Leslie Nielsen’s first big serious romantic Hollywood role isn’t enough to entertain you, the sets and costumes and electronic score should be. This is a vibrant and very alive film, even if the set does rather look like the Brady Bunch’s backyard set made over as an alien planet.
The ship looks like a classic flying saucer but bears a curious similarity to a traditional Navy ship of the 1950’s – the crew even sleep in hammocks. The ship’s cook wears a little white Navy cap and an apron around his waist, looking like he just walked off the set of On The Town. 21st century, my ass. Manned entirely by young, white men, all with the same perfectly coiffed haircut, one gets the feeling that the future is not terribly progressive. Where are the other races of the world? Where, for that matter, are the aliens? Women are clearly still expected to stay at home and do the cooking and the cleaning; a commander on the ship calls Robby “A housewife’s dream!” when Morbeus shows him Robby’s ability to cook and clean. Really, this is not the future at all; it’s 1956, thank you very much. Watching Forbidden Planet and its extraordinarily limited view of the future makes me appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s far more egalitarian vision in any incarnation of Star Trek.
I probably like this film far more than I should, but I don’t care. Normally I don’t go in for “cheese for cheese’s sake,” but I make a very loud and notable exception for Forbidden Planet. I’m fascinated by all forms of Shakespeare adaptations, and I love that Shakespeare’s story works so well as a fifties sci-fi romp. Leslie Nielsen, as said before, endlessly fascinates me in this movie, and every time I watch it, the plot ends up sucking me in. This is good, people! It’s cheesy for sure, but it’s so much fun.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10 for sheer entertainment value.