The Empty Balcony: Forbidden Planet

Half dated and half legendary, Forbidden Planet is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Hailing from 1956, Forbidden Planet tells the story of the crew of an Earth spaceship, landed on the planet Altair 4 to investigate the fate of a scientific expedition that disappeared there twenty years before. Led by Captain Adams (Leslie Neilsen), they find two survivors, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his nubile daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Captain Adams learns from Morbius that the other members of the scientific expedition were wiped out not long after landing by an unknown, all-powerful force. Altair 4 holds other secrets, as well. Namely, the remains of a once-great civilization called the Krell, whose cities have turned to dust with the passage of time, but whose technology survives deep beneath the planet’s surface. Captain Adams and his crew must unravel the mystery of the unknown force and its correlation with the Krell…if they expect to survive.

That’s typical boilerplate for science fiction, especially from the 1950s, when the dawning of both the nuclear and the space ages created a sweet spot for sci-fi. The rules shook themselves out fairly quickly in regards to aliens in flying saucers and giant monsters born of radiation, but there was a staggering amount of creativity at work in the era, from the stories of Ray Bradbury to the quite weighty first appearance of Godzilla. Forbidden Planet inserts itself into this epoch with no problem whatsoever. Man conquers first the planets and then the stars. Long voyages to distant planets yield riddles and dangers unexpected by, and therefore unplanned for, the mind of man. The universe in its vastness is an unforgiving place, and one has to wonder if humanity is ready for it. These are some of the ideas that present themselves within minutes of the opening credits, much less what a viewer encounters in the rest of the film. That’s the marker of great science fiction, when the viewer realizes that behind every door are two more, on and on and on, never answering all the questions, never letting any journey feel complete, any story completely finished. Such trickery is a useful tool in science fiction, for no other reason than too many answers bring a person’s head out of the clouds and ruin the fun.

Forbidden Planet is one of those films that should be on everyone’s schedule at least once in their lives, especially for science fiction fans. Unlike most of the monster tripe that came out in the 50s, Forbidden Planet was state of the art for its time. Director Fred M. Wilcox and his special effects team (A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Ries, and Wesley C. Miller) created visuals of an alien world that recalls the richly painted cover art of old sci-fi novels. At the time, the style was a contemporary one, but one which had never been realized on the silver screen to such an extent. Whole segments of the film take place in all-encompassing matte paintings, sublimating reality for fantasy. On top of this, composers Louis and Bebe Barron placed a score consisting entirely of electronic music, creating one of the most unique film scores in history. Nothing before or since has been of the like, and the score, more even than the visuals, is responsible for the mood of the film. It’s the surging and grinding tonalities that make Forbidden Planet live and breathe among a setting that, for all its visual beauty, is static and flat. It also makes Forbidden Planet a creepier film than it otherwise would be, making it ideal viewing stock for Halloween night alongside more traditional horror flicks.

At times, Forbidden Planet is hopelessly hokey. Gritty realism had yet to work its way into film at this point in cinematic history, and there’s a fair share of gee whiz moments, but on the other side of the coin, a hilarious amount of misogyny. The film doesn’t suffer for its lack of grit. Rather, it thrives on the saturated colors of its set pieces. It’s the 1950s sensibilities that get lost on modern viewership. We don’t know how humanity will behave in social settings two hundred years from now, when the film takes place, but there are two things we do know. One: they will not behave like we do today. Two: they will not behave like Leslie and his crew of ragamuffins, either. Up until the point when the plot got going in earnest, I was worried that my fond memories of Forbidden Planet were the result of youthful ignorance or the passage of time. Once things did get moving, however, all fears were set aside.

Forbidden Planet is a great space adventure from a time in the genre before warp drives and CGI, when those rules I mentioned earlier weren’t as rigid as they are now. Fantastical story, compelling visuals, and haunting score suck a viewer in despite it’s outdated characterizations. It is nothing short of a classic.