Picture a poll to find the most important sci-fi film ever made. 2001’s going to get a few votes. Metropolis must be in the running too. There’ll even be a few nutjobs who plump for Star Wars (c’mon guys – we love it too, but you’ve got to admit it’s more influenced by than influential, right? Right? Wait! Put that lightsaber down...). But however you count up the marks, 1956’s Forbidden Planet has got to be in the top two or three.
One of the first sci-fi films that didn’t languish in B-movie hell, FP was a huge and lavish production for MGM. And it shows in every loving frame of beautifully detailed matte work, icily restrained animation and eerie electronic score. But it hasn’t just got the look, it’s got the smarts too.
For a kick off, it’s a surprisingly faithful spin on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with pompous, overreaching scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and the technology he’s adapted from longdead alien race the Krill standing in for Prospero and his magic. Don’t mistake ‘faithful’ for ‘slavish’, though. This was – and remains – a surprisingly modern movie. Its concerns aren’t the rights and wrongs of vengeance that ultimately power Bill’s play, but rather the dangers that lurk deep in the human mind as Morbius unwittingly sets loose a monster from deep within his own psyche; a creature from the Id (Freud would have been so proud...).
The plot plays like the best episode of Star Trek never made (Gene Roddenberry freely admitted that his goal was to create a small-screen version of Forbidden Planet). A flying saucer from Earth’s federation captained by dashing proto-Kirk Commander Adams (a strait-laced Leslie Nielsen) arrives on Altair 4 to find out what happened to a lost colony of scientists. Morbius and his scantily-clad daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) are found living happily with their – now iconic – robot butler Robby.
BEWARE THE IDS THAT MARCH
But it’s not quite the paradise it seems. As Adams and Altaira fall for each other (see? told you he was James T Kirk Mark One), an invisible something begins stalking and killing the ship’s crew. What is it? Can it be stopped? And just what price will have to be paid to do it?
Only occasionally do the philosophical musings obstruct rather than drive a plot that successfully marries goosebump creepiness to hearty boy’s-own adventure. With enough romance and humour on the sidelines to round things out, this is simply, unquestionably, a brilliant movie.
But don’t just take our word for it. The two-disc set boasts an hour-long doc called Watch The Skies! Science Fiction, The 1950s And Us, where a raft of A-list directors kowtow to the sci-fiflicks of the Fifties. The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Thing From Another World... all the greats get a look in. But it’s during the 10 minutes devoted to Forbidden Planet that you see a real spark in the eyes of interviewees Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott and James Cameron.
All have been influenced by, homaged or just plain nicked ideas, visuals and even whole scenes from FP (the Aliens bit where the marines track the approach of seemingly invisible creatures on a radar doohickey is a direct steal). George Lucas may grump when Spielberg suggests that C-3PO is a direct descendant of Robby The Robot (he moodily claims Metropolis influenced him more), but there are half a dozen other Star Wars ‘similarities’, from the look of the Death Star interior (uncannily like FP’s giant underground laboratories) to Robby’s sandspeeder-esque atomic car.
It’s just a pity they couldn’t persuade the Premier League helmers to appear on the package’s second and third docs too. There you get a distinctly lower-league line-up including FX wiz Dennis Muren, Joe Dante and the three Johns (Dykstra, Carpenter and Landis), but it’s a minor gripe. Together with assorted experts, cast members (including Nielsen and the scarily well-preserved seventysomething Francis) and even a few robot geeks, they unpeel both the story of the film in general and of Robby The Robot in particular with affectionate clarity.
Who knew that MGM had to borrow Disney’s top pen-pusher Josh Meador to do animation effects because the studio simply had no animation department? Or that Robby The Robot was shaped out of the same material imitation leather suitcases were made from?
Speaking of Robby... the film’s most enduring visual icon didn’t come cheap. Designed by in-house draftsman Robert Kinoshita (who also created Lost In Space’s tin man), he cost more than $100,000 to build. A heck of a lot for a suit that still needed a man inside to make it move. No wonder MGM decided that Robby needed to go on to make other appearances in order to justify his cost. Two are included for the price here – an episode of the Thin Man detective series entitled Robot Client and the full length feature The Invisible Boy. Neither’s great – The Invisible Boy is a dreary kiddie adventure with Robby basically filling the Lassie role – but they’re interesting enough as historical sidebars.
The deleted scenes are merely interesting and the glaring lack of a commentary annoys – as does the failure to mention the stage-musical version of the 1990s – but the quality of the docs makes up for all that. And even if it didn’t, the sheer loveliness of this digi-tinkered print (complete with Dolby 5.1 sound) would. Watch on the biggest screen you can get and most of the effects still outpoint modern CGI. This may be the past’s vision of the future, but it looks damn near perfect in the present.