Monday, October 30, 2017

Cardboard Science: O Brave New World, That Has Such Aliens In 't

Year: 1956
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: Approved

There’s a lot of good that comes out of this Cardboard Science crossover with Kinemalogue (where I exchange three of my 80’s slashers for three of Hunter Allen’s 50’s sci-fi flicks), but perhaps the most rewarding thing for a Rocky Horror nerd like myself is slowly coming to understand the references in the opening song “Science Fiction, Double Feature.” The tune name drops a dozen classic B-movies and today we get to visit a landmark entry that appears in the chorus itself in this immortal – if not particularly creative – line: “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet.”

And now I can confirm that the line is, indeed, accurate.

Forbidden Planet takes place in the distant future, sometime after the invention of hyperspace travel in the 23rd century (strangely, this is the first Cardboard Science flick I’ve encountered that takes place in the future rather than having something futuristic or alien arrive in contemporary America). A space vessel led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen long before he became synonymous with deadpan genre parody – in fact this was his feature film debut) lands on the planet Altair-4 to look for survivors of the starship Bellerophon, which crashed there 19 years ago.

They discover the planet abandoned, save for the crew’s only survivor, the sketchy Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). As if that name weren’t enough reason to cast doubt on his good intentions, he constantly warns away the crew, saying that an invisible monster killed his coworkers all those years ago, though he got out mysteriously unscathed. To his dismay, the crew discovers that he has a daughter – the lovely and mini-skirted Altaira (Anne Francis) – and boy is it convenient we waited 19 years to meet her, innit? Anyway, they are introduced to the technological wonders of the long extinct Krell race that once resided on Altair-4, meet the instantly iconic metallic megastar Robby the Robot (body and voice by Frankie Darro and Marvin Miller respectively), and eventually must face the return of the giant invisible monster.

Also, the characters and themes are loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, something I only noticed because I re-read it literally last weekend, but now I get to feel smart.

Forbidden Planet is incredibly unique among its B-movie brethren by virtue of not really being a B-movie at all. The subject of a budgetary experiment by Hollywood, the movie was bestowed with a whopping two million dollars. That’s enough money to have made Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Beginning of the End, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Brain from Planet Arous, Invaders from Mars, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space and still have enough money left over to buy two houses and a fleet of cars. And Forbidden Planet puts its money where its mouth is. It’s a full-color Cinemascope spectacle with state-of-the-art special effects so good that a handful of them even hold up in 2017. I’ve seen worse VFX shots from movies released sixteen years ago, let alone sixty.

In 1956, Forbidden Planet must have been truly mind-blowing. The elaborate sets, the pleasingly busy clockwork design of Robby, and the laser/monster effects provided by none other than the Walt Disney Company (the monster’s outline – when eventually revealed – is reminiscent of the Chernabog by way of a gnashing bulldog and is genuinely threatening, as silly as it is) exemplify an attention to detail and care of craft that few science fiction projects ever received. It doesn’t hurt that the sci-fi world presented here is both functional and fun, showcasing the odds and ends of future living like reverse fire poles and disintegrator garbage disposals without batting an eye, knowing the audiences will gape in wonderment even more because the characters are totally unfazed by it all.

But that budget extends to every single aspect of the production, including the generally solid actors (who – hilariously – had to be persuaded to take it all seriously), the lush color cinematography, and the groundbreaking all-electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron (credited – quite rightly – for “electronic tonalities”). The incredible opening theme has been in no way diminished by the ravages of time or legions of imitators. And although the music occasionally dovetails from the intended tone of a scene in an unpleasantly jarring way, it’s an incredibly idiosyncratic and successfully eerie, evocative piece of music that makes its mark on the film more than any other single element.

OK, other than Robby, who is by far the best character of the movie, maybe of the decade.

So, Forbidden Planet is a cutting-edge piece that pushed the envelope of what sci-fi could be. That point has been made, so now I can start complaining about it. You know that part in 1984 where George Orwell stops the story dead to paste in three chapters of a textbook about oligarchal collectivism? Forbidden Planet drifts hard into that territory with a half hour of Dr. Morbius explaining the made-up bullshit science of the Krell for no real reason I can discern other than to shoehorn in yet another metaphor about how mankind can’t be trusted with ultimate power. It teeters over the cliff of terminally boring, and is only pulled back when the invisible monster pokes its head back in to cause some more mayhem.

This is the one case here where a scene that may have been fascinating back in the day has no use for a modern audience. There’s something about fictional hard science from six decades ago that just doesn’t click anymore, and I really don’t feel the need to be lectured on it by a verbose space magician. These scenes (yes, there are multiple) drag down the movie heavily in my estimation, but luckily everything else about it is so top notch that it passes with flying colors anyway. I feel like Hunter has really been treating me right over these past two years, and I can’t thank him enough for that.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • In the opening monologue, the narrator explains that mankind first visited the moon in the late 21s century, massively underestimating the 13 years it would take for NASA to send its folks up there.
  • I’m pretty sure this movie invented the wireless microphone. NSYNC owes Forbidden Planet a lot.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds…” Don’t worry, folks at home! Space and God can coexist, don’t boycott this movie!
  • The minute Adams and Altaira kiss, the movie assumes that we know they’re soulmates and unceremoniously shoves her out of the movie.
  • The nude bathing scene is extravagantly racy for the time, but when Altaira gets out of the water, she is covered from the chin down by a comically large shrub.
  • This movie is really excited about Freud in that gee whiz way that only a 50’s sci-fi flick can manage.
  • The part where Robby the Robot analyzes the chemical content of bourbon by taking a swig and burping might be the single best sci-fi scene ever filmed.
  • Also, I can’t get over how Morbius named his daughter after the planet she was born on. Really, you couldn’t get more creative? Your name is literally Morbius!
TL;DR: Forbidden Planet is almost undone by an excruciatingly boring middle, but its high-budget spectacle is still a stunner.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1254
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend Without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)


  1. I'll have more substantive remarks later, but for now I should say, whoa, this year you got through the whole batch before I did my first! Terrible me. (In my defense, work is hard, as is being Halloween-hungover, and it definitely didn't help that my monitor blew yesterday morning.) I have, however, watched 2 of my 3 assignments. So far, so good, in fact.

    1. Oh, and I foresee no complication in getting them all done and out by 11:59 Oct 31 in my area, which, as you know from prior Halloweens, is American Samoa. Me and the Rock are like this, B.

  2. Well,anyway, I'm glad you mostly enjoyed it, though it's good to hear a conflicting opinion,on the exposition scenes, since it keeps me in touch with what a normal person would consider entertaining. Even so, they're probably my favorite parts of the movie. "Come, friends, see my bottomless alien science pit!" You kind of need it to motivate the film's most impressive effects sequences. (That said, Forbidden Planet's not quite the most expensive piece of cardboard science made in the 50s. That's the original WotW, a Paramount joint. Nevertheless, Planet is By far the most expensive-looking.)

    Weird and sexy and colorful and psychosocially bent, that's this film. It is, I think, my favorite of its kind and era. Neck and neck with Incredible Shrinking Man, anyway, though Planet is By bounds more endlessly rewatchable.