Identifying Forbidden Planet as a b-movie seems inequitable. The basic elements of a b-movie are here; we’re tendered a robot, an astro-vixen, interplanetary travel, and a mad scientist, but this flick is a little more prestigious than your average schlock reel from the ‘50s. For starters, it was actually made with a budget. $1.9 million to be exact, and the munificent funding translated well to celluloid, as Forbidden Planet’s production values are truly incomparable. Secondly, the script is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” How many other b-movies bear Elizabethan roots? Its influence can be found in the most eminent of geek shrines, both stars Trek and Wars. Why it’s never championed as much as other sci-fi classics are is beyond me, but it has graced my VCR, which is all that really matters.
As appetizing as the poster is, it’s faintly misleading. The robot isn’t the antagonist. The film doesn’t even have a clear antagonist until about the halfway mark, and a sense of conflict doesn’t present itself for some time. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. On one hand, the exposition feels aimless and the pace lags in spots because the characters aren’t in jeopardy. On the other hand, you’re intrigued by the titular planet and you’re placed in the shoes of the starship crew members as they become conversant with their surroundings. You want to learn more about Dr. Morbius, the Krell, and the invisible brute who stamped out Morbius’ entire team of scientists nearly two decades ago, so the leisurely pace isn’t such an encumbrance. If anything, it heightens the intensity of the eventful third act.
The cast is competent. You won’t recognize him, but assuming the role of the handsome lead is none other than Leslie Nielsen. This was one of his first acting gigs (no frosty mane here), and he comes out of it looking good. He borders on wooden as Commander Adams (more on that later), but he expresses as much as his cramped role allows. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr. Morbius, the mad (although not quite as mad as Dr. West or Dr. Pretorius) scientist. He has a commanding delivery and reminded me of Vincent Price at times. Anne Francis plays Altaira, Morbius’ naive, ingenuous bombshell of a daughter. I must confess, her beauty exerted a pull on my eyes (amongst other things), but she also deftly conveyed Altaira’s chaste innocence/ignorance (“What’s a bathing suit?”).
For 1956, the special effects are jaw-dropping. Animation is intermingled with live action (courtesy of Disney), but it doesn’t look as silly as it sounds. As a matter of fact, I’d say that it’s almost as credible as CGI. The set designs are elaborate, the cinematography is polished, and the entire color spectrum is explored. If only a greater amount of archaic sci-fi/horror romps had studio backing of this enormity. But where Forbidden Planet prevails in crafting an engrossing story and employing well-preserved special effects, it falls short in communicating any real emotion.
For instance, Commander Adams isn’t the least bit dismayed by the deaths of his colleagues. Tears aren’t shed, words of remembrance aren’t uttered...he acts as though he lost his car keys instead of the people that he’s been holed up in a flying saucer with for the past 378 days. Hmm, I don’t know what else to chirp about without spoiling a natty plot twist, but suffice it to say that it’s a good one. Yep, a plot twist. In a b-movie from the ‘50s. See, I told you that this was a cut above the rest!