Musings on Forbidden Planet

Okay, I said I would try to organize my thoughts, and explain why I found Forbidden Planet to be less then thrilling when I saw it again at the grand opening of George R.R.’s wonderful, refurbished Jean Cocteau.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think the nineteen-fifties overall were a golden age for film.  In some ways it felt like a lot of the movies — Doris Day, Rock Hudson, I’m looking at you — were designed to convince women that they really didn’t want to be Rosie the Riveter any longer, and that being a housewife was the pinnacle of achievement for a woman.  “Pay no attention to the fact you held positions of power and authority during the war, ladies, what you really want is a split level in the burbs, and to vacuum while wearing high heels and pearls.  Of course what we got were martinis and Miltowns and quiet desperation.

It was also an era where science fiction films had a huge uptick.  Undoubtably the advent of the Bomb had something to do with that, and the theaters were filled with cautionary tales from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL to THEM to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

Of that crop of S.F. films Forbidden Planet is often presented as the finest film of that era, and as a piece of history I think it is fascinating and well worth watching.  They were certainly working off powerful themes and using Shakespeare’s Tempest as your template tends to put you several cuts above giant ants.

Let me start by saying the blue ray restoration was beautiful.  The film looked great, and I can acknowledge that for 1956 it probably knocked people back in their seats.  I especially liked the tour of the Krell facility.  It was impressive.

Walter Pidgeon had probably the best line in the movie when the doctor and the captain try testing their intellect on the Krell machine, and Commander Adams comes in a very poor third.  Morbius says, “That’s all right, sir.  A commanding officer doesn’t need brains, just a good, loud voice.”  Priceless.

Also, as a piece of science fiction history the film is significant.  You can clearly see where Gene Rodenberry got a number of his ideas for Star Trek from the transporter platform to the oddly shaped doors when he wanted to indicate an alien culture.

It also had many of the problems that have afflicted science fiction films to this day — an overwhelming desire to explain stuff that doesn’t need to be explained.  I think some of this is due to nervous studio executives who are worried an audience will be confused and perhaps that was the case in 1956 but it does make for long stretches of plodding dialogue.

This is another place where Gene took away a valuable lesson of what not to do.  He never explained the communicator or the tricorder in Star Trek.  He lets you figure them out from context.  I remember one time he said in a meeting — “We don’t explain the telephone when people use them in movies.  We shouldn’t explain our technology.”  (Now if only he’d gotten rid of the damn Holo Deck, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

You can also see how script writing has changed in the past sixty years.  Aside from the tendency to over-explain the speeches were overly long adding to the pedantic quality.  Today dialogue is short and fast paced.  In Forbidden Planet there were very long speeches that made it feel more like the actors were declaiming to one another rather than real people interacting with one another.

The actors performances also felt stilted to me, and I have a feeling this was because they were all terribly aware they were in a science fiction movie set in the far future and things had to seem different.  That kind of stiff delivery isn’t found in other movies from a different eras.  The performances in CASABLANCA or BRINGING UP BABY, or NOTORIOUS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, etc. etc. seem far more natural to me.

And of course the movie is horribly sexist, but I give it a pass on that because it’s an artifact of its time, and that was the prevailing attitude.  I admit it completely put my teeth on edge because it was a flashback to being seven years old and being constantly told — “You can’t be a jokey, astronaut, President, etc. because you’re a girl.”

The interactions I actually liked the best were between the cook and Robbie because of course Robbie is just wonderful, and Cookie, while a cliche, was played with verve and joy.  I also quite liked the intellectual doctor, and I would have picked him over the Commander, but that’s just me.  Give me those brainy, sensitive types any day.  🙂

What was painfully evident is that a younger audience didn’t know how to react to what they were watching.  They laughed in the wrong places — when the doctor is uttering his warning “Monsters from the Id!” and expiring, and at several other points there were inappropriate giggles.  I don’t think this is entirely the audience’s fault.  I’ve shown Casablanca to a number of younger people for whom a black and white film seems like torture, and they have reacted appropriately.  It’s the fact that the audience was clearly being bumped out of the film by the lines, the performances etc., that leads me to say that Forbidden Planet hasn’t aged well.

This is not to say it isn’t an important part of film history, and doesn’t deserve respect and honor for being a trail blazer, but I confess — I was giggling at the wrong moments too.  I adored THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, not the horrible remake, but the Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal version from 1951, but I’m scared to watch it again for fear it won’t have aged very well either.

But damn both THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and FORBIDDEN PLANET sure had great robots.  If I had a lot of disposable income I’d buy a life size replica of Gort and then GRRM and I could pit his Robbie against my Gort for the amusement of friends, family and the customers at the Cocteau.

6 Responses to Musings on Forbidden Planet

  • Steve Lopata says:

    I have to agree about the holodeck.

  • T. England says:

    But damn, the scene where the id-beast tried to break through the barrier was terrific! Perhaps another reason it comes across stiff and talky is because of the source material; they were emulating Shakespeare a bit.. Odd, too, the colonizing ship had women aboard, but the ship sent to check on them didn’t. And you suppose Rodenberry also was inspired by the relationship between the captain and the doctor for the relationship between Kirk and McCoy?

  • Serge Broom says:

    I’ve recently had this weird notion that the movie’s sexism might actually be a direct relative to what destroyed the Krell and Morbius. I mean, two males duking it out over one female is a rather primitive urge. Or maybe I’m full of blueberry muffins, to quote the journalist from Howard Hawkes’s “The Thing”. 🙂

  • Eric Senabre says:

    It’s probably more delicate for me to judge the quality of the acting since english is not my mother-tongue, but still, as outdated as I find it, it doesn’t really bumps me out of the movie. After all, as Melinda mentioned, this is all based on a play. So I think we can forgive them for being so solemn. But maybe this is because I’m so pedantic myself 😉

    Now, I think the movie is still stunning artistically speaking. And I don’t mean just “visually”. The magic of the electronic sounds still operate. It was avant-garde in 1956 and in a way, it still is. The set, the matte paintings, the photography : it’s really amazing how coherent it is. There’s a real poetry about it, and not just because we watch it from a 2013 perspective. The use of Disney artists to create the “monster” was a terrific idea too. Even for a young audience today, I think it works. Well, it has worked on my kids, anyway.

    As for the movies from the 50’s… Since you’re fresh on that subject, Hitchcock made some of his finest movies during that decade (the pinnacle being Vertigo, as far as I am concerned). So did Wilder (even Kazan, although he was very busy calling the FBI). But truth is in France, we were relatively spared from the “Doris Day”-clones (and the end of the 50’s, early 60’s was a golden era for us).

    I think you can re-watch The Day The Earth Stood Still with no problem. The fact is, a great director makes all the difference. Robert Wise he gave us a bunch of masterpieces like The Haunting, West Side Story, The Set-Up, Two for the Seesaw (I’m not sure I’d include Star Trek The Motion Picture, but it is still visually impressive). Fred M. Wilcox, on the other hand, gave us Come Home Lassie. I rewatched it a couple of days ago (TDTESS, not Lassie), and it was still a delight.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I completely agree about the music and the use of theremin to create the atmosphere. I also really liked the Id monster scene, but overall the film just fell flat for me. I thought about Wilder and Hichcock, but they seemed to be the exceptions. They were brilliantly creative in the midst of a sea of banality. I think our current era is on track for matching the low level of films being made and released, but instead of giggling sex comedies to day we get bloated effects movies with no story, much less soul.

  • Eric Senabre says:

    What’s puzzling me is that until very recently, american blockbusters could have silly scripts, but still, those were written very professionally. From a “structural” point of view, they were flawless and I think the whole world envied hollywood screenwriters for their technical skills (stories asides : as I said, a “working script” could be silly or hollow). I’m very surprised to see that a lot of recent movies don’t match this “minimum level” of writing. I thought Prometheus was somehow embarrassing, but that’s really not the only one (The Amazing Spider-Man, etc).

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