Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Forbidden Planet" (1956)

Starring Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis
Written by Cyril Hume
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox

"Forbidden Planet" is one of those sci-fi movies I've heard about for a long time but never got around to seeing, much like "The Day the Earth Stood Still."  Recently released on blu-ray, I rented it from Netflix and finally got down to seeing what the hubbub was all about.  I've known for a long time that "Forbidden Planet" heavily influenced "Star Trek," of which you should know by now I'm a huge fan.  I think I was a little unprepared for just how heavy that influence was, however.  "Star Trek" seems like a straight rip-off, to be perfectly frank.

Leslie Nielsen (!!) stars as Commander John J. Adams of the star cruiser C-57-D.  His ship is on a mission to investigate the planet Altair IV, where a research ship named Bellerophon disappeared some 20 years earlier.  Upon arriving at the planet, Adams and his crew are met by Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the lone survivor of the Bellerophon expedition.  Adams and his first officer, Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) meet with Dr. Morbius and discover that Morbius is not alone: he has constructed a magnificent robot named Robby, which is capable of incredible feats... and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who has never seen a human besides her own father.

Morbius informs Adams that some kind of invisible creature killed the rest of the Bellerophon crew some 19 years earlier, leaving him and his daughter alone on the planet.  Adams and his crew are suspicious, thinking that perhaps Morbius himself killed the others.  But soon enough, something begins sabotaging their ship and killing the crew as they attempt to make contact with Earth.  Morbius may not be killing Adams' men, but he's surely keeping some kind of secret, and Adams is determined to stop it and get back to Earth safely.

"Forbidden Planet" is not a great movie, but it is fascinating to watch as a sort of time capsule of science fiction filmmaking.  Now, that doesn't make it a bad movie, either.  Just merely okay.  The biggest problem with it in terms of the actual film is that it wastes a lot of time doing things that aren't particularly necessary or interesting to furthering the plot or the characters.  The subplot involving the ship's men all sort of going bonkers for the lovely Altaira feels redundant, with the same scenes sort of repeating over and over.  The film is very talky, to its own detriment at times; some conversations go on far too long and some scenes feel redundant. 

Still, the characters are fairly well-defined, if not superbly memorable.  But the influence on "Star Trek" is clear to me; John J. Adams is the handsome, decisive leader that would become William Shatner's James T. Kirk; Doc Ostrow the scientist and executive officer would become Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock and lively Jerry Farman would become the incredible DeForrest Kelley's Dr. Leonard McCoy.  Indeed, "Star Trek" would even borrow similar plot elements from "Forbidden Planet," including an episode where Kirk, Spock and McCoy would discover a lone scientist on a planet and his gorgeous daughter.

Robby the Robot is a fine creation, and gets some of the best lines in the movie.  He seems quaint by today's standards of robots, but at the time he must have seemed like an incredible piece of work.  This is obviously true since there's a documentary on the disc about the impression Robby left (and all the other movies and TV series he appeared in over the years).  

The ultimate twist and resolution of "Forbidden Planet" is clever, and the last half of the movie moves a bit faster and is more entertaining than it starts out.  It all feels so incredibly like an extended "Star Trek" episode that I couldn't shake the familiar feeling all the way through, and also a sort of longing.  Being such a huge fan of "Star Trek," I wanted it to be "Star Trek," since it was so similar.  Sure, there are differences enough, and what "Forbidden Planet" does on its own is commendable.  But the "Trek" fan in me can only acknowledge the thanks owed to it, and see how it was improved upon later.

The visual effects of "Forbidden Planet" are also quite fascinating.  Even though they were made in the mid-1950s, a lot of them look quite impressive.  It's obvious and dated, and yet, functional and inventive.  An opening scene of an eclipse is really well designed, and a lot of the animation effects used throughout for blaster beams and force fields are pretty cool.  I went in expecting some really awful "upside down dinner plate on a string" kind of effects, but I was pleasantly surprised by how complex and solid it all was.

Seeing a very young Leslie Nielsen in action is also a treat.  I'm mostly familiar with him through the hilarious "Police Squad!" TV series and "Naked Gun" movies from later in his career.  Seeing him here, fresh-faced and with dark hair and not playing something of a buffoon is refreshing and fascinating and reminds me that there are actors out there who have had lengthy careers that sort of fade away once they're known for one particular role by certain generations.  Patrick Stewart will always be Jean-Luc Picard to me, Professor X for others, but he's a world-renowned stage actor as well.

I had fun watching "Forbidden Planet."  It's decently written, though it has rough patches, and well-acted by its cast.  The special effects are quite good for their age.  And I enjoy watching it in a historical context, noting how much "Star Trek" owes to it, and as the product of a bygone era in filmmaking.