When it comes to adaptations of a body of work William Shakespeare is easily one of the most adapted authors in history, from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh his plays has been handled by some of the great, but my personal favourite interpretations of his work would be that of MGM’s science fiction classic Forbidden Planet, which bears more than a fair resemblance to his play The Tempest. What is important to note is that where previous science fiction adventures pitted weary space travels against random meteor storms, and the occasional Martian problem, the plot of Forbidden Planet not only took into account the physical dangers of space exploration but the possible existential threats as well.
One key element that sets Forbidden Planet apart from its predecessors is where films like Destination Moon were what would be considered “speculative fiction” taking place only a few decades into the future while Forbidden Planet is set during the 23rd century and making it closer to the likes of the classic Star Trek series, which was over a decade away, in fact, while watching Forbidden Planet you can clearly identify elements that Gene Rodenberry borrowed for his sci-fi show. The movie opens with the United Planets starship C-57D arriving at the distant planet Altair IV with its mission to determine the fate of an Earth expedition that was sent there 20 years earlier, which is a mission one could easily expect Captain Kirks and the crew USS Enterprise to be engaged on, but where Kirk’s ship had a “saucer section” the spaceship in Forbidden Planet was an honest to goodness flying saucer.
The plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest dealt with a powerful sorcerer who lived on a secluded island with his daughter and whose power and ego get the better of him, enter MGM studios and Forbidden Planet where we have the powerful scientist Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) living with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and whose power and ego get the better of him and he ends up unleashing forces that he refuses to comprehend, so with the works of William Shakespeare as a jumping-off point all the story really needed was some science fiction elements and a few stalwart heroes to spice things up. Morbius’ supposed paradise is invaded by the crew of the starship C-57D led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) who ignores Morbius’ warnings to stay away because what kind of a stalwart hero would turn back his back on a mission just because some grump planet side said the place was dangerous.
When the crew do land on Altair IV their first encounter is with one of the most iconic robots in cinema history, and that would be Robby, the Robot who did his best to steal the movie away from Leslie Nielsen. This heroic robot was initially developed by production designer Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and art director Arthur Lonergan and its ground-breaking design not only made him a star of Forbidden Planet but he is, to date, the only fictional character that became an actor in his own right, appearing in such television shows like The Twilight Zone, The Thin Man, Columbo, The Addams Family, and Lost in Space. And not only was Robby a landmark in science fiction cinema but he was also the first robot to perfectly depict Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” which was wonderfully demonstrated when Morbius asked him to shoot Commander Adams with his own blaster.
The plot of Forbidden Planet may owe a lot to Shakespeare’s The Tempest but it also includes themes found within the etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya called “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” as it depicted the artist himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by sleep, while tormented creatures that prowled in the dark, which pretty much exactly what happens to Dr. Morbius when he has his mental abilities enhanced by Krell science. The best works of science fiction don’t simply deal with mankind’s technological advancement but in the exploration of the great mysteries, the things humanity struggles to understand. We come across great questions like “What is our place in the universe?” and “Are the threats out there in space or are they deep within ourselves?” and it’s when science fiction films delve into such areas that the result is something special and in this instance a film like the Forbidden Planet. In the case of this film, it comes in the form of a terrifying “monster of the id” which Morbius’ subconscious mind unleashes on anything he feels to be a threat to his “perfect” world
Production Note: At the time MGM Studios didn’t have an effects animation division so veteran animator Joshua Meador was loaned to them by Walt Disney Productions, a rare moment in-studio bipartisanship,
All the philosophical ramblings in the world wouldn’t have made the Forbidden Planet such a classic if not supported by some of the best visuals the artists that MGM had to offer. When Morbius gives a tour of the massive underground facilities, that belong to the long-extinct Krell species, we the viewer are treated to moments in science fiction cinema that would not be surpassed until Kubrick released his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sets designed by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan were truly spectacular and wonderfully enhanced by some truly impressive visual effects and matte paintings and the impact on the genre these designs and visuals left should not be understated as anyone who has seen a Duck Dodgers cartoon or watched an episode of The Time Tunnel knows that the influence of this film spread far and wide.
• This film is both optimistic and pessimistic when it comes to space travel, we see that mankind has faster-than-light starships, but in the opening narration, it also states that mankind didn’t reach the Moon until the final decade of the 21st Century. Talk about missing that mark by about a century.
• The ship that settled Altair IV was named the Bellerophon who in Greek mythology was one of the greatest heroes and slayers of monsters, which one must admit is a rather aggressive name for an exploratory ship.
• The name Morbius could be a take on the name Morpheus who in Greek mythology was the god of sleep and dreams, which makes sense considering the id monster is manifested mostly when Morbius is asleep.
• Robby the Robot’s ability to create food by simply re-arranging molecules could be considered the precursor to the food replicators on Star Trek.
• The crew of Starship C-57D consists of some pretty nasty wolfhounds who upon seeing the gorgeous Altaira immediately begin making moves on her, which kind of makes Morbius subconsciously sending the id monster to kill them all a little more understandable.
Another major component that made Forbidden Planet such a landmark moment in cinema history was the inclusion of an innovative electronic music score by composers by Bebe and Louis Barron as their work here gave the film a very “out of this world” feel and really kept the audience a little off-center and was just as important as the visuals in creating a truly alien world and the underground Krell facility wouldn’t be half as impressive without that haunting score. Sadly, Bebe and Louis not being members of a film industry music guild resulted in the score being credited as “electronic tonalities” which negated their ability to be nominated for an Academy Award. I hope that someday the Academy will get off their collective asses and give this pair at least some sort of “Life Time Achievement Award” to signify to all the importance of their efforts in cinema.
What is quite impressive is that back in 1956 that MGM would even have the idea to sink so much money in a genre that they had no previous experience with, the fantasy elements of The Wizard of Oz are a far cry from those of Forbidden Planet, but where other studios were launching men into space on a shoestring budget MGM moved the genre out of the “B Movie” stage and into bold CinemaScope glory. Without such a daring move we may never have seen the likes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry may never have been inspired to create Star Trek, so to say we owe a lot to Forbidden Planet would be as massive of an understatement.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Movie Rank - 9/10
Whether you look at Forbidden Planet as a clever adaptation of Shakespeare or as the first science fiction film to depict humans travelling in a faster-than-light and visiting another planet in interstellar space, one can’t deny that this film was more than just a good example of the genre but a landmark that holds up incredibly well all these many years later.