Forbidden Planet: The Moment Hollywood Got Serious About Sci Fi Cinema


Forbidden Planet: The Moment Hollywood Got Serious About Sci Fi Cinema

Forbidden Planet (1956) Directed by Fred M. Wilcox (previously known for the Lassie movies). Starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen. Screenplay by Cyril Hume based on a story by Allen Adler and Irving Block.

It’s difficult to imagine what science fiction cinema would look like today without Forbidden Planet. It was released in 1956, in the middle of a decade overflowing with sci fi movies, but its impact is so widespread, its influence so lasting and profound, that there are elements of it everywhere you look: Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, the films of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, and so much more. Made for a huge-at-the-time budget of $2 million, filmed in a lavish production at the MGM studio, borrowing special effects creators from Disney, featuring a truly unprecedented musical score, and with a story based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, everything about Forbidden Planet seems to be saying that it’s time to stop playing about with B-movie monsters and start taking sci fi cinema seriously.

It wasn’t the first thematically and tonally serious sci fi film to come out of Hollywood in the 1950s; it was following in the footsteps of films like Destination Moon (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and The War of the Worlds (1953). But it was the first to take place on a planet outside of our Solar System, reachable only by faster-than-light travel, in a version of humanity’s future where such travel is the expected next step in space exploration.

To put things in perspective: A voiceover at the beginning of Forbidden Planet charmingly predicts that humans will travel to the Moon by “the final decade of the 21st century.” Here in the real world, the Sputnik 1 satellite launched on October 4, 1957, initiating the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The first spacecraft landed on the Moon in 1959, and ten years later the first humans were walking on the surface. I guess the real question is now whether humans will go back to the moon by the final decade of the 21st century.

Forbidden Planet is influential and important in the genre, yes. It’s also great fun. This movie does take itself very seriously, and it is very much a product of its time. But it is still a thoroughly enjoyable movie. (It’s the embrace of wild Freudian psychology more than the sexism that dates it, to be honest. The sexism could come from any era, including right now.)

A quick overview: In the distant future, a spaceship led by Captain John Adams (a dashing young Leslie Nielsen) arrives at the planet Altair IV. The mission’s goal is to check up on explorers who went to the planet twenty years ago and have been out of contact ever since. They make contact with Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who very sternly warns them away from landing—a warning they ignore, of course, because it’s awfully suspicious and they have a mission. They soon discover that Morbius and his daughter Alta (Anne Francis, very charming in the role) are the only survivors of the original group, as the others were violently killed—literally torn apart—by a mysterious force. Morbius has spent the past twenty years studying the remains of a highly advanced alien civilization that seems to have been destroyed by the same mysterious force. And, naturally, as soon as Captain Adams and his men start to interfere, the attacks start again.

Watching Forbidden Planet now, sixty-eight years after it was released, there is quite a lot about it that is familiar, because all the subsequent stories it inspired are now so familiar. The mission to an out-of-contact colony, the helpful talking robot, the brilliant scientist, the beautiful young woman, the artifacts of an alien civilization, the moral about the dangers of hyper-intelligence, the complete acceptance of the idea that humans have distinct rational and animalistic sides… these are the pieces from which countless Star Trek episodes are made—and that’s not a complaint! I have enjoyed and will happily continue to enjoy any number of stories about people traveling around in space to check out places where something strange and terrible has happened, forcing them to learn something about their own choices and nature. (Although I’m glad that sci fi these days has mostly left the outdated ego vs id, intellect vs instinct psychology behind.) Even though the premise is familiar to sci fi fans, the mystery and tension build very nicely, helped along by Walter Pidgeon’s portrayal of Dr. Morbius, which is never quite truly sinister, but is always stepping right up to that line.

Premise and plot aside, there are two things I want to talk about regarding the film’s production, both of which stood out to me when I was watching.

The first is apparent just few minutes into the film, in what is one of the film’s most iconic scenes: the view of the ship landing on the planet’s surface. It’s a gorgeous scene, slow and deliberate. The ship itself is a perfect flying saucer shape we now associate more with alien space travel than with humanity’s future. In the background, there are two moons visible in an eerie green sky, and the landscape is vast and jagged and dramatic.

The entire movie was filmed inside the MGM studios in Culver City; that striking view of Altair IV is a matte painting. The film’s matte paintings were done by Howard Fisher, Henri Hillinick, and Matthew Yuricich, and overseen by supervisor Warren Newcombe. Other paintings make an appearance in the view of Morbius and Alta’s home, in the scene where Morbius gazes across the landscape toward the graves of his fellow explorers, and when the characters descend into the remains of the vanished Krell civilization.

I love all of these paintings. They’re beautiful, interesting, and create a setting that is—as a couple of characters mention in conversation—very alien in appearance but still something that a person could get used to. The spires of rock are just a bit too sharp, the moons in the sky just a bit too large, but there is nothing unrecognizable, not until the characters visit the massive ancient facility beneath the planet’s surface. There, the scope of what the extinct Krell civilization built is described and shown on a scale that is difficult to grasp, and the contrast of the cool metallic underground with the rocky red surface is very effective.

I understand why more recent sci fi films use digital backgrounds or on-site Earth locations. I can even acknowledge it is not their fault that I spent too many years studying geology and often see not an unknown alien planet, but Death Valley or Wadi Rum or Iceland or, alas, many areas of the southern California chaparral within driving distance of Hollywood studios. But I still have a special fondness for old school matte paintings and love to spot them in movies. Knowing a background is a matte painting makes me want to study it in detail to appreciate and understand what it’s accomplishing in creating a scene. And I like that Altair IV, this truly alien planet, the first one to appear in cinema, was created in a few moody, atmospheric scenes, brushstroke by brushstroke, by a team of extremely skilled artists.

The second thing I want to talk about is one that Forbidden Planet is rightfully very famous for, and that’s its score. You might notice, if you are the type of person to read a film’s credits, that there is no credit for soundtrack or score, and nobody named as a composer. What there is instead is a credit for “electronic tonalities,” and the people credited are Bebe and Louis Barron.

The Barrons, a married couple, were a pair of beatnik musicians living in New York and creating electronic music by manipulating circuits and amplifying and recording the sounds on magnetic tape. In the 1950s electronic music was still in its early days; the theremin had been around since the 1920s, but analog synthesizers wouldn’t be invented until the 1960s. When an MGM producer hired the Barrons to create a score for Forbidden Planet, electronic sounds weren’t entirely new to film, but it was unprecedented for an entire score to be electronic—and not just electronic, but so distinctly electronic that it sits in a peculiar limbo between musical score and sound effects.

(Quick aside: Some sources—such as this NPR piece—state some version of the story that a dispute with the American Federation of Musicians is the reason the Barrons’ work on the film is not credited as a musical score and was not submitted for Oscar consideration, but others indicate that it was only concern about a possible dispute that led to the “electronic tonalities” credit. I mention this because I find it amusing that decisions about what credits to include on a film required the studio heads and lawyers to sit around contemplating the question, “What is music, anyway?”)

The “electronic tonalities” are strange, unsettling, unnatural, and otherworldly—in other words, perfect for the sounds of a distant alien world. The hums and vibrations, the whirs and whoops and squeals, sitting right on the line between soundtrack and ambience, with no easy distinction between what is diegetic and what is not—they are all essential elements of the film’s setting, tension, and tone. It’s very effective, far more so than a traditional orchestral score would be.

The Barrons never composed another film score; the rest of their work sat pretty firmly in the avant-garde rather than the mainstream. But audiences at the time loved the score of Forbidden Planet. Those audiences included a young Ben Burtt, who watched Forbidden Planet as a child and grew up to be the legendary sound designer behind the iconic sci fi soundscape of Star Wars (and many, many other films). You can watch Burtt recreate the Barrons’ method here: it’s pretty damn cool.

Discussion about what is influential and significant in art can sometimes feel a bit hard to grasp, especially in a field as self-mythologizing and impact-obsessed as filmmaking. But there are also times when it is really very simple: experiencing the right work of art at the right time, remembering it, reshaping the awe and fear and curiosity it made you feel into something new, that’s how art grows and evolves.

There is something very enjoyable, I think, about watching a movie like Forbidden Planet, which contains so much that is known and familiar in sci fi today, as the strange new experience it was upon release, with its distant planetary setting and its talking robot and its peculiar sights and sounds. I was not alive in 1956, but it’s so easy to understand how audiences would watch this movie and think, “Oh, yes, I want more of that.” And it’s just as easy to understand how a fairly large number of those people would go on to make more of what they loved in their own works of science fiction.

Thank you for joining me for the first week of the Sci Fi Film Club (you can find the introduction to the series here, along with a list of the movies we’ll be watching this month). What do you think about the sights and sounds and psychology of Forbidden Planet? What about its lasting impact on the genre nearly seventy years later? Share your thoughts below!

Next Week in the Science Fiction Film Club: We’re heading to a different extrasolar planet to explore a different set of psychological problems with Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris. Watch it on Max, Criterion, Amazon, Apple, and more. icon-paragraph-end

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