“Alright, so it’s impossible. How long will it take?” – Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot, and 98 Questionable Minutes in Film History

Five years after The Day the Earth Stood Still, and four years before The Time Machine, MGM Studios took on their first Sci Fi film, Forbidden Planet. Initially conceived as a low-budget B-movie, producers Allen Adler and Irving Block decided their idea was bigger than the two of them and pitched it to MGM. Oddly enough, MGM accepted their pitch. I say oddly enough, because I can’t for the life of me figure out this film’s appeal. A thousand geeks and nerds across the nation probably just gasped in disgust at me. Wait, I take it back; I don’t have nearly that many readers… yet.

 “There’s something funny down there Skipper!” – Jerry –

What starts out as a jaunt through space for Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew, ends with monstrous results. Their mission is to check on the status of a research team sent to the planet Altair-4 twenty years ago. Why it took twenty years to check on the group of scientists is beyond me. In any case, upon landing Adams and his team quickly discover Edward Morbius P.H.D. (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) to be the sole survivors of the team. Aside from their servant, Robby the Robot (who was supposedly built by Morbius), there doesn’t seem to be much sign of civilization. It seems a dark presence killed off Morbius’ team long ago, but where is it now? Will it come back? How does Morbius have a daughter? Why can she tame tigers? What is Morbius hiding? And who are the Krell? Some of these questions will be answered in the film, others will never make sense; watcher beware. If you’re still interested, though, here’s the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEj8bZo9IGA

Ultimately, I found this film to be more than a little cheesy, and far from entertaining. In a text message to my cousin I said, “It’s like Lost in Space, only not funny.” I had such high expectations for Robby the Robot too. What with the flat, unlikable characters, and the confounding and unlikely mysteries revealed by Morbius, you can’t help but wonder if the film would’ve been better had the film been all about Robby. He was, by far, the most interesting member of the cast. I particularly enjoyed when he told the spoiled, clueless, and slightly suspicious Altaira that it would take him a week to grow the “star sapphires” that she wanted on her dress that she’d asked him to create by morning. Suck it Altaira!

What else can I possibly say beyond: This time you really can read a movie by it’s cover. It looks just as ridiculous as it really ends up being. There’s word that it’s based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Perhaps, this would be a better film if I knew The Tempest. Perhaps we will never know.

Looking at IMDB, however, I see that many people who remember seeing it as a kid absolutely loved it. One viewer from 1956 said simply. “I was 9…it scared the crap out of me… I LOVED it.” Another film buff said, “I saw it in 1956 at age 7 as well. Scared me to death. Somewhere I read that the story was based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The memory of that movie has stayed with me a long time!” I guess it all depends on your point of view. It seems that most of the people who saw the film when they were young were extremely frightened, entertained, and impressed by the movie. Who amongst us can’t relate? When I was a kid I thought The Neverending Storywas the best thing since fresh-off-the fryer doughnuts. I watched it a few years ago, and it really wasn’t as deep as it seemed then. At the time, though, the “Nothing” scared me just as much as the monster in Forbidden Planet scared these viewers. 

“Others. But there are no others, Commander. Before the first year was out, they had all, every man and woman succumbed to a sort of planetary force here. Some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force.”- Morbius –

Though this was by all (or at least most) accounts a campy B-movie even against it’s best intentions, I can’t disregard the heroics in special effects and sound design that must’ve been top-notch at the time. According to a write-up by Turner Classic Movies, the film had a budget that started out at $1 million and eventually rose to almost double that amount. MGM studios used a 10,000 foot circular painting as a backdrop for the film, and a beautiful backdrop at that. One can’t help but be awe-stricken by the detailed painting that went into such backdrops of the time. Equally as intricate was Robby the Robot, who at 6 ft. 11 inches required a person inside manning the controls as well as outside controls. Apparently this didn’t keep Robby from toppling over on several occasions, though, leading to the joke that Robby was a drunk. According to a documentary about Robby the Robot from the DVD’s bonus material, MGM actually promoted Robby as a “real” robot. Many people didn’t know until much later that there was actually a man inside running the controls. That said, Robby still cost the studio around $100,000 and used airplane parts put together by some of Lockheed’s most talented machinists. Though he was large and loud, he was still unlike any other robot created at the time, and went on to gain celebrity status. He even got his own second movie, The Invisible Boy, and several cameos years later in other films (i.e. Gremlins). In another documentary about early Sci Fi that came with the DVD, Steven Spielberg is certain in an interview that George Lucas must’ve been inspired by Robby the Robot to create C3P0’s character. Lucas however claims that he was influenced more by Metropolis for 3P0’s character, than by Robby. Of course that doesn’t explain why both robot’s deliver a similar line about speaking many languages. I’m just saying…

“If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.” – Robby the Robot

Also notable effects-wise is the murderous monster, which appears as a creepy outline of a terrible creature. The monster was actually created by Disney animators who specialized in such effects, and were allowed to temporarily work on the MGM film. Another IMDB viewer said, “I saw it in 1956, at the Fox Theater in Redondo Beach, CA. I’ll never forget the effect of the Id monster breaking into the camp.”

All of these powers combined with the spaceship and underground city designs led to the film’s nomination for Best special effects in the 1956 Academy Awards. In the same DVD documentary that featured Lucas and Spielberg, Ridley Scott claims that the spaceship set, “Could’ve been Frank Sinatra’s living room.” The film didn’t win the award for best special effects; it lost to The Ten Commandments.

The score for the film is also quite interesting. Today we hear the cheesy theremin soundtrack and sound effects and giggle, or as the case may be, cringe. I mean it’s the kind of noise that frightens cats…mine included. At the time, however, creating an entire film score with purely electronic music was relatively unheard of. Composers Louis and Bebe Barron used only electronically generated sounds to make the eerie soundtrack, which paved the way for new ways of looking at film scoring. According to the TCM write-up on Forbidden Planet executives at MGM were nervous about the strange score, and decided to present a sneak preview of the unfinished film to see how the audience would react to this bizarre new style. The response was so positive, that MGM didn’t even allow the composers or editors to polish off the film.

Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!” – Morbius –

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
Well, we can’t blame the robot. He did his best. I blame the writers and the producers for coming up with something so silly.

Is it re-watchable?
Simply stated; no. I would probably find some Lost in Space re-runs instead.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
I was looking for an old Sci Fi film to check out, namely because I don’t think I’ve seen many. I loved The Day the Earth Stood Still, so I thought surely there’d be other early Sci Fi films that were just as good. SOMEONE recommended this one to me.

If you liked this, you might also like:
Okay, so this is going to sound strange, but if you liked this I’d actually “recommend” The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. It was equally bizarre, but actually more entertaining, if you ask me. I’d also recommend, if this isn’t obvious, The Day the Earth Stood Still, because once you’ve seen Robby the Robot, you probably need to make sure you see Gort. Also, it’s a far better movie. I guess if you liked this, though, there are lots of other B-movies that you’ll really enjoy. I couldn’t say.

Final verdict – in claps
You may not clap, but you might cringe, roll your eyes, or simply stare in disbelief wondering what crazy thing the characters could possibly say next.

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