Influential “Forbidden Planet” played at the Miller Center

Some of the most enjoyable movies out there are straight out of the 1950’s. It’s almost like a time machine. You’re sitting and watching something that was made long before you were ever around, how the world was viewed at that particular time, and the possibilities that were dreamed up, like “Forbidden Planet,” (1956) directed by Fred M. Wilcox.

“Forbidden Planet” is one of those movies that you expect to be really campy, too stupid to sit through or something highly primitive for our jaded millennial souls. It’s main star is Leslie Nielsen, the guy from “Naked Gun” who was a comedy legend in his day. The movie was a part of a film series at the Miller Center.

According to the film’s IMDB page the actors were told “to take it seriously,” which in all honesty makes the film incredibly watchable and enjoyable. Obviously, actors should take their jobs seriously, but it’s worth noting that a film from 1956 has a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, when a lot of films from today don’t reach higher.

Its runtime is a brisk 90 minutes, unlike most blockbusters today in the science fiction genre.  This little film from 1956–that doesn’t talk down to the audience about a somewhat mature subject matter, has a body count and doesn’t show needless gore–makes you care about the heroes and sympathize with the villains, giving you a complete, coherent story.  The movie is influenced heavily by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Instead of a sorcerer and his daughter marooned on an island with an invisible sidekick, it’s a professor and his daughter marooned on a planet with a robot sidekick–Robby the robot.

It’s interesting, because as I’ve said, I went in expecting to dislike this experience, and I also expected to be the youngest in the theater. I was right about one of those things.  The audience consisted of about 13 people and many weren’t college students, which is a shame because they missed out.

Something I was pleasantly surprised about was that there’s a little something for everyone. The romance plot between Leslie Nielsen’s “Commander Adams” and Annie Francis as the professor’s daughter Altaira is a plot point. It’s there to attract romantics hesitant to get into sci-fi.

There’s real legitimate dramatic conflict between Dr. Mordius and his daughter. He wants her to be safe and sound with him, but she wants to explore the world of deep space. Dr. Morbius also is wrestling with the great scientific finds he’s discovered on the distant planet with alien technology. Does he share it and let other people use it? Or does he keep it to himself? There’s a little bit of something for everyone to enjoy.

This movie was nominated for an Oscar for its effects. I know that in our jaded millennial minds old movies are hokey, corny, stupid, and dated. And because with recent blockbusters like “The Hobbit” trilogy and the Marvel Universe’s releases, all of the major effects are computer generated, and we can always tell when they’re fake. I feel like when you watch a movie from the past while you see cartoon-ish effects, you also see remarkable effects created purely out of imagination. Lots of the effects in this film were practical, built on set as the actors react and work with.

There’s a scene when the monster is stalking the ship, with ominous music–this film is one of the first to have music performed by all electronic music–in the background to set the scene. The right amount of eerie music mixed with the unsettling images of an invisible creature making footprints up to the ship.

The creature makes it’s way up the ship, leaving dents on the stairs, and opens a hatch inside.  Features like this are normally accomplished by trick wires, which you can’t see in this film, hydraulics and matte painting backgrounds are used in these films.

At the time these effects were state of the art, and even revolutionary. Of course by today’s standards they’re dated, but if you think about it, the time and effort that went into those effects is pretty impressive. If you can look at a movie like this, and think of it as a time capsule movie it adds to the enjoyment. You can also see how influential this movie was for modern sci-fi. Hints of “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “Lost in Space,” all clearly owe quite a bit to “Forbidden Planet.”

The movie is a little dated in some plot points, too. Specifically the romantic plot that definitely is a product of the time. Annie Francis, who played Altaira is supposed to be 19, and is clearly played by a grown woman.  Her costumes are all dresses that have a hemline that are pretty short, which leads to the Captain awkwardly approaching her and telling her to be careful wearing things like that, because he had a ship full of men who hadn’t seen a woman in over a year.

The romance is a three-day fling, and Neilson’s character is a little more than forward about his intentions.

“She’s connected to me, body and soul,” he said.

If this film was made today, I imagine that Altaira would have a little bit more of a personality, not to say that Francis didn’t.  Watching this movie made me realize something, we lost someone really great when we lost Leslie Nielsen. He was doing straight drama in this film, and was one of the few charismatic actors that you were drawn to. You wanted to see that Captain survive.

Unlike many of the action films today, the story is compelling and there’s an actual plot that’s coherent and interesting; something movies like “Transformers” could learn from.


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