by Steve Habrat
Throughout the 1950s, most of the science fiction films that hit the screen were filmed in black and white and made on shoestring budgets. They were pumped out quickly to capitalize on the sci-fi craze that was running rampant through American audiences. Arguably the best science fiction film of the 1950s is director Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 effort Forbidden Planet, a pulpy space opera that also acts as a retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Appearing as though it has leapt from the pages of one of those “funny books” and featuring an icy electronic score, Forbidden Planet is a film that truly tickles the eyeballs. It is all about the sky-high production values that are almost like staring into a cosmic rainbow, yet Wilcox doesn’t lean solely on the visuals. Forbidden Planet is also a cautionary tale about rapid technological advancement and those advancements spinning horribly out of control to the point of total annihilation. It perfectly reflects the anxiety and the tension of the 1950s, an era that saw the beginning of the Space Race, a general boom in technology, and the hydrogen bomb.
Forbidden Planet begins in the early 23nd century, with the United Planets Cruiser C57-D a year out from earth and traveling to the planet of Altair. It turns out that the crew of C57-D, led by Commander J.J. Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen), is there to investigate the fate of an expedition crew sent to Altair twenty years earlier. Upon entering orbit, the crew makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), who warns the crew not to land on the planet. Commander Adams ignores the warning and proceeds to land anyway. Minutes after touching down, the crew is greeted by Robby the Robot, an extremely intelligent robot who acts as an assistant to Morbius. Robby takes Commander Adams, Lieutenant Jerry Farman (played by Jack Kelly), and Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow (played by Warren Stevens), to Morbius’ home, where the group is also introduced to his beautiful daughter, Altaira (played by Anne Francis). Morbius explains to the group that an unknown planetary force attacked and killed his crew and then vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon. Morbius then warns the group that they should leave the planet before they meet the same fate. But after equipment aboard C57-D is sabotaged, Commander Adams confronts Morbius about the damage. Morbius reveals that he has been studying an alien race known as the Krell, which mysteriously disappeared 200,000 years earlier, just as they achieved a great scientific breakthrough. As the days pass and the crew works to restore their ship, they discover that the damage may be caused by an invisible and extremely violent life form that watches from the surrounding hills.
Right from the start, director Wilcox works hard to establish a pulpy aesthetic that resembles something out of a comic book. Every color pops and flat out refuses to let you turn away. The environments look absolutely breathtaking, almost like a Technicolor dream made alien through a chirping electronic score that is just perfect. Yet despite all the cosmic color and alien blips, Forbidden Planet never once thinks about winking at the audience. It plays itself completely straight, something that will most certainly catch first time viewers off guard. Once the crew of C57-D lands on Altair, Wilcox is all about letting the viewer get to know the characters and the world around them. We are taken through glowing underground factories and shown all sorts of futuristic devices that do all sorts of wondrous (and dangerous) things. It truly is an immersive experience and not one moon rock is left unturned by the climax. While over half the film is explanation and plot development, the final stretch gives way to some pretty tense action sequences that really zip, bang, and flash. The less you know about the finale, the better, but just know that it will blow you away and have you wondering just how the filmmakers pulled all those effects off.
In addition to rich set design and the unforgettable score, Forbidden Planet is also loaded with unforgettable performances. Nielsen, who is mostly remembered for his comedic performances, is spectacular as the brave hero racing to understand the environment around him. We are never treated to a hint of his comedic talents and you can’t help but think that he would have made a great action hero if he had pursued it further. Pidgeon is commanding as our mysterious guide through this alien land. There is an angle of menace to his character and the heavy weight of tragedy is resting on his shoulders. Stevens is solid as Nielsen’s sidekick, “Doc” Ostrow, who is tasked with trying to understand the alien life form that is prowling around the ship. Francis is perfectly naïve and beautiful as Morbius’ sheltered daughter, Altaira, who is enamored by the “Earthmen” that keep visiting her home. Kelly is charismatic as the lovesick Farman, who desperately tries to cuddle up to Altaira. Earl Holliman also turns up in a supporting role as C57-D’s cook, who is desperate for another bottle of bourbon. Last but certainly not least is Robby the Robot, probably the most iconic character from Forbidden Planet. He may not have all that much to do besides moving heavy pieces of equipment with one hand or making 60 gallons of bourbon, but he is given plenty of personality through the voice of Marvin Miller, who elevates the walking pile of spinning parts into a real charmer.
Like most of the science fiction films of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet has quite a bit on its mind. You get the impression that Wilcox and his screenwriters, Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler, are reflecting upon the detonation of the atomic bomb and the rapid advancements that were being made in the Atomic Age. There is fear here that these great powers that America was experimenting with may also be our downfall. If you ignore the atomic fears that creep through the film, you’ll still notice that the film is incredibly influential. In addition to the breakthrough electronic score, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has said that Forbidden Planet was one of his major inspirations for the classic show. The film is also mentioned in The Rocky Horror Picture Show during the opening song. Overall, brimming with personality, wit, thrills, chills, and charm, Forbidden Planet is an irresistible and massively influential entry into the science fiction genre. It has powerful performances, extraordinary set design, and special effects that continue to astonish to this very day. It is a deep and thoughtful journey through space that you will want to take again and again.
Forbidden Planet is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Feature: Attack of the Communists! Seven Notable Science Fiction Films from the Cold War and The Atomic Age!
by Steve Habrat
During the Communism scare in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Communist party was viewed by the general public as being an unseen or outside evil that could strike and corrupt you at any second. The science fiction films that were made during the time of the Communist scare were heavy on promoting this idea. The outside evils that are found in these films are mostly found in the alien force that is threatening our world. I think that these films are a great window into the era and actually comment on the way that our government portrayed the Communist party and how we should react if we are to come in contact with them. The nation was perceiving them as monsters or aliens that could arrive at any moment and try to destroy our forms of government and destroy us as individuals. The alien attacks in these films could also represent the idea that the Communists would attack and try to start a revolution. These films also play well into the paranoia that was working its way across the country. They play on the fear of the atomic bomb and the idea that a force that we are not familiar with could have a weapon more powerful than anything that we have. These films suggest that we could be attacked at any time and that there would be no warning. Each one of these films presents a different aspect on the atomic bomb scare and the idea of a foreign or outside evil.
The film The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise in 1951, is a very well known film from this era. The film is about two aliens, Klaatu and Gort, that come from another planet to Washington D.C. to send us a warning about our violent ways. Klaatu warns us that if we do not start living peacefully, then we will be destroyed by a race of super robots that were created by Klaatu’s planet. This film is implying the idea of an evil outside force that patrols the galaxy and tries to keep everyone in line. This is alluding to the paranoia of an outside evil attacking with a very powerful weapon that we are not able to control. This also goes along with the ideas that if we ignored this outside evil and kept living a certain way, then we would eventually be met with a revolution that would change the United States.
Throughout The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu is also portrayed as a normal man who walks around with the humans and is not even noticed. This can go along with the thought that Communists can be anyone and anywhere. The film implies that we could be mingling with a very someone very dangerous and we may not even realize it. It is also made very clear to us that the aliens are ahead of us when it comes to science and technology. Klaatu says that if we do not live peacefully, then they will unleash an army of super robots that are capable of destroying whole planets. This plays off the paranoia that was felt about the Soviets working to try to create an atomic bomb.
The second film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, is much more outspoken about its themes about the morals of the Communist party. The film focuses on a small town that is being over run by a mysterious alien force that duplicates the people that make up the town. This force, which comes in form of alien pods that change people from unique individuals into mindless machines who show no personality or emotion. Once again, just like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien duplicates are normal, everyday people that blend in. This plays along with idea that communists could be anywhere, in any town and that they were slowly building a following in the United States. At the end of the film, the main character, Dr. Bennell, has a conversation with Dr. Kauffman, who has been attacked by the body snatchers. During this conversation, Dr. Kauffmann says “Love, desire, ambition, faith-without them, life is so simple, believe me”. This line of dialogue alludes to what the United States public believed that the Communist party stood for. It points out that anyone who considers himself or herself a party member is someone who is trained to have no emotion and live by certain guide lines thought up by an outside force.
The weapon scare idea can be found throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers although it may not be as obvious. The weapon can be found in the alien pods. These pods can be used as a weapon of mass fear. It is used to change the people from one way of thinking and then completely changing their whole personality. The pods are also used to keep the citizens in line and not to try to retaliate against the forces that are using them.
Them!, which was directed by Gordon Douglas in 1954, plays on the idea of an outside evil in a different way. Instead of aliens from space, the outside evil that threatens the country is giant, mutated ants. These ants slowly start emerging and killing anyone that they come in contact with. Soon two queen ants escape the nest and disappear. The army is racing to try to find these two queen ants before they can start other colonies of ants. Them! makes it very clear that it is tackling the subject of the experimentation of atomic weapons and the dangers that can arise. The film is quick to criticize that development of atomic weapons and the damages that they can have that don’t necessarily consist of destroy cities. The ants could be alluding to all the deformations that happened to some of the people once we dropped the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During this era of paranoia about outside evils and atomic weapons, it was widely known that atomic bombs caused body deformations from radiation. The ants also could be representing the weapons that have come from a foreign place. The army has a hard time trying to find a way that can stop the ants from their wave of destruction.
Them! also touches on the paranoia that Communists can be anywhere and that it is essential to find them and destroy them. This idea shows up in the two queen ants that escape and are trying to start other colonies. It mirrors the thought that Communists are somewhere in our country trying to make their numbers grow and eventually take over the world. This runs with the themes found in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The propaganda that was presented that the Communist party was growing in numbers in this country and that soon they would take over the world.
Forbidden Planet, directed by Fred M. Wilcox in 1956, is a film that explores outside evils and atomic paranoia in a different way than the other films I have discussed so far. Instead of the fear of attack on our own soil, we are presented with some of our citizens stumbling on a different way of life and how we react to it. The film is set in the future and follows the crew of a United Planets Cruiser who is set out to explore a planet that all life seems to have disappeared from. The crew meets Dr. Morbius, who warns them to leave the planet and to save themselves from some sort of danger. The perception of Communists soon presents itself in Dr. Morbius’ daughter Altaira. In one particular scene, Commander Adams and Altaira kiss and afterward she asks him what the point of kissing is. She tells him that she feels no emotion from the kiss but as the film goes on she slowly starts showing emotion for Commander Adams. It is also clear that Dr. Morbius is very protective of his daughter and has slowly trained her in almost a Communist way of thinking.
Outside evil also shows up in Forbidden Planet, and it comes in form of an invisible monster that attacks without any warning. The monster attacks the crew multiple times and plays into the paranoia of a foreign attack. It soon becomes known that the monster is being created by Dr. Morbius. The crew learns that the planet was made up of an extremely intelligent race that created all different kinds of inventions including a device called plastic educator that allows the user to increase their intelligence. This aspect of the film could be addressing the fact that the Soviets were racing to try to develop new technology. It shows that this is supposed to apply to the race to create an atomic bomb. It all points to the idea that Dr. Morbius may be a dreaded Communist! He only lives to work and push things forward rather than stop to experience other aspects of life.
Invaders From Mars, directed by William Cameron in 1953, is heavy on the themes of outside evils and paranoia of atomic weapons. But there are several small parts to this film that are different than the films I have talked about so far. The film follows a young boy named David, who sees a UFO crash into the field behind his house. He then tells his father, George, who is a scientist and believes that his son actually did see something. George goes out to investigate the field and to see if his son is telling the truth. After George does not return for several hours, his wife calls the police and reports him missing. Soon after his disappearance, George turns back up at the house and he seems very different. He is turned from a kind and loving father into a cold and emotionless person. We soon find out that George has had some sort of chip implanted into the back of his head and this chip is what has altered his personality. It turns out that some aliens have burrowed underground and have set up a base. The aliens once more are the outside evil that threatens our country. After George is brainwashed by the martians, he starts going out and finding other people that can be turned into emotionless machines who go out and do errands for the head martian. There is one particular scene where we see George lead the character Colonel Fielding out to the fields and we see the aliens capture him and turn him into a mindless slave. This goes along with theme that Communists could be anyone and even be a part of our own government and army. This theme also shows up in the character of the police captain, who has also been brainwashed and means to do harm. This theme alludes to the ideas that Communists were recruiting for their party in our own country.
The unusual part of Invaders From Mars is the aliens themselves and even the head martain that controls all the slaves. At the end of the film, we get to see the martians that serve the leader. They are presented to us as mindless slaves who only live to serve their leader. These slaves all look identical with their green suits and faces that look very similar to gas masks. The whole point of the martian attack is to try to sabotage weapon development that is taking place in the town where they landed. This film falls perfectly into propaganda and paranoia felt at the time of the films release. The slave’s uniforms eerily resemble the protective suits and gas masks that were worn by scientists and the suits that were advertised to the public to protect against an atomic bomb attack. The lead martian is also interesting because he could be mirroring the ideas of the people that made up the heads of the Communist party. It seems to say that they only wanted to benefit themselves and were not concerned about any of the general public. There is even one scene where David begs the head martain not to hurt his family or friends. We get to see the leaders reaction to his pleas, which is indifferent and he just disregards the young boy. Just like the other films, particularly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film is very vocal that it is attacking the Communist party and wants to explore the views of the Communist party.
The Angry Red Planet, directed by Ib Melchior, is the only film that I screened from the 1960s but still has quite a bit of meaning when it comes to outside evils and the fear of some kind of attack. The Angry Red Planet is about a group of astronauts that were sent to explore Mars but once they reached the planet, strange things start to occur. The themes of outside evils are present but they are presented in a very unusual way. In the other films that I screened, the outside evil was always very blatant, but in The Angry Red Planet the outside evil blends in with the landscape. At one point, the astronauts leave their spaceship to go out and explore the planet. One of the astronauts, Iris, breaks away from the group and happens to find a strange plant. Once she gets close enough, the plant begins to attack her and tries to kill her. This presents the outside evil in a drastically different way than the other films have so far. The idea that the outside evil could be around the corner and that we run the risk of walking straight into the trap of the enemy. This also shows up in the monster Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab monster that at first only appears to be some sort of tree. When the astronauts stumble upon this creature, they hack at one of its legs with a machete, which then awakens the monster and causes it to attack the astronauts. Near the end of the film, one of the astronauts, Thomas, is attacked by a giant ameba but survives. His arm is badly injured and seems to only get worse. When the astronauts return to earth, the doctors who examine the astronaut can’t seem to find a way to fix Thomas’ arm. The doctors trying to find a cure for his arm could be hinting at the hunt that was taking place across America. This could be a direct reference to the government trying to find a way to stop Communism from spreading across the United States.
At the end of The Angry Red Planet, the martians that inhabit Mars send a message to earth with the astronauts. The message goes: “Men of Earth, we of the planet Mars give you this warning. Listen carefully and remember. We have known your planet Earth since the first creature crawled out of the primeval slime of your seas to become man. For millennia, we have followed your progress, for centuries, we have watched you, listened to your radio signals and learned your speech and your culture. And now, you have invaded our home. Technological adults, but spiritual and emotional infants. We kept you here deciding your fate. Had the lower forms of life of our planet destroyed you, we would not have interfered. But you survived. Your civilization has not progressed beyond destruction, war and violence against yourselves and others. Do as you will to your own and to your planet, but remember this warning – Do Not Return To Mars. You will be permitted to leave for this sole purpose – Carry The Warning To Earth. Do Not Come Here. We can and will destroy you, all life on your planet, if you do not heed us. You have seen us, been permitted to glimpse our world. Go now. Warn mankind not to return unbidden”. This message heavily reflects the mentality during this time, playing on the idea that a foreign force is watching and studying us. The claim that they have weapons that could destroy us seems to be a reflection of the fear of atomic weapons that are possessed by a mysterious foreign power. This end warning is very similar to the warning that Klaatu gives at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It Came From Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold in 1953, takes the issue of foreign outside evils and weapons scares in a slightly different direction form some of the other films that have been mentioned so far. The film still deals with the same fears that were circulating through the country, but it more attacks the propaganda that was very popular for the time. The film plays on lies and rumors that were getting passed along. The film is set in a small Arizona town and follows a scientist, John, and his girlfriend, Ellen, as they try to examine a strange meteor that falls to earth. They soon learn that the meteor is actually a UFO that has accidentally crashed. The alien’s possess bodies of certain civilians and turn them from normal, everyday people into emotionless machines. John soon learns that the aliens mean no harm and all they request is time to repair their ship in peace. This plays on the idea of an outside evil but it also suggests that sometimes we deem something evil when we actually do not know much about the subject. We go off what we pick up from certain places and lies that could be fed to us through propaganda. At the end of the film, the sheriff of the town decides that he does not trust the martains and sets out to kill them. The sheriff also has a large group of people with him that want to kill the martians. This could be reflecting the hostility that the United States had against the Communist party. The people who want to kill the martians in the film do not quite understand them and by not having all the facts, they label the martians as an outside evil.
While It Came From Outer Space is heavy on the issue of propaganda, it also finds time to address that atomic bomb paranoia. The martains do say that if we are not to leave them alone while they work, they have a weapon that can destroy our planet. This is revealed to us at the end of the film in a speech given by one of the aliens, which is very similar to the messages in The Angry Red Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film encourages a more peaceful way at looking at certain topics but it leaves a slight sense of unease, as we are still unfamiliar with these visitors.
All these science-fiction films of the 1950’s and 1960’s were obviously made to dazzle the audience. It is hard to believe that these films were also presenting more intelligent information rather than just entertaining you for an hour and a half in typical B-movie fashion. They are perfect reflections of a time when paranoia had the upper hand over a majority of the population and the constant fear that something foreign could cross over and find a way change our way of life. These films could almost be looked at as parodies of all the propaganda films that were being shown. If you look beyond the surface, you will see more than just flashy special effects. You will also find well-stated ideas.