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.
by Steve Habrat
If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.
In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.
If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.
There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.
Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.