Going into this movie I only knew a few things:
1. A young, pre-slapstick Leslie Nielsen starred in it.
2. Everyone says it heavily influenced Star Wars.
3. It’s hailed as pulpy 50’s sci-fi at its best.
4. Richard Castle and Kate Beckett on Castle love it.
I wasn’t sure if I was more likely to enjoy watching it because it was unintentionally funny, or actually good. The answer, it would turn out, is ‘actually good.’
I loved this movie. It definitely had its share of 50’s camp shortcomings. Weak dialogue (although not nearly as bad as I anticipated), a robot who doesn’t make any scientific sense whatsoever, no believable relationships. Yet, what the movie lacked in many areas, it more than made up for in sci-fi brilliance.
I never expect to see smart sci-fi in a movie from the 50’s. For example, they arrive on Altair IV, which has enough oxygen to support them without life support systems, but as they fly over and land there are no plants. So, while I expected as much, in my head I’m chuckling that oxygen isn’t just something that sits somewhere indefinitely. These humans, as well as the original colony they are searching for, would breathe said oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, run out of breathable air, and die. Yet, they find living people, and these people have set up homes surrounded by gardens and trees. They brought an eco-system with them to turn their carbon dioxide back into oxygen. In a cheesy sci-fi movie today, they would mention this in dialogue, in a really overt fashion. In Forbidden Planet, they NEVER talk about it. It’s just legitimate science, in the background. WHAT?!? It’s awesome.
The movie is full of stuff like that. For all its weaknesses, the narrative is tight and strong, keeping you guessing the entire time. It’s much more like a Asimov novel than a silly sci-fi movie in premise and plot. The scope once you start seeing more of the forbidden planet is also really amazing. This remarkably huge subterranean world I wasn’t anticipating.
I also think people undersell this movie when they simply say “Star Wars was heavily influenced by this movie.” It’s very true, but watching the movie I was reminded of what makes me love sci-fi. About two thirds through, as I was starting to love the movie in earnest, I was struck (almost emotionally so) by how important this movie has been in the history of film. All of the movies I love in the sci-fi realm may exist because of this film. I thought, this movie came out in 1956 and is capturing my imagination now; how much more so was that the case when a 12 year old George Lucas, and a ten year old Stephen Spielberg were watching this for the first time, or the tenth time?
Forbidden Planet planted an imaginative seed in the brains of folks who have been making smart, wonder inspiring movies ever since. I’m so glad to have finally been a witness.
Oh yeah, and Leslie Nielsen was sci-fi pulp movie gold.