When I think about movies that are known as special effects extravaganzas it’s Avatar, Star Wars, Transformers, and Marvel that comes to mind.
Movies like this are the current point of film innovation in terms of technology; in terms of the fundamentals of story, character, and action, well, I leave that opinion up to you, These examples are the culmination of over a century of innovation, that started with the likes of A Trip to the Moon, the absolutely wonderful Sherlock Jr from the real master of silent comedy, Buster Keaton, to Bruce the Shark and lightsabers.
There is one film that doesn’t get enough credit for my liking, and that’s Forbidden Planet :a film that brilliantly melds its excellent special effects (they’re excellent if a tad novel for now, but they were Space Odyssey-level when it came out in 1956) with a complex story that has nods to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as being the first story to boldly go, well, you know where.
Forbidden Planet is the story of a spaceship carrying the best physical and mental specimens Earth has to offer (in the 50s, that meant white men) who land on the planet Altair IV in order to release a research colony that has been there for twenty years. What they are met with is Dr. Edward Morbius, an expert in alien languages who also lives with a robot that he built named Robbie, and his daughter Altaira, the two the only survivors of a mystery plague that wiped everyone else out.
Forbidden Planet must have been seen as porn in the ultra conservative cinema of the 50s – even now, it’s downright bloody scandalous, the film itself seems to grow horny as Altaira, who is even more attractive by being the only woman in the nearest solar system, is introduced. There is a brilliant scene in which the captain (played by Leslie Neilson without a shred of the deadpan humor he will always be remembered for) and his crewmen try their best to cockblock each other, mainly by accusing each other of being sexually maniacal psychopaths behind each other’s back.
To say that Forbidden Planet is a Freudian movie is as obvious as saying the word mother when you’re trying to explain what a Freudian slip is. The monster of the film is straight from the id of Dr. Morbius, unleashed now thanks to the possibility of losing his daughter to the romantic advances of the Captain. Let’s be blunt, this is not a positive – Altaira is kind of forced to chose between her father’s love and Captain Adams, which is really just a science fiction replacement for giving your daughter away on her wedding day. Still, it was the fifties and I’m not going to damn a film a decades old for being backward in its politics; the basis for the notion might be old-fashioned, but the idea itself is damn cool.
The most surprising thing about Forbidden Planet is how similar it is to a prototypical episode of the original Star Trek. Captain Adams and his crew come to a strange new planet, discover a man with almost Godlike powers, Adams gets the girl, and his actions affect the entire planet as a result. Just chuck Kirk in there and you have one of maybe ten or twelve Star Trek episodes with that very story.
But what I really loved about Forbidden Planet was the special effects. The film is the very first American science-fiction film to take place entirely on another planet, and said planet is a visual feast. Yes, it looks like the entire thing was shot on a soundstage, but that’s because it was. Danny Boyle once said that making a sci-fi film was one of the hardest cinematic endeavours to pull off because you had to create everything yourself, and that’s exactly what Morbius and his daughter did. What’s even better than the setting is the monster itself – playing with what would become known as the Jaws rule, Morbius’ id monster is invisible at first, but it’s nature and power are revealed in clever ways, mostly to do with its feet – heavy indentations in the planets surface, and bending stairs on the ship that denote its size and power. It’s a simple trick but one of many effective uses of special effects in the film.
Forbidden Planet is an ambitious movie, setting the groundwork for decades of one-shot science-fiction stories to come – but really, what makes it such an iconic classic is the genius special effects that have now become some of the very building blocks that masters such as James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and Ang Lee use now,
By Kevin Boyle
Header Image: Amazon