I miss Due South. That was a really fun series; the on-going adventures of Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of his father and, for reasons which don’t need exploring at this juncture, remained, attached as liaison to the Canadian consulate. Any of you who were in either Canada or the UK (or possibly one of 148 other countries) and watching television between 1994 and 1999 will know what I’m talking about. My favourite episode of that show – and one of my favourite single episodes of TV ever* – was called All The Queen’s Horses and featured a guest appearance by Leslie Nielsen as Sgt Buck Frobisher, he of the famed Double Douglas Fir Telescoping Bank Shot. By a wonderful coincidence today’s movie also features Leslie Nielsen, in his second film and first leading role. Other than that, I’ll admit this was a bit of a tangent. I was listening to Stan Rogers earlier; got me thinking.
Shakespeare in space, but awesome!
The crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D, led by Commander John J. Adams (Nielsen), are on a mission to search for the settlers from the lost vessel Bellerophon which landed on Altair IV twenty years previously. On arrival, they find the only survivors are Dr Morbius, his daughter Altaira and Robby, the robot. While Morbius tells the story of the Bellerophon and explains what he’s been doing the last twenty years, the C57-D crew find themselves tormented by a monstrous invisible creature. Who will survive, and what will be left of them?
If you tried playing that Six Degrees of Separation game with modern science fiction instead of people, the chances are good that you would inevitably get back to Star Trek. Here’s the thing though: without Forbidden Planet, we probably would never have had Star Trek. Without Forbidden Planet, the entire landscape of sci-fi from the mid-twentieth century onwards would be different. In other words, it’s a bit of a classic, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I had never watched it before today. I’m glad I did though, both for its place in the pantheon and just because it is a damn enjoyable movie.
Made in 1956, this was the first sci-fi film to take place entirely away from Earth; the movie opens with the ship literally three minutes away from Altair IV. Considering the era it was made, the initial exposition is handled quickly and efficiently by the Commander briefing his crew. No muss, no fuss, straight to business. It’s here where Robby shows up as the welcoming committee and oh lordy, he’s just gorgeous. All $125,000 of him. Even people who have never heard of this movie know Robby; the first robot character to actually be a character instead of just a tool or an implacable evil presence. He has personality and wit and… Oh screw it. I could write a damn book on Robby, but this is neither the time nor the place.
Only a handful of the cast really make much of an impression. Most of the ship’s crew are only there so the ship can be seen to have a crew, but I wasn’t expecting anything else. Nielsen is your Captain Kirk forbear: a stern but fair commander who can quick-draw his blaster and throw down with the ladies, in this case the beautiful Ann Francis as Morbius’ flighty daughter Altaira. I understand she’s a product of the time, but looking at Altaira through modern eyes she comes off a bit slutty. Probably the only complaint I have about this film is that the love story seems awfully rushed. One minute Adams is scolding her for flirting with and kissing apparently all of his crew, and telling her to cover up a bit in the presence of these horny, sex-starved astronauts, the next he’s kissing her himself. Five minutes after that and he tells her father that she’s “joined herself to me body and soul!” Okay dude, whatever happened to playing it cool? Walter Pidgeon is a joy to watch as the strident Dr Morbius, chewing up every scrap of the amazing sets and spitting out melodrama and exposition with equal aplomb. Warren Stevens plays “Doc” Ostrow, Adams second-in-command, and Earl Holliman is Cooky, the cook, who Robby makes 60 pints of bourbon for in one memorable scene. Despite the fact that the ship is a United Planets Cruiser however, everyone on board certainly seems human.
As for the visuals, the matte paintings are glorious. The underground expanse of the Krell Great Machine looks fantastic in the full Cinemascope ratio, and the shot of the ship coming in to land over the desert of the planet is a work of art. The movie was actually Oscar-nominated for its special effects; apparently the only major nomination it received.
Despite knowing that it wasn’t going to happen, I was kind of hoping to see a “story by” credit for William Shakespeare, since the film is also famous for being a reinterpretation of The Tempest, with Morbius as Prospero, Altaira as Miranda and Robby as Ariel, with the invisible monster being a version of Caliban. Pidgeon at least certainly has a Shakespearean bearing about him.
I was loaned the 50th Anniversary S.E. DVD for today, which comes loaded down with extras such as a ton of deleted scenes and unused test footage, as well as three documentaries including Watch The Skies! and a couple of Robby’s other appearances: the full-length feature The Invisible Boy and an episode of the series The Thin Man, starring Peter Lawford. I think I’m going to have to get a copy of this for myself.
*Seriously. I actually have a list.