Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The idea of Shakespeare reworked as science fiction may sound destined to create embarrassment all round, but in 1956 things were different. Here, Prospero's island is a remote planet where the colonists have been silent for years. In fact, there are no colonists left except for Doctor Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira. They live peacefully, she enjoying the company of wild animals and birds whilst he works on his mysterious experiments.

But a visiting spaceship sent to investigate the silence disturbs their delicate equilibrium, and as the frustrated all-male crew begin to complicate life for the unworldly girl, a terror emerges that has not been seen since the last of the other colonists was mysteriously killed. Forbidden Planet emerges as the Shakespeare adaptation that got away.

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The troubles faced here are hardly a Tempest in a teacup. Fred M Wilcox's innovative production combines striking visual effects and a groundbreaking electronic score to create one of cinema's more hideous, and memorable monsters, though the real horror is its origin. Balancing this is the free-spirited, short-skirted Altaira, with Anne Francis delivering perfect deadpan lines in the style that would later make the reputation of her co-star Leslie Nielsen (the ship's captain).

Then there's her unusual friend, the lumbering yet charismatic Robby the Robot, constructed in a style that perfectly illustrates the cobbled together, make-do nature of this obscure paradise. It's built on the ruins of an ancient, unknown alien civilisation. Dr Morbius spends much of his time studying the artefacts the aliens left behind, especially their mysterious great machine. Walter Pidgeon is perfect in the role, the classic obsessive scientist drawn to things he can only partly comprehend. There's a touch of Gothic horror about his performance that contributes well to the story's grander themes.

Vladimir Nabokov once said that The Tempest might be considered science fiction in its own right, and certainly the futuristic trappings in this interpretation fit it well. In its time, Forbidden Planet made a considerable impact, with Gene Roddenberry citing it as one of the inspirations for Star Trek, but what has perhaps been forgotten over the years is just how good it is in its own right. It's a film that has surprised generation after generation of viewers, drawing in those who deign only to give it a casual glance.

Yes, some of the themes may seem old fashioned now, but the central ideas - the human obsession with control, a man's possessiveness in regard to his daughter and that terror of the unknown that can only be matched by our terror of ourselves, are timeless. Crisp, witty dialogue gives it plenty of energy and its unique style still looks chic, in its retro way, today. Give it a try; some films are considered classics for good reason.

Reviewed on: 29 Nov 2010
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A spaceship crew investigates the lack of contact from a colonised planet in this reworking of The Tempest.
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Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Writer: Cyril Hume, Irving Block

Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly

Year: 1956

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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