Saturday, June 9, 2007

Forbidden Planet - 50 years on.

by Wendy Brokensha

In 1956, the first science fiction film to take us beyond the boundaries of our solar system was released. A film that was to influence films and science fiction shows to come. That film was “Forbidden Planet.” For the first time in the 50’s, earth people showed up on other planets in a flying saucer. Previously, it was always the aliens who showed up in flying saucers.

Last year, the film celebrated its 50th anniversary. To honour this occasion, Warner Brothers have released a 2-disc special edition of the film digitally restored and remastered with nearly 6 hours of bonus features. All in a unique metal alloy case with a collectible Robby the robot action figure and “Forbidden Planet” and “The Invisible Boy” reproduction lobby cards.

So what do you get on the discs? You get deleted scenes and lost footage that has spent the last 50 years locked away in various film vaults. Shots detailing the deceleration tube “light beam” effect aboard the C-57D SpaceCruiser. (This imagery is often pointed out as one of the many elements in “Forbidden Planet” that directly influenced the original “Star Trek” TV series.) Unused footage of the beautiful planets and starfields created for the film; alternate takes of the C-57D landing and the Id monster leaving its footprints in the planet's surface are just some of the gems to be found.

The discs contain an excerpt from “The MGM Parade” TV series. Also included is 2 follow-up vehicles starring Robby the robot: a feature film titled “The Invisible Boy” and “The Thin Man” TV series episode Robot Client. There are 3 documentaries: TCM original “Watch The Skies! Science Fiction, the 1950’s and Us”; the all new “Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet” and “Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon.” The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby digital 5.1 and trailers for various 50’s science fiction films are included.

On the subject of the soundtrack for “Forbidden Planet," Louis and BeBe Barron created the soundtrack for the film. It was a soundtrack like no other that had existed before. They invented an electronic score for the film. It took them 8 months to come up with just the raw sounds for the film. MGM loved what they came up with so much they gave them the job of scoring the whole film. The genius of the score is the fact that the score plays as music and sound effects at the same time. It carries a mood and tone every bit as much as if it were a full orchestra.

The sad thing is they had to contend with the Musician’s Union. This was the only feature film released by the studio that had a score that involved no musicians. Since they weren’t using traditional instruments, they couldn’t take the credit of being musicians, so they made them take a credit of “Electronic Tonalities.” Unfortunately, it prevented them from being nominated for an Academy Award.

The History of “Forbidden Planet.”

The film was 2 years in the making, but work on the film goes back to at least December 1952. Sci-fi films of the early 50’s, except for a few, were mainly low budget, b-grade pictures filmed in black and white. There was a formula, and the formulas worked and were great for their time. MGM during the 50’s was one of the biggest studios around. They weren’t looking for a b-grade picture to produce. They wanted this to be the first science fiction “A” film.

Cyril Hume wrote the actual screenplay, but it was Irving Block and Allen Adler who came up with the story. The film was modeled on William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” “The Tempest” involves a man named Prospero, perhaps the most powerful magician in the world, who happens to have a blind spot. He’s filled with ego. His evil brother exiles him to a Mediterranean island where he remains with his daughter for 12 years. Then a ship comes and finds them and the daughter falls in love with one of the men on the ship. The daughter has to go through an odd little arc. She has to not like the man from the ship, than fall in love with him. She has to love her father, than begin to mistrust him, and finally choose the man from the ship over her father. “The Tempest” asks one fundamental question, “If you had the power of a god, and you had your enemies right here, what would you do with them?” That alone makes it a masterpiece of space opera. So you have definite parallels and the making of a film.

This was a new direction for MGM. They had done fantasy films, such as “The Wizard of Oz," and horror films to a degree throughout the years, but nothing space orientated. To do a science fiction take, an outer space take on “The Tempest," was a particularly smart idea at the time.

Given a working title of “Fatal Planet," the original draft set the movie in the year 1976 and told the story of an expedition from earth that land on the planet Mercury and finds 2 survivors from an expedition that went missing 20 years earlier. A man named Adams (later to be renamed Dr Morbius) and his daughter Dorianne (also to be renamed Altaira). By 1954 when production on the film began, Adams was to become the commander of the spacecruiser; the planet Mercury became Altair 4 and the year was now 2200AD. The title was also changed to “Forbidden Planet.”

There was a serious undertone throughout the film that was missing from other science fiction films of the period. The key factor was that the characters really believed in their roles. In a recent interview, Anne Francis said that as actors, they made it a point from the very beginning to take the story seriously and to play it for real.

The film was a serious attempt to represent a completely unique world, and it wasn’t good enough to just say, “it’s not the world you know," it had to be a world that nobody knew and at the same time, everyone would recognise it as being alien. The whole planet had been created from scratch.

MGM wanted people who didn’t read science fiction, to be able to tell, when they were watching “Forbidden Planet,” that they were seeing something that was made by people who respected the genre.

“Forbidden Planet” broke all the rules. It was ahead of its time, as if looking into the future. It was in colour, filmed in widescreen and had incredible special effects.

Anne Francis, who played Altaira, wore mini-skirts, and she wore them very well. This was before mini-skirts came in, which was in the mid 60’s. There was a viewscreen on board the spacecruiser. The crews carried communication devices that incorporated cameras, and even working phaser guns.

You can’t think of “Forbidden Planet” and not think of Robby the Robot. There would be very few people who haven’t heard of Robby. He is probably the most unique robot ever created for a movie. Sure, there have been others, the most famous being the robot from ”Lost in Space.” Before “Forbidden Planet," robots had been of the clunky variety where you basically got 3 metal blocks with a head. Robby was different. You could see where his joints worked. You could see he had gyroscopes inside his dome going around to keep him upright. There was all kinds of stuff there that could easily be thought of as being real technology. That was the big difference between Robby and every robot before him. Robby looked like he might actually work, that he could be for real. The idea you could have a robot as a friend, instead of an enemy, was a novel one. This again comes from respect for the genre. The character of Robby the robot, follows all of the basic laws of robotics. Asimovs 3 laws of robotics state that :

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders conflict with the first law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Clearly, the scriptwriters who wrote the script for “Forbidden Planet” were aware of these laws. Robby would go on to feature in another film, an episode on TV’s “The Thin Man”, “Lost In Space” and “Wonder Woman” to name a few.

“Forbidden Planet” could easily be forgiven as a pilot for “Star Trek.” Gene Roddenberry once mentioned that “Forbidden Planet” was what he wanted to do. He wanted to take it, make it and turn it into a TV series. Even “Star Wars” can be attributed to “Forbidden Planet.” Add to all of that a fine cast including Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius, Anne Francis as his daughter Altaira, Leslie Nielsen (as a leading man in a serious straight acting role playing the love interest) as Commander J.J. Adams and a young Richard Anderson who would later turn up in another sci-fi show, for television, titled “The Six Million Dollar Man” with Lee Majors. Is it any wonder that “Forbidden Planet” has become the cult film that it is today. It was made with the respect science fiction deserves. Care was taken in all aspects of filming and everyone involved with the film took their work seriously. It is for all these reasons and more, and the fact it is just a great love story and action come mystery film set in the future, that it has stood the test of time.

-the end-

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