Forbidden Planet – Watching a Classic

Last night, I decided to watch a science fiction classic – Forbidden Planet.  The film was released in 1956 by MGM.  I knew little about it, except that some other sci-fi nerds I know were shocked to hear that I’d not seen it or other classic science fiction films. Browsing the shelves at the library I came across it.  As usual, the majority of the films on the shelf were older films, the less desirable films by today’s standards.

The cover looked fun and interesting, if not overly dramatic, so I decided to give it a try. Well, you’ve caught me.  I’d also wanted to see it since Gene Roddenberry said it was one of his original inspirations for Star Trek!

Poster - Forbidden Planet_03

The first thing that I noticed on the DVD cover was the name Leslie Nielsen.  As a child, I remembered him from movies such as Airplane and The Naked Gun.  You have to remember, I was born in the late ’70s.  So, I looked forward to seeing a younger Leslie Nielsen in a non-comedic role.  The second was an almost Dalekish looking robot which reminded me of a reference question I’d had the week before (I’m a librarian).  A customer wanted a book about science fiction robots of the ’50s so he could study the evolution of robots in science fiction prior to Doctor Who!  The last thing I noticed was the overused damsel in distress imagery. Despite trying to view things in their historical context, I admit that my presentist* mind sighed..and then grumbled.

On to the film…

In the opening credits, the first thing that came to my attention was the eerie music.  First thought in my mind?  I can see the evolution of science fiction theme music that led up to the main theme of Star Trek: The Original Series. In many ways, I could see some similarities to Star Trek. The movie was written to have taken place in the 23rd century. The verbiage and officer ranks rely heavily on the prevailing military structure at the time; however, to a more marked degree than the TV series mentioned above.  The message that was most prominent in my mind is one that is quite common for science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular – some powers are just too great to be trusted to mankind and that science, at times, dabbles in powers that it simply doesn’t understand.

At the end of it all, the lesson to be learned, if we overlook some of the sad commentary on the role of a woman, is that at our cores, human beings are still just “animals”.  No matter how much we advance, we can’t overcome our animal instincts.  This is a theme very much present in the Star Trek franchise.  The difference, of course, is that in the Star Trek universe, humans still try their bests to make things better, to challenge those animal instincts so they rear their ugly heads the least possible.  So, while Star Trek acknowledges this basic human failure, it also is less fatalistic in it’s prediction of our capacity.  We will strive to overcome that human failure.

When the spaceship C-57D landed, I almost laughed.  It looked like what every conspiracy theorist believes that UFOs look like.  Was this purposeful on the part of MGM?  Were they insinuating that humans have learned from the technologies held at Roswell?  Did they believe that a ship capable of interstellar travel would assume a similar shape for practical purposes?  Or, is it just a coincidence?  This is something I’d love to know.

I found it quite interesting that the military/political organization to which the crew of this story belonged was called the “United Planets” so very close to Roddenberry’s own “United Federation of Planets”.  The treatment of women in this film is on par with other films of the time – we are in need of rescuing and naive.  That is definitely present in the original Star Trek series, but the one difference is that women serve aboard the Enterprise; they do not serve aboard the C-57D.

The original pilot of Star Trek, which never aired, was written by Gene Roddenberry in 1964, just eight years after this film was released.  It featured a female second in command (portrayed by Majel Barrett) of the Enterprise. In those eight years, the women’s rights movement had made some strides.  Not living at the time nor studying the history of that movement in detail, I can’t say if that accounts for the differences in the portrayal of women or whether Gene Roddenberry was as progressive (according to the standards of the time) on his views of sexism as he was on racism.  I’d love to hear any thoughts that my readers have.

Overall, I give this film a B.  The effects are very interesting and the amount of art that went into the scenery is quite stunning.  The story is a bit slow-paced and may turn off some modern female viewers but I’ve tried to take the historical context into consideration in my grading of the film.  I can definitely see how this film could be an inspiration for Roddenberry’s creation.

*Presentism: uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

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