Yes, you’ve watched all 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series, plus the 178 episodes of Next Generation. You love The Wrath of Khan and the J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot with its killer quintet of lead actors, anchored by the uncannily brilliant Zachary Quinto who manages to faithfully channel the Vulcan je ne sais quoi of Mr. Spock while miraculously breathing new life into the role.
And sure, you know Star Wars the way people in the Middle Ages knew the Bible.
And of course you love Alien and Aliens (but not Aliens 3 or Alien Resurrection) and you signed off on Prometheus (though not Alien: Covenant).
But calling yourself a sci-fi fan without ever seeing Forbidden Planet is like calling yourself a gamer if you’ve never played Pong. Or calling yourself a chocolate lover if you’ve never tasted a Hershey’s kiss.
To quote Confucius: “Study the past if you would define the future.” In other words, if you don’t know where things came from, you can’t control where they’re going.
And Star Trek—inarguably the seminal franchise of the entire sci-fi universe—DEFINITELY came from Forbidden Planet.
So let’s take a tour of the source material …
A Quick Recap of Sci-Fi History
By the start of the 20th century, sci-fi’s claim on a viewing audience had already been primed through the novels and stories of visionary writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and in the magazines of the “Father Of Science Fiction,” Luxembourgian-American publisher Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), the man that the Hugo Awards were named for. (i.e. Sci-fi’s top literary prize, given annually at the World Science Fiction Convention.)
The early sci-fi stories translated to sci-fi films right from the start of cinema and straight through to mid-century: the revolutionary short film A Trip To The Moon (1902), the classic Metropolis (1927), and the still powerful The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) being the benchmarks.
From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, the genre’s popularity also produced a steady stream of pulpy space-opera comics turned movies turned TV series. Flash Gordonand Buck Rogers were the big names, but there were plenty of others. So there was no shortage of material to stoke sci-fi lovers’ fantasies. What there was a shortage of was an output of movies in the genre that equaled in craft, technique, and innovation the work going on in filmed drama and comedy.
But then, in 1956, came Forbidden Planet.
Forbidden Planet was there first.
The plot, in short, is this: sometime in the 23rd century, the United Planets Starship C-57D arrives at the distant world Altair IV to find out what happened to an expedition sent there twenty years earlier but unheard from since. Upon landing, the starship’s crew encounters:
- a genius misanthrope of a scientist who’d love nothing more than for his visitors to stretch their legs and get off his planet,
- his beautiful young daughter (who’s never seen a young man),
- a robot with personality,
- a mysterious monster,
- and the underground machine complex of a long-extinct but fantastically advanced civilization, still running on the power of 9200 thermonuclear reactors.
Of course, nothing is as it seems at first: the otherworldly onion is peeled back slowly, then ripped to its core.
Sound like a plotline you’re familiar with? Indeed. But the point is, Forbidden Planet was there first. (And in some ways best.)
So many of sci-fi’s themes and motifs (I won’t say “tropes,” which sounds derogatory) emanate from this one film. Gene Rodenberry himself credits Forbidden Planet as one of his inspirations for Star Trek. (It would’ve been hard to deny, so it’s good he owned it.)
You can still watch this movie today and revel in the newness of its sights and sounds, even though you’ll recognize right away that you’ve seen them a hundred times since. But it was all so FRESH when Forbidden Planet did it. The storytelling elements that you’ll recognize were being invented here. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they were being elevated: it was a sci-fi yarn that actually relied on the cinematic arts to tell its story thrillingly, not disposably.
Sci-fi, done right.
In a word, this is a movie that was done right. By which I mean its execution was commensurate with its potential. By which I mean they spent the correct amount of money on it. By which I mean the studio, the producers, the bank—whoever was holding the purse strings—did not SKIMP. Not skimping, when the material warrants and the creative team can deliver, is the whole ball of wax.
This is what the not skimping on Forbidden Planet paid for:
- A script chock-full of concepts original to filmed sci-fi, including the first starship traveling in a hard-science-built faster-that-light craft and the first story set entirely on a planet in interstellar space.
- The first robot with attitude, as alluded to above: “Robby The Robot” by name, the archetype for every personality-rich robot that followed. (George R.R. Martin not only calls Forbidden Planet his favorite sci-fi film, but says that he owns a full-size Robby The Robot replica.)
- The first sci-fi film scored entirely with electronic music. Revolutionary.
- Visual effects, costumes, production design, and props that are as good as anything in any other movie genre of the period. Robby The Robot himself (itself?) cost a whopping $125,000, more than $1,000,000 in today’s money.
What all this cash well-spent on the production achieved was a believable, coherent, artistically integrated vision on screen, distinct from the cheapo, often camp, occasionally jokey sci-fi entertainments that had preceded it. It offered an immersive viewing experience, allowing the audience, really for the first time, to believe in the future they were seeing. Or at least to believe that the future they were seeing was an idealized version of the possible.
None of which would have mattered (or lasted) if the story hadn’t been so good. But in the story department, Forbidden Planet brings it. The Freudian psychodynamics, the narrative pedigree (the plot is famously a loose adaptation of The Tempest), the pure pleasures of the techno-horror of it all … it’s not space opera, it’s space Shakespeare.
So you can call yourself a sci-fi fan all you like, but until you see Forbidden Planet, you’re not really telling the truth.
And don’t act offended. To quote everybody’s favorite Vulcan: “I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I have simply made the logical deduction that you are a liar.”