Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Forbidden Planet"

I'm pretty amazed at how well the special effects hold up in "Forbidden Planet," 53 years after it was made. Most early sci-fi films were fast-and-dirty cheapies, but the production values of this classic are impressive even today.

Yes, by modern CGI standards, where Brad Pitt can age from 90 to nine days in a couple of hours, "Forbidden Planet" is rather primitive. But the spaceship and laser blaster effects undoubtedly blew people away back in 1956.

Ditto for Robby the Robot, although with his clacking gizmos that sound like a 1950s punchcard computer, he was very much a product of his time. I find it interesting that the filmmakers made no attempt to give Robby discernible eyes. He's got arms and legs and a head and even a mouth that lights up when he talks, but no eyes. Nearly all movies since have tried to anthropomorphize robots as much as possible. Even R2-D2 had a single humanizing eye. Robby was the robot without a face.

"Forbidden Planet" takes place in the 23rd century, but the movie is so 1950s it's sometimes cringe-inducing to watch. The rampant sexism with regard to Alta (Anne Francis), the daughter of mad scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), is hard to swallow, even taking into account the high cheese factor for which this movie is associated. The all-male crew of astronauts lands on the planet, which had been colonized by scientists 20 years earlier, and immediately start falling over themselves to get into Alta's pants.

Francis' outfits were pretty risque by the standards of the day -- publicity photos even show Robby helping Alta get dressed in her barely-there numbers. And for some reason she walks around the rocky planet barefoot most of the time.

Leslie Nielsen plays the commander, and the fact that I grew up only knowing Nielsen from the "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" spoofs made it hard for me to take him seriously in a straight role. I kept expecting him to say, "Don't call me surely."

Another observation: The neutral gray uniforms the newcomers wear, which are virtually indistinguishable from each other, resemble the drab proletariat worker outfits worn by Soviet bloc nations of the time. Given the anti-Communism hysteria of the '50s, isn't it odd that these very American-sounding boys look like they should be calling each other "comrade"?

I enjoyed "Forbidden Planet," but more in a "Rocky Horror" type of way, where you ridicule the flick while reveling in its twisted charm. I would love to see this movie on the big screen with a hooting audience.

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