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Forbidden Planet (1956)

A lot of young science-fiction fans think that the genre began with Star Trek and Star Wars (1977).

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However, the 1950s produced a vast array of classics that defined the form and created the bedrock that all later efforts would build on.

One of the most important sci-fi films to emerge from this era was Forbidden Planet (1956).

This film mixed solid, science-inspired storytelling with mind-blowing, innovative visual effects to create a classic whose influence is still felt today.

Forbidden Planet borrowed its premise from a classic source: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The story begins with an expedition ship led by Commander John J. Adams flying to the distant planet of Altair-4 in search of a group of colonists sent there twenty years ago.

When they arrive, they discover there are only two survivors: the brilliant but remote scientist Dr Morbius and his lovely daughter, Altaira.

It is soon revealed that Morbius and his daughter are the sole survivors of a vicious monster attack that killed the rest of the colony.

After hearing of the planet’s dangers, Adams and his crew want to rescue Morbius and Altaira, but Morbius has no intention of leaving. Morbius wants to stay because he has discovered a wealth of amazing technology left behind by the Krell, the alien civilisation who lived on the planet thousands of years ago.

Before suddenly and mysteriously destroying themselves overnight, they created an amazing, gigantic computer that allows the user to augment his or her own brain power to unimagined heights. Using this machine, Morbius has already created marvels like his computerised manservant, Robby the Robot.

Adams insists on seeing his mission through. This angers Morbius, who fears their presence will reawaken the beast that killed his fellow colonists.

Things become even more complicated when the lovely Altaira, who has never seen other human beings before (much less other men) falls in love with Adams.

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Soon, a crew member is killed by an unseen creature that leaves all the tell-tale signs of being the planet’s resident monster.

Adams and his crew ultimately discover the terrible secret behind the planet’s mysterious deaths and are forced to attempt a thrilling escape.

Forbidden Planet was a landmark film for many reasons. Not only was it the first big-budget science fiction film, but long before 2001- A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, this was the yardstick that all cinematic science fiction was judged by.

Its dazzling look and high-tech special effects were unprecedented for its time. MGM pulled out all the stops for the film, allowing its filmmakers to spend two years in production and even borrowing visual effects specialists from Walt Disney to realise the film’s otherworldly look. The result was a film whose visuals defined the style of science fiction films for years to come.

The film also benefited from a tight script that balanced thrills, humour and a sense of wonder in equal measure. The film’s crew-on-a-mission plot would be borrowed by other sci-fi films and television shows in the years since its release, especially Star Trek.

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Another unique aspect of the film is the musical score, by Louis and Bebe Barron. Taking over a full year to compose, the Forbidden Planet soundtrack was the first-ever all-electronic film score.

The appeal of Forbidden Planet was further sealed by the many familiar faces gracing its cast. Character actor Walter Pidgeon, a veteran of films like How Green Was My Valley (1941), turned in a memorably menacing performance as the brilliant but driven Morbius.

Anne Francis, who would later become known as television’s Honey West, lent the film a great deal of eye candy as alluring Altaira.

Leslie Nielsen made a good square-jawed leading man in his pre-Naked Gun days, and his crew featured Richard Anderson, who would later become Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man.

The film also scored serious cool points for introducing sci-fi icon Robby the Robot (pictured below), who would later appear in The Invisible Boy  (1957) and two episodes of The Twilight Zone

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Robby was one of the very first on-screen robots to demonstrate a personality, rather than just being a mindless automaton. The film’s publicity treated him as if he were a real robot, with his performers going uncredited.

Forbidden Planet became a big hit when it was released, making several million dollars and earning an Oscar nomination for its revolutionary special effects. It was also successfully reissued in later years, becoming a staple of children’s matinees and late-night television.

Today, it is considered to be an enduring classic of science-fiction cinema whose influence remains as potent as ever. For proof of this, one need look no further than films like Star WarsAlien and Event Horizon, all of which have borrowed story elements from Forbidden Planet.

This enduring influence shows that the magic of Forbidden Planet will live on for many years to come.

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Dr Edward Morbius
Walter Pidgeon
Altaira Morbius

Anne Francis
Commander John J. Adams

Leslie Nielsen
Doc Ostrow

Warren Stevens
Lt. Jerry Farman

Jack Kelly
Chief Quinn

Richard Anderson
Cookie

Earl Holliman
Bosun

George Wallace
Grey

Bob Dix
Youngerford

Jimmy Thompson
Joe Strong

James Drury
Randall

Harry Harvey Jr.
Lindstrom

Roger McGee
Moran

Peter Miller
Nichols

Morgan Jones

Director
Fred McLeod Wilcox

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