Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: A masterpiece of tension and atmosphere! With slick special effects, too! You won’t believe your eyes and ears as MGM transports you to another world, 1950s style!
Review: The 1956 science fiction classic, ‘Forbidden Planet’, is a good movie. I’m not sure I should say anymore, except that’s it’s really, really awesome. No, I think what I should say is, it succeeds in being better than it has any rights to be.
Okay, seriously, I’m going to review this movie. Here’s what makes it great.
This film is the perfect midnight fare. I highly suggest a viewing experience with a large television, surround sound, and absolutely no lights, in the dead of night. Try not to talk during the film, either. ‘Forbidden Planet’ is so atmospheric that it’d be a shame to not dive in. It’s like MGM Studios was kind enough to fill a hot tub with fresh, hot water and some sort of weird but healthful Italian herbs, spices, and soaps. Sure, you’ll have to adjust to the weirdness, but that’s what makes it a singular and unforgettable experience. Just soak it in. One of the coolest features of this particular experience is the music, which is credited as ‘electronic tonalities’, because apparently the musician’s union at the time didn’t think it qualified as music (or so I heard) — I mean, this was the first film ever to have a completely electronic score. In any case, these strange, otherworldly sounds definitely fulfill the old maxim that “sound is half the picture”. Without this score, the film wouldn’t have near the sense of mystery that it needs to succeed.
The technology, though stylized and sometimes already a bit run over by the actual science of our day, looks beautiful and functional. The set-design is superb, with gorgeous matte paintings substituting for an alien sky. All in all, the special effects are ahead of their time, surpassing similar concept films of the same era with ease. Particularly impressive is the landing sequence of a flying saucer and the combat scene between the ship’s crew and a giant, invisible monster, which stops in a force field and is unveiled in its grotesque glory. I would be amiss to not mention the incredible artwork put into rendering the ancient Krell city, however, which gives us a fantastic sense of scale and complexity.
The story, well, I’m sure you’ve heard. An earth ship lands on an alien world, to investigate the status of a science vessel that arrived there 20 years ago. Only one survivor and his young daughter remain, however, and things get sinister quickly as it is revealed that the stranded scientist is not telling everything he knows about the horrible disaster which overcame his colleagues. It is slow in pace, which is great for creating real tension and fleshing out the characters.
Philosophically, the issue is the inherent badness of human beings. Buried deep in our “id”, our subconscious self, is what the film calls “the mindless primitive”, and what St. Paul calls “the flesh”. Whatever you call it, the message of the movie is that humanity can never afford to be without caution in however much power it attains. Without something keeping the dangerous, bestial side in check, humanity’s advances in technology will only lead to the most destructive outlet for the “monsters from the id”. We may well destroy ourselves, as the ancient Krell did in ‘Forbidden Planet’. The way I look at it, with this in mind, the classic warning that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is something of a misnomer. It is not absolute power which corrupts; it only amplifies that which already exists within a person, for good or ill, and universally, humanity has a lot of ill will. As the film concluded, “We are, after all, not God.” And even then, orthodox Christianity teaches that God willingly humbles Himself and refuses to abuse His power, and sometimes even to use it without being asked directly.
Well, anyway, the film is great. Don’t rent it. Buy it. Or better yet, find a way to see it on the silver screen. I’m sure somebody out there has a print of it. It’d be worth the sacrifice just to go for a walk on the ‘Forbidden Planet’.