Long ago even for me – in 1976, in fact – some friends of my father's heard about my interest in science fiction and invited me to come with them to a science fiction convention – the first I would ever attend, and the last for many years: Boskone 13. I jumped at the chance and went there with Pat and Peggy Kennedy as my temporary guardians, and registered under my first "handle" – calling myself "Kimball Kinnison", appropriately if arrogantly.
In retrospect, I spent an awful lot of money to go there and got a lot less out of it than I could have. But at the age of 13 (yes, I'm the same age as Boskone) I had little experience interacting with people and the crowds were intimidating. I spent my time ducking into the dealers' room, getting some neat things and some books (which I then read in my hotel room), and watching movies. I saw a lot of the classics of SF that convention, including Silent Running, Dark Star… and Forbidden Planet.
Forbidden Planet captured me from the opening, with the narration and strange electronic music that was like nothing I'd ever heard (despite common misconceptions, Forbidden Planet's music was not composed on a theremin, but on precursors to modern synthesizers). Then the flying-saucer ship that – for a production of the 1950s – looked startlingly real and solid, and even more convincing inside. From that start, Forbidden Planet took me on one of the most awe-inspiring and sometimes frightening rides ever.
For those unfamiliar with the film – hopefully not too many – the basic plotline is that the starship C57-D is sent on a routine patrol to Altair 4 to discover what has happened to the crew of the Bellerophon, a ship which went to the planet on a scientific expedition some twenty years ago. Surprisingly, they are warned off from landing by a survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius, but Commander Adams insists that regulations require him to land and inspect.
It turns out that most of the crew of the Bellerophon died mysteriously years before, when the ship exploded while attempting liftoff. Adams and his crew note some very strange features of Morbius and his household – an ultra-advanced robot, armored shielding about the house, and Morbius' reticence about exactly who or what he considered to be a danger to them.
They are right to be suspicious, for there is indeed something deadly on Altair 4 – something stranger and more frightening than any of them can imagine, and at the same time something terrifyingly familiar.
I won't spoiler any more of the movie; it really deserves to be seen on its own merits, and anyone who has seen it doesn't need me to remind them. Visually, Forbidden Planet was absolutely stunning; there were visual effects in that movie which were not equaled until Star Wars, twenty years later. One scene in particular dropped my jaw, when Morbius is showing Commander Adams and Lieutenant Ostrow around the ancient Krell base and points to one side: "Twenty miles." Turns to the other side, points. "Twenty miles."
You believed him. That immense installation was awe-inspiring and convincing, especially for its era. Many years later, Babylon 5 did a direct and brilliant nod to this scene in Forbidden Planet, during the episode "A Voice in the Wilderness", when Ivanova and Sinclair first enter the Great Machine (which is, itself, not dissimilar in many ways from the Krell machine)
As memorable as that scene is, for me it was the mostly-unseen adversary which stuck most in my mind, a being whose existence was at first unclear and whose nature was not realized until the very end. The Monster is one of the most terrifying creations of science fiction, a force of destruction of effectively unlimited power combined with considerable cunning and ruthless, implacable will. This is made all the worse by the fact that it is invisible most of the time, its presence only signaled by a truly eerie sound of alien footsteps and, if you are watching carefully, inhuman footprints appearing from nowhere.
The Monster is only seen briefly, outlined by the fire of energy weapons crackling about it, and it is as alien and fearsome as you have by that time come to suspect; yet the discovery of its true nature is, in some ways, even more frightening.
The climax of the film is pure 1950s, right down to the destruction of the Things Man Was Not Ready For and the lead actor saying "It's over now" to the love interest. But it was a very well-done climax, and one cannot complain about a 1950s movie being, well, a 1950s movie. And this is the best of all the 1950s movies.
Forbidden Planet is credited with a number of "firsts"; it was the first film to show human beings travelling in a starship of their own making, and the first to take place entirely outside of the bounds of our solar system. The basic concept – of a military force of a federation or union of planets in the 23d century, with starships charged with exploration, investigation, and so on was a direct and conscious inspiration for Gene Roddenberry in his creation of Star Trek – and indeed, one watching early Trek episodes shortly after viewing Forbidden Planet can see the influence everywhere. As a general inspiration it has influenced virtually every producer of science fiction imagery since.
And, of course, Forbidden Planet gave us Robby the Robot, the first detailed and personable robot in movie history. Robby was not merely a gadget but a character in the movie, with a deadpan delivery that made one suspect deliberate, very dry humor. He was so expensive and popular that he was re-used more than once and inspired many imitations in later shows (such as Lost in Space). He became one of the most iconic images of science fiction, one known for decades after the movie he had been in had left the theaters.
Forbidden Planet even had a lasting effect on my perceptions. When I saw the comedic "Police Squad!" and related movies I wondered what it was about them that grated with me even beyond the juvenile humor, and it dawned on me one day: that Leslie Nielsen had been, and to me would always be, Commander John J. Adams of the C57-D, and he was not a comedic figure. Similarly, there was something that nagged at me when I watched the Six Million Dollar Man… until I realized that Oscar Goldman was being played by Richard Anderson, AKA Chief Engineer Quinn.
If you enjoy a good old fashioned story with some mystery and horror, set on a world beyond this one… try Forbidden Planet. It is one of the legends of science fiction – and it has earned that legendary status.