“Forbidden Planet”…and warm memories of another time

We’ll call this a eulogy for fallen stars.

Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis were two of the principals associated with the ground-breaking 1956 science fiction film “Forbidden Planet”.  They died within months of each other (November 28, 2010 & January 2, 2011, respectively), and when I learned of their passing, in each instance I felt a little fragment of my childhood snap off and tumble into the void.

Nielsen played “”J.J. Adams”, the stalwart, no-nonsense captain of United Planets Cruiser C-57-D and Ms. Francis the lovely and innocent Altaira.  I confess to a boyhood crush on Ms. Francis; watching the so-called “nude” swimming sequence (ridiculously tame by today’s standards) at ten years old was a revelation.  There was little to see but my imagination half-convinced me I was viewing the luscious Altaira in flagrante delicto.  I practically swooned…

“Forbidden Planet” was the first science fiction film that really knocked my socks off.  I was a fan of the genre from an early age, smitten by notions like apes ruling the world or a man gradually shrinking until he finds himself stalked by first a cat and then a predatory spider…

But “Forbidden Planet” seemed, even back then, to be a cut above average.  The movie is well-cast and while some scenes are cringe-worthy—the cook’s obsession with securing more whiskey, Altaira’s first experiences with kissing—the film’s creators expended every effort to make a carefully conceived, well-crafted film that authentically depicts an alien world and the super-advanced civilization that once made Altair IV their home.  The film’s most thrilling sequences involve the underground Krell facilities:  vast, impressive, alien machinery stretching for miles (thanks to magnificent matte paintings, seamlessly employed).

As far as I have been able to determine, of the original cast members, Warren Stevens (“Lieutenant Ostrow”) and Earl Holliman (“Cookie”) are still alive (and here’s to you, gentlemen).  Walter Pidgeon (“Dr. Morbius”) is long gone, of course, as, I suppose, are most of the cast and crew.  Only Robby the Robot still forges on indomitably, making infrequent appearances at cons (science fiction conventions) or doing cameo roles and, sadly, informercials.  He finally seems to have been forgiven for past indiscretions, like his outspoken support for the NRA and a rather infamous appearance on “The Tonight Show”, when he babbled incoherently about “special interests and cabals” and then proceeded to vomit a quart of lubricating fluid all over Carson’s desk.   Not exactly one of television’s finest moments.

CARSON:

This kid definitely can’t handle his Castrol.

ED MCMAHON:

Hyuk, hyuk, hyuk!

“Forbidden Planet” made a lasting impact on my boyhood…and so did “Invaders From Mars”, though for entirely different reasons.  That one out and out scared the bejesus out of me—no one would believe that poor little kid, even as, one by one, the townspeople fell victim to the aliens, swallowed up by the shifting sands.  I watch it today and it’s a howler but flash back thirty-five years or so and it’s a different story.  A child knows what it’s like to be ignored, forgotten; an untrustworthy eyewitness, the boy who cried “wolf”.

Nostalgia plays funny tricks on you and the films of our childhood, when viewed in an adult context, rarely hold up very well.  “Invaders from Mars” is cheaply made, clumsy and frequently silly.  The creature that so terrified me in “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” is clearly a stunt man in a rented rubber suit…but I have to say “Forbidden Planet” still retains a lot of appeal for me.  I read in one of her obituaries that Ms. Francis told a story of how the cast of “Forbidden Planet” got together before shooting began and agreed to treat the film, no matter how cheesy it might seem at times. with the utmost seriousness and professionalism.  I think their dedication and hard work, coupled with superior production design and state of the art special effects, really sets the film apart from other fantastic films of the 1950’s and 60’s.   Until “2001:  A Space Odyssey” came along 12 years later, no purely science fiction movie rivals it in terms of world-building and attention to detail.

Have you watched “Forbidden Planet” lately?  I mean in the past five years or so.  More importantly have you listened to “Forbidden Planet”?  Specifically the electronic music and strange “tonalities” supplied by Bebe and Louis Barron.  Those blips and bloops are what I remember most about the movie…that and the bit where the Krell monster gets caught in a defensive field and is briefly outlined in the glowing streams of energy.

Sound is essential to the overall atmosphere, the definite sense of “otherness” that’s conveyed as soon as the ship lands on Altair IV.  I don’t know how they managed it but the creators of “Forbidden Planet” somehow convinced a major studio to invest the necessary time and talent and money in the making of a first rate, original, science fiction film, set in the distant future, on a planet light years from our own.  They didn’t have to skimp on vision or imagination and the resulting film represents a high water mark in fantastic cinema, as important and influential as “King Kong” (1933).

While other studios churned out giant bug pictures or staged flying saucer attacks on miniature versions of the world’s capitals, the folks at MGM (with technicians borrowed from Disney) made an “A” list movie out of a genre film.  “Forbidden Planet” is worthy of their efforts; polished, competent, an impressive spectacle.  It carries the weight of its years well.  And I still sometimes dream of teaching Anne Francis how to kiss…

******************************************

It’s been a tough year as far as my heroes go.  We lost Arthur Penn not long ago—I was reminded of his special contribution to cinema when I watched “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the other day.  There was an anecdote about the connection between “Bonnie & Clyde” and Francois Truffaut and the “New Wave” that I hadn’t heard before.  I shall watch “Bonnie & Clyde” again later this week with that link very much in mind.

Recently Harlan Ellison announced that he’s in poor health and may not be long for this world.  Personally, I have my doubts that Death stands much of a chance in a bare knuckle punch-up with Harlan…but, then again, Harlan isn’t creating any more, the juices seem to have dried up.  He might be willing himself to a dignified. peaceful end.  That’s entirely different.  If that’s the case, I can only wish the ol’ curmudgeon a speedy and untroubled passing.

Harlan’s ailing, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury are both quite frail…

And when they’re finally gone, I’ll feel as bereft as I did the morning Sherron told me Hunter S. Thompson had taken his own life.  The Thompsons, Ellisons and Bradburys of the world…they really are irreplaceable.  We’ll never see their like again.  Their  minds and talents unique; often imitated, perhaps, but never surpassed.

Let’s give a hand, ladies and gents, to fallen stars…and those in the process of fading away.  A big round of applause for the brilliant light they cast, the darkness they helped defeat.

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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