Saturday, November 1, 2008

Id, Id, Id

Science fiction movies really started to take off in the 1950s, first as an aftereffect of World War II and the sighting of UFOs, and then with the space race. A lot of the movies are schlocky (but often fun) B pictures, but once in a while, a really good movie was made in the genre. When MGM tried to put its classy sheen on a sci-fi movie, the result could be something as good as Forbidden Planet, which airs tonight at 6:15 PM ET on TCM.

Leslie Nielsen is one of the male stars, as Captain Adams, the captain of a spaceship sent to check up on the colony at Altair-4, since they haven't made contact with Earth recently. He discovers that there are only two survivors of the colony left on the planet: Dr. Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), and the good doctor's lovely daughter, played by Anne Francis. Morbius warns the crew of the spaceship to get off the planet, because what happened to everybody else might happen to them, too, and it's the crew's risk if they stay on the planet. Of course, Morbius knows full well why everybody died, and is trying to keep that a secret. (No surprise there; we wouldn't have much of a plot if that weren't the case.) Naturally, strange things start happening, resulting in the deaths of multiple crewmen. Adams can't possibly let that go, and investigates further, eventually discovering that the planet was previously home to a super-advanced race called the Krell, that they all died long ago, and that Morbius has learned the secrets of the Krell. Adams also learns the dark secret that killed the Krell, and killed all the earthlings....

Obviously, I'm not about to give away the ending if you haven't seen the movie. This is sci-fi, MGM-style, and it's pretty good stuff. To be honest, that's partly because the movie is very loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Shakespeare is a pretty good starting point. In some ways, it's less a genre film, and more a psychological story that has been shoehorned into a different genre. But there's more to it than just that. Walter Pidgeon adds a presence that the B sci-fi movies never had; the sets are much better; they're also in brilliant color and Cinemascope. The score, such as it is, is excellently evocative of the future. (In fact, the credits don't call it a score, or music, but "electronic tonalities".) The highlight, however, might be the non-human character, Robby the Robot, who provides the comic relief and steals a lot of the scenes he's in. Forbidden Planet is a heck of a lot of fun, and not just if you only know Leslie Nielsen from his later comedies.

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