Friday, April 01, 2011

Science Fiction Comes of Age

It was 55 years ago that "Forbidden Planet" premiered on America's movie screens, and I suppose it's kind of a bittersweet time for fans of the sci–fi classic.

Anne Francis, who was in her mid–20s when the film was made, died three months ago at the age of 80. Her co–star, Leslie Nielsen, died about five weeks earlier. He was 84 — would've turned 85 in February.

By 1956, filmmaking in general had been maturing for decades, but some genres — science fiction, for example — were still in their infancies. Bruce Eder of AllMovie observes that science fiction didn't really begin to distinguish itself from "horror films and movie serials" until after World War II.

Nielsen and Francis helped the genre come of age.

A few years ago, the American Film Institute came out with its Top 10 lists of movies in 10 categories — and "Forbidden Planet" wasn't on the list of science fiction's best.

That wasn't terribly surprising. Only two of the films on the list (and I would argue that one of those films would be more properly designated as a "horror film," to borrow Eder's phrase) were made before "Forbidden Planet" — and the subsequent films on the list all came along more than a decade later, when the special effects were more advanced.

A sci–fi film's special effects are crucial, and the effects in "Forbidden Planet" often look cheap to modern eyes. Thus, it may come as something of a surprise to those modern viewers to know that most critics, Hal Erickson of AllMovie among them, think the special effects were state of the art.

And they were — for that time.

Beyond the special effects, though, the story was great — timeless, in fact — and the cast was top notch.

Ultimately, I guess, that is what "Forbidden Planet" proved on this day in 1956. Even though sci–fi flicks have always needed whatever special effects the then–current technology could provide, they will always need a good story to hold everything together.

And there was no question that "Forbidden Planet" had a great story. It was inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Consequently, it was really more of a romance than it was a story about space exploration.

It was a story about a lot of things, really. Obviously, it raised some eyebrows over the subplot's hints at Francis' relationship with her father (played by Walter Pidgeon).

But it also introduced a more humanlike robot — "Robby" — to the science fiction story. Robby has been the model for generations of mechanical companions that have followed (the robot from Lost in Space, the characters in the "Star Wars" movies, etc.); after "Forbidden Planet," robots were routinely members of the cast.

It has been observed that, before "Forbidden Planet," science fiction was a genre that mostly appealed to juveniles. After "Forbidden Planet," the genre came of age.