These days, it’s easy to love being a geek, what with all the Marvel movies and shows, various urban fantasy shows, tons of great books to read, and even favorite classic video games possibly making a comeback. Geek has become popular and mainstream.
But these are not the only Days of the Geek.
I am reminded of a Marian Call song, where she affirms that “I was a geek before it was chic.” Well, that applies to movies as well.
There are some movies that were geek long before such a thing was chic.
Before Star Wars (1977), and even before Star Trek TOS (1966-1969), there were movies for geeks.
Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking: “Well, sure there were science fiction movies in the forties and fifties, but they are all so terrible, we’ll just pretend they don’t exist at all. I mean, come on: THEM! (1954)? Godzilla (1956)? Those aren’t real geek movies. They’re dorky cult movies that are so bad they’re good.”
I beg to differ.
Starting today, we begin a special series here at The Catholic Geeks. I’ll be reviewing some of the greatest science fiction movie classics from the early days of movies, the ones that were geek before it was chic, and which shaped how science fiction stories are told today.
And besides, they’re entertaining. Don’t forget that particular point.
First up, it’s Forbidden Planet (1956), starring Walter Pidgeon, Leslie Nielsen, and Anne Francis, with a special appearance by Robby the Robot.
According to film historian Ben Mankiewicz, this movie was the one that made future big-budget science fiction films possible.
Yeah, like the one I know you’re thinking of.
The first thing you will notice when the opening titles roll across the screen is the music. It’s not your typical movie score, certainly not the kind that was popular in the mid-fifties. No full orchestra, no brass section blasting you out of your seat in the theater. Forbidden Planet boasts the first-ever completely electronic musical score, thanks to Louis and Bebe Barron. Seriously, stop reading and listen. Those two geniuses were doing that before the music synthesizer.
Before Doctor Who did its crazy musical thing with cool electronic sound effects, Forbidden Planet did theirs.
It’s even more impressive when you learn that they never got the Academy Award they deserved, because they had to say that the “music” wasn’t really “music;” there were no musicians involved, and they credited it as “electronic tonalities” instead, thanks to the pissed off musicians union.
In the opening titles, you see a strange credit: Robby the Robot, in his first screen appearance. More on Robby later.
After the credits, we see a spaceship. And yes, it is a flying saucer. The reason this particular flying saucer was different from its predecessors is because it was flown by human beings, not by aliens (like Klaatu’s flying saucer in The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951). Forbidden Planet is the first movie in which human beings travel away from earth in a spaceship that they made themselves. That alone is cause for its iconic status as a geek movie. Where would Star Trek be without Forbidden Planet?
In addition, Gene Roddenberry admitted in an interview that he was inspired to create Star Trek because of Forbidden Planet. There is another really good nod to Forbidden Planet in his show, and it occurs in every episode, and not just every episode of the original series; I mean EVERY episode with any version of the Enterprise in it. Bet you don’t know what it is.
Know why the Enterprise is NCC-1701? Because, in one of the movie’s first lines, Jerry informs the Commander: “Ship on course, sir. We’ll reach DC [deceleration] point at seventeen-oh-one.”
The ship is the United Planets Cruiser C-57-D.
Attention, Firefly fans. You should recognize that designation. Remember the derelict ship on Miranda in Serenity? Joss Whedon gave it the call sign “C57D” as a tribute to Forbidden Planet.
The design of the ship was inspired by the rash of UFO sightings in the 1950s. In turn, it inspired Gene Roddenberry’s original Enterprise. If you ever wanted to know why the heck the Enterprise has a saucer section with a little bubble on top for the bridge, that’s why.
Also, Whovians, if you take a good look at the bridge of C-57-D, you will notice that it is a round room, with a glowing central command node right in the middle, with everyone moving around it. Just a little bit like the TARDIS.
See, not even Doctor Who can escape the influence of a classic like Forbidden Planet.
And for the science geeks here, you will be very happy to know that, unlike on any Federation starships, the crew has to be secured in individual tractor-beam-like pods during deceleration. Because the director certainly didn’t want the crew splattered around inside the ship as it approached the planet.
So, United Planets Cruiser C-57-D approaches the planet of Altair IV, and immediately contacts the ship they’re looking for, the Bellerophon, a colony ship which had been carrying “a prospecting party of scientists.” C-57-D has been sent on a rescue mission to this planet to discover why the Bellerophon party has not contacted Earth in twenty years.
They speak to a Dr. Edward Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), the expedition’s philologist, who tells them that everything is fine, so please go away. When Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) insists that they are going to land, Morbius warns him that “I cannot be answerable for the safety of your ship or your crew” if they land on Altair IV.
Response: “Doctor Morbius, I require landing coordinates.”
Of course, what better way to ensure that the captain of a starship lands on the planet anyway? There’s a little bit of Captain Kirk in Commander Adams.
So, C-57-D lands on Altair IV, and is met at their landing coordinates by Robby the Robot. Of course, the Commander and the others are fascinated by the robot (along with the audience, no doubt). This portrayal was a significant departure from the usual treatment of robots in stories of that time. You know from the opening titles that Robby was credited like any other actor; that alone would let you know that he wasn’t some beeping tin can. His appearance on screen confirms that: he has a personality and a role as a three-dimensional character, like the other actors in the movie. His dry wit is my favorite part:
“Nice atmosphere you have here. High oxygen content.”
“I rarely use it myself, sir. It promotes rust.”Robby takes the Commander, his exec, and the ship’s doctor to the house to meet Dr. Morbius, who is trying to be polite, but would much rather not have to deal with them at all.
After lunch, the conversation turns to Robby. He manufactures the raw materials for the food, and Morbius gives a demonstration. He is also equipped with a household disintegrator beam, and is perfectly obedient to Morbius, even going to put his arm into the beam when told to do so as part of the demonstration. Fortunately for Robby, Morbius changes his mind and cancels that particular order.
The next question turns the conversation into something a little more ominous. The doctor asks: “In the wrong hands, mightn’t such a tool become a deadly weapon?” Morbius arranges a demonstration with the commander’s sidearm. The result is that Robby cannot harm a human being, even if he had been ordered to do so. This is reminiscent of Asimov’s Three Laws, the first of which is that a robot cannot harm or through inaction allow a human being to be harmed.
And now we see little hints of everyone’s favorite android, Data.
The big question of the scene is: where did Robby come from? When Morbius admits that he built Robby during the first few months of his stay on the planet, Commander Adams has to wonder how in the world a philologist managed something so technically complex. Morbius dodges the question, of course.
The commander wants to interview the other members of the Bellerophon party. Which is when we learn that there are no others left. They all died within a year of their landing. “One by one, in spite of every safeguard, my coworkers were torn literally limb from limb. By some devilish thing that never once showed itself,” while the Bellerophon was “vaporized as the three remaining survivors attempted to take her off.”
Commander Adams is a bit incredulous. “And yet in all these nineteen years, you personally have never been bothered by this planetary force?”
Only in nightmares.
Of course, this pleasant conversation is very suddenly interrupted by a blonde in a short, white dress.
Morbius’ daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).
Now, this is the one aspect of the story that I don’t find at all realistic. This girl is supposedly the only child of the only survivor of the Bellerophon, which means that she has lived her entire life with no one around but her doting father and a dry-humored robot. You’d think that she would be a homely intellectual, like her father, too shy to function in company because she quite literally has never been in company. Or, she could be an utter tomboy, with patched overalls she wears while building magnificent machines out of the stuff they have at their disposal on the planet. Personally, I think the former is more likely, because of her stuffy and highly intellectual philologist father.
Instead, we get a thin, gorgeous blonde, with perfect clothes, jewelry, hair done up just so, and a simpering little innocent voice.
In the words of my mother: that is what men would like to think a girl raised alone with her father would be like.
I suppose we’ll have to assume that little Altaira woke up one morning and accidentally discovered she was beautiful, sort of like Cosette in Les Miserables (watch the Liam Neeson version–you will know which scene I’m talking about), and then tried really hard to act like a beautiful girl instead of an intellectual recluse.
It stretches disbelief a little, but we’ll go with it. It doesn’t ruin the rest of the story at all.
So, of course, all the gentlemen in the room are positively smitten (given how long they’ve been in space, it’s not surprising), and Morbius reveals that he “specifically asked you not to join us for lunch.”
“But father, lunch is over. I’m sure you never said anything about not coming in for coffee.”
It appears the child has learned from Robby the Robot.
Of course, the little bit with coffee is exceptionally awkward, with Morbius apologizing for her manner, and the three guys staring, and the lieutenant trying to charm his way into her good graces while slamming the commander’s supposedly flirtatious tendencies (“that man is notorious throughout seven planetary systems”), and then the question comes up about Altaira taking a trip to Earth. She says that she is never lonely, because she has “you and Robby, and all my friends.”
Wait, what friends?
To help with their confusion, she calls her “friends,” which is when we find out something else odd about the planet. There are Earth animals on Altair IV–deer, and even a tiger, all pets of Altaira’s.
Morbius’ politeness is all used up at this point, and he asks the commander if there is anything he can do to assist with preparations for their return journey. He counters that they never expected to find this kind of situation here, and that they must request new instructions before proceeding. Morbius doesn’t want to go, but agrees to help them build a more powerful transmitter to send the required signal to Earth. Robby can get their materials for them, no later than noon the next day. He doesn’t want them to waste ten days cannibalizing the ship’s systems to do it.
“Look out there, Commander. The Bellerophon party. Nineteen years ago I dug those graves with my own hands, and I have, believe me, no wish to repeat that experience.”
Robby brings them the lead they need, and guess who happened to come with him. Yep. Altaira.
“He told me not to go anywhere near the ship. But, after all, this isn’t very near.”
Uh-huh. She seems to have a fondness for strict accuracy.
And the completely unscrupulous lieutenant is already moving in on her.
The best part is when Cookie asks Robby if he can find him “some of the real stuff,” meaning genuine bourbon. Robby pours some in his robot-mouth-equivalent (“Quiet, please. I am analyzing”), and asks if sixty gallons would be sufficient.
Cookie’s new best friend.
Now we get more total awkwardness as the lieutenant tries to teach Altaira about kissing, and gets caught by the commander, who then tries to explain how “you can’t run around like that in front of grown men, especially not a space wolf like Farman.” She doesn’t get it, of course, so he explains it to her.
“I’m in command of eighteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens, with an average age of twenty-four-point-six, who have been LOCKED UP IN HYPERSPACE for three hundred and seventy-eight DAYS! It would have served you right if I hadn’t . . . and he . . . oh, go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard. And then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Adams has the best speeches in this movie.
And Altaira goes home to tell on him to her father, complete with a dramatic, “I don’t like him, I just don’t like him . . . I hope I never have to see him again if I live to be four hundred million!”
“I dare say you won’t have to, my dear,” Morbius tells her.
Of course, Altaira is certainly going to show the commander what’s what, and asks Robby to make her a new dress (“and nothing must show, above, below, or through.” “Radiation proof?” “No, just eye-proof will do”), so there.
And now for one of the best scenes: back at the ship.
The “electronic tonalities” are used perfectly here, for a combination of horror and curiosity. All you can tell at this point is that the monster that killed the Bellerophon party is invisible. And sneaky.
Their work on the transmitter was sabotaged, and no one can tell by what. The commander chews out the two guards, and the man who was asleep closest to the damaged stuff, who thought he had a dream. “I’ll have less DREAMING aboard this ship!”
The commander (with the doctor in tow) goes back to the house to question Morbius about the monster, and of course, meets up with Altaira again.
Who is swimming. When she invites the commander to take a swim, he says “I didn’t bring my bathing suit.”
“What’s a bathing suit?”
. . . “Oh, murder.” He kindly turns his back until she gets changed, though.
Her new dress is very nice, and not short or revealing, and of course, eventually, the commander kisses her.
You can tell that she understands that particular custom now.
Tired of waiting on Morbius, the commander and the doctor decide to go into the study and find him themselves (even though Robby told them that Morbius was not to be disturbed). Of course, Morbius catches them, and after they tell him that their equipment was sabotaged, he decides to explain things to them.
Now we get to hear about the Krell.
Finally, more about science fiction and less about Altaira. Thank God.
Morbius’ description is a little like what Roddenberry tells us about what Earth is like in the future. These creatures were “a million years ahead of humankind,” in ethics and technology (although I’m not quite sure how ethics are supposed to evolve, but we’ll go with it). They were so advanced that they had completely “abolished sickness, insanity, crime, and all injustice.”
Sound familiar? Maybe just a little like Gene Roddenberry’s depiction of the Federation?
The Krell even visited Earth, which explained the animals that were Altaira’s friends.
Then the entire race perished in a single night. Everything about them is gone, except what is underground.
And Morbius gives them a tour.
The commander tries his blaster on one of the doors in the underground chambers, and the spot isn’t even warm, even though it “should be molten.” Then they look through a laboratory, where Morbius has spent every day for twenty years, picking apart the language of the Krell, and discovering what they were like and what they could do. Morbius gives them a demonstration of the technology. Much of it is mind-controlled, like their “intelligence test,” and he tells the commander that if any of them should try it, it would be “instantly fatal to them.” We learn that he tried it, too, was unconscious for a day and a night, and when he woke up, his intelligence had been doubled, “otherwise my work here would have come to nothing.”
According to his research, the Krell had been on the verge of a discovery that would have “completely eliminated their dependence on physical instrumentality.”
Their power source is still working, and Morbius tells them that the amount is “the power of ten raised almost literally to the power of infinity.”
Underground, we can see the actual source of the power, and it’s very similar to the depiction of the planetary defense systems on Epsilon III in the show Babylon 5.
Back at the ship, the other crewmembers are busy setting up an electronic fence, just in case the invisible monster returns. Cookie goes to meet up with Robby, who has brought sixty gallons of “genuine Kansas City bourbon” for him. Cookie asks Robby: “What’s up, is something coming this way?” Robby says “no,” but then we go back to the ship.
Something ran into the electric fence.
It’s a wonderful bit of subtle animation and special effects, all the more impressive for 1956, because the crackling fence has a monster-like shape in it for just a moment, just enough to scare the pants off you. The fence is still on, but you’re not sure which side of the fence the monster is on.
Then you see the footprints.
And, yep, they’re inside the fence. The monster approaches the ship, with a wonderful backdrop of “electronic tonalities,” and enters the ship.
Then you get the screaming.
Meanwhile, Commander Adams is back at the Morbius house trying to convince Morbius that “a scientific find of this magnitude has got to be taken under United Planets supervision. No one man can be allowed to monopolize it.”
His response is that “man is unfit, as yet, to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” And that he is the one who can decide what parts of this technology will be given to earth. Adams thinks that’s crap: “Only Morbius with his artificially expanded intellect is now ideally suited to administer this power to the whole human race?”
Adams’ communicator beeps, and he learns that the Chief has been killed, and that “his body is splattered all over the communications room.” The commander and the doctor rush back to the ship, and Morbius’ only comment is:
“It’s started again.”
Later, the doctor shows Commader Adams a plaster cast he made of one of the footprints, and it’s something out of a nightmare: “It’s characteristic of a four-footed animal, but our visitor last night left the tracks of a biped. It’s primarily a ground animal, too, but this claw belongs to an arboreal creature, like some impossible tree sloth. This doesn’t fit into normal nature. Anywhere in the galaxy, this is a nightmare.”
They bury the chief, and unfortunately, Morbius and Altaira showed up. Leslie Nielsen isn’t much of an actor, but you can tell that he wanted to punch Morbius in the nose. He’s still suspicious that Morbius is the cause of all this trouble. All he does while he’s there is remind Adams that “I warned you, while your ship was still in space, I begged you not to land on this planet. Believe me, commander, that is only a foretaste. The Bellerophon pattern is being woven again. If you remain here, the next attack on your party will be more deadly and general.”
Morbius says that it was “a premonition,” and that’s how he knew that the violence would return. After he and Altaira leave, the Commander says that “it sounded like an ultimatum.”
The next night, they pull out all the stops, with the electric fence, the ship’s guns, and radar.
The creature is coming again, and the sound effects and “electronic tonalities” let you know. It’s perfect.
They fire at it, and hear some growling and groaning, but they don’t see anything. Eventually, the creature hits the fence, and shows itself, just a little bit.
They continue to fire, but the creature manages to kill three more men, all the while absorbing their fire like it was nothing but water from a squirt gun.
The scene cuts to Morbius, who is asleep in his lab, with dozens of the little gauges on the wall behind him active and blinking. The Krell machine is busy doing something. He hears Altaira scream, and wakes up, and at that moment, the monster attacking the ship disappears.
Altaira runs to her father, saying that she had a terrible dream, with “blood and fire and thunder, and something awful was moving in the middle of it. I could hear it roar and bellow.”
“You know a dream can’t hurt you.”
“Him” being Commander Adams.
“My dear, I’m completely helpless as long as he remains here.”
Commander Adams tells the men that their weapons managed to stop the monster, but he and the doctor know better. They’re convinced that this monster is impossible: “any organism dense enough to survive three billion electron volts would have to be made of solid nuclear material. It would sink of its own weight to the center of this planet.”
“You saw it yourself!”
“It must have been renewing its structure from one microsecond to the next.”
Their plan is to take Morbius and his daughter and get off the planet. The only problem is that the Bellerophon was destroyed as it took off.
So, the Commander’s brilliant idea is to have one of them take that Krell intelligence test, no matter what, so that they can figure out some way to get out.
They go to the house, where Robby is guarding the door, and is “monitored to admit no one.”
Fortunately, Altaira comes in and gives Robby “emergency cancellation Archimedes.”
Robby lets them in, and the doctor takes off down the hall to the lab, without the commander’s permission. Adams was going to take the intelligence booster himself. Adams wants Altaira to come with him, but she doesn’t want to leave her father behind.
Robby comes in, carrying the doctor’s limp body. He’s alive, but barely, and manages to tell the commander what’s really going on. “Morbius was too close to the problem. The Krell completed their machine . . . but they forgot one thing. Monsters . . . monsters from the Id!”
And he promptly dies.
Morbius comes in, angrier than ever.
Altaira has never seen him like that before, and is completely shocked by his uncaring attitude. “Father . . . he’s dead!”
“He was warned, and now he’s paid! Let him be buried with the other victims of human greed and folly.”
Her attitude changes at once: “Morbius. You wanted me to make a choice. Now you’ve chosen for me.” She turns to Adams: “I’m ready to go with you, darling.”
She goes off to pack, and Adams confronts Morbius about the “monsters from the subconscious.”
He figures it out. The Krell finally managed “creation by mere thought” with their super powerful machines. But they forgot about the “mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down! The secret devil of every soul on the planet set free at once to loot and maim. And take revenge, Morbius, and kill.”
Even then Morbius doesn’t get it! “The last Krell died two thousand centuries ago!”
Robby announces that something is approaching from the southwest, and is now quite close.
Of course, Morbius concludes that the monster is after the commander.
“Feel sorry for your daughter, Morbius. You still refuse to face the truth? That thing out there–it’s you! You still think she’s immune? She’s joined herself to me, body and soul!”
So bad dreams can kill, and the subconscious monster of Dr. Morbius is now after the commander and Altaira, because she wants to leave with Adams, and Morbius doesn’t want her to go.
Morbius orders Robby to kill it, and he locks up just as he did before, when Morbius ordered him to fire at the commander. Robby knows that the monster is part of Morbius, and can’t retaliate against it.
They run from the monster into the laboratory protected by the Krell metal.
Morbius insists that he’s not a monster, and the commander gives a pretty good line: “We’re all monsters in our subconscious, that’s why we have laws and religions!”
Morbius’ subconscious had been made strong enough by the intelligence boosting technology, and that’s why the Bellerophon party died–Morbius loved this planet, and didn’t want to leave, so when the others voted to return, “you sent your secret Id out to murder them! Not quite realizing it, of course, except maybe in your dreams. . . . When you thought we were threatening your little ego-maniac empire, your subconscious sent its Id monster out again, more deaths, Morbius! More murder! . . . But now, she’s defying you, Morbius. Even in you, the loving father, there still exists the mindless primitive. . . . So now you’re whistling up your monster again, to punish her for her disobedience!”
And the Krell machines have enough power to make the monster strong enough to reach them, even through the amazing Krell metal. The monster gets closer, and Adams draws his weapon to kill Morbius.
Morbius figures it out too late: “Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!”
As the door crumbles into molten metal, he rushes forward: “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!”
And the machines power down.
Something in that denial must have hurt Morbius physically, because he collapses. Before he dies, he tells Adams how to destroy the Krell machines, and the planet along with them. “In twenty hours, you must be a hundred million miles out in space.” And he dies.
So, Altaira and Robby go with the crew of C-57-D, and they all watch as Altair IV explodes.
Commander Adams has a wonderful speech:
About a million years from now, the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy, and your father’s name will shine again, like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true: it will remind us that we are, after all, not God.
Brilliant storytelling. They never actually use the phrase “original sin,” but it’s there anyway. There’s a bad side to all of us. Match that up with unlimited Krell power, and you get the monster.
And we are most certainly not God, as Commander Adams reminds us. All the power in the universe at his disposal, and Morbius was still a man. Same for all of us. We can go out into space, build colonies, improve our technology, whatever, but we’ll still be fallible human beings.
In his arrogance, Morbius couldn’t see what was really going on, the same way any of us usually react to our own faults.
This is one of my dad’s favorite movies, and he drew my attention to the fact that Commander Adams said “God,” singular, not “gods,” plural. Amazing little message not-quite-hidden in that story.
They use words like “mindless primitive” and “monsters from the Id,” but there’s a good Catholic story in there, just under a different name.
The story itself is a good one, but the influence that story has on the most popular science fiction of our time is staggering.
Watch it. Be a geek, and thank heaven that this movie was successful back in 1954, because there’s no telling where we geeks would be without it.
Follow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.