By the time Forbidden Planet hit theaters in 1956, aliens, robots, and strange worlds had become commonplace, thanks to B-movies, pulps, and comic books. So how did it become the touchstone science-fiction film of its decade? It thought big. Here was outer space as only the lavish production values of MGM could imagine it, a journey to an alien landscape painted in bold Eastmancolor and stretched across a CinemaScope frame. But it also thought small. Forbidden Planet's characters travel to the far reaches of space to discover boundaries that remain in place no matter where you go. The mind may climb to the stars, but it's hard to shake the beast within.
Decades away from becoming a self-conscious punchline, Leslie Nielsen leads a crew of explorers in search of a lost expedition on a distant world. Once there, they find a brilliant scientist (Walter Pidgeon) living contentedly with his daughter (Anne Francis) amid technology far beyond human capabilities. This includes the film's most famous character, a helpful robot named Robby who provides a primer on Asimov's rules of robotics, plus a lot of comic business. But what became of the rest of the crew? And what's behind Pidgeon's unwillingness to travel back to Earth?
The questions don't get answered for a while. Mostly, director Fred M. Wilcox travels around the strange world of Pidgeon's planet—from the alien skies to metal corridors designed to accommodate an apparently pentagonal race of giants—to the accompaniment of Bebe and Louis Barron's still-unsettling experimental electronic score. But fear is never far from wonder, and as the plot's echoes of Shakespeare's The Tempest grow louder, the notion that nothing good comes when humanity presumes to take on the power of the gods becomes ever clearer. It's a sobering note among all the gee-whizzery, but one as much a product of the atomic age as laser guns and flying saucers.
Key features: The TCM documentary Watch The Skies! provides a thoughtful survey of '50s science fiction, featuring George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott. Robby fans get two subsequent appearances: a guest spot on the Thin Man TV series, and a second feature, The Invisible Boy.