A mission from Planet Earth is heading for the far off system of Altair, and its only inhabited world, Altair IV. However, when they approach and try to make radio contact they are met with nothing but silence, which sets the minds of the crew racing as to what has happened to the previous expedition that was supposed to have been in operation there for a good twenty years. As they go into orbit around the alien globe, the Commander, J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) does get a message through from Doctor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who warns them away - but why?
Forbidden Planet holds a special place in the hearts of science fiction fans as the first truly prestige picture to be made in the genre, although this may have been more due to the budget spiralling out of control than any pretentions to making serious statements. Nevertheless, in its wake there followed not simply a run of space operas but a selection of films and television that took a sincere tack in the genre, adopting big ideas and not denigrating them with foolish, "sci-fi is just for kids" opinions. However, the filmmakers here were not quite comfortable with such ambitions, so for the first half at least, it's a very silly effort.
The crew of the flying saucer from Earth do get permission to land, and from here we can appreciate the delightful production design and special effects that truly represent all the money that was available: if it looks a million dollars, that's because it cost that, or thereabouts. Sure, you can still see the odd wire holding things up, but art department men Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan fashioned a very impressive environment for the characters to inhabit that goes some way to the film's visual benefit. That's not to mention the character who became a celebrity in himself, even though he was a man in a bulky suit: Robby the Robot.
Unfortunately once Robby was designed, as in the story he is the suspiciously advanced invention of Morbius, they couldn't think of much to do with him and he ends up as either comic relief or a way to illustrate how powerful the big monster is at the end by his uselessness in the face of it. That comic relief is a problem, reputedly insisted upon by the studio as they feared nobody would take such a way out premise, actually lifted from William Shakespeare's The Tempest, seriously. It does mean that until the meat of the plot starts up there is too much daft behaviour, with the crew acting like frat boys and even the Commander ending up exploiting Morbius's naive daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who has never met another man except her father.
Why is that? Well, shortly after Morbius and his team arrived they were attacked by a mysterious force and only he and Altaira survived; they have lived alone with all the comforts the planet can provide since then, but the doctor fears that the danger is not yet over, though cannot put his finger on the precise reason. Naturally it takes the inferior mind of Adams to work it out, especially as an invisible monster has begun to make its presence felt, tearing the odd hapless victim "literally limb from limb", but therein lies a problem with one of the most famous examples of a form which celebrates intelligence: here, having brains is a liability and actually Forbidden Planet is more keen to rein in any intellectualism or ways to increase your knowledge. It shows that the race that existed before Morbius on Altair IV fell prey to overstretching their mighty minds, and the message here is that military intelligence is the only kind worth bothering with. The film does improve as it progresses, and it is undeniably exciting, but there were better ideas in sci-fi at the time, not to say since. Electronic music by Bebe and Louis Barron (great stuff).