Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anne Francis Stars In...

Surely that can't be a monster of the id?

I'm assuming you heard about the recent passing of Leslie Nielsen. Please now congratulate me on the restraint I showed just then by not saying, "Surely you heard about the recent passing of Leslie Nielsen." I've seen a great deal of well deserved praise for the guy who defined deadpan humor so well that comedy roles were written just for him well into his old age. I come today, however, to talk about my favorite Leslie Nielsen movie and it's not a comedy.

1956's Forbidden Planet stands as one of the finest examples of science fiction ever put on screen. Fans of serious science fiction have remembered that movie fondly whenever they would see a movie in which a solar system was called a galaxy or that invading aliens came from a planet 3 million miles from Earth. The makers of Forbidden Planet treated their material as if it was actually supposed to make sense and it did as opposed to most producers of science fiction movies who think that mistakes and lazy writing don't matter since the very genre is stupid anyway. Most science fiction films rip each other off doing variations of the radioactive monster or conquering aliens storylines over and over again. Forbidden Planet used Shakespeare as its inspiration.

The movie opens in the 23rd century, a fact that already puts it ahead of the other movies of the 50s that postulated an incredibly advanced space faring civilization by 1980. Leslie Nielsen plays J.J. Adams, a character that would later inspire Gene Roddenberry to create a starship captain who has sex with green women. Adams commands the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, a ship on a mission to investigate a human colony on the planet Altair IV that disappeared 20 years earlier. They discover that the expedition's sole survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), has built himself a very comfortable existence on this planet for himself and his 18 year old daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). What killed the rest of the colony and how did Morbius survive? The answer to that holds up to this day as one of the most interesting and evocative ideas ever advanced in science fiction cinema.

The special effects technology is sadly dated but still holds up well enough, especially when compared to other movies made between this and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even more dated, though, are the cultural attitudes. The crew of the ship is very male and very white. Altaira's character is classic damsel-in-distress. Adams describes a machine that takes care of dirty dishes as being perfect for Earth's housewives. I mention this because I see this movie at least once a year and these points always stand out as a distraction but I manage to get past them because the rest of the movie is so good.

I love the scene when the crew does battle with an invisible creature that can only be seen by the outlines it leaves in their force field (a scene that entertains to this day and makes up for other outdated effects). I love it when the movie tries to penetrate the history of a long-dead alien race called the Krell. I love it when J.J. Adams has to outwit a genius to defeat something that can't be fought.

The key to Leslie Nielsen's comedy is that he played his funny roles pretty much the same way he played the serious and solemn J.J. Adams. I often snicker a bit when I hear him in this or The Poseidon Adventure or any of the numerous television guest spots he did all through the 60s and 70s. His comedic skills were incredible and they are what most people are talking about but, if you happen to have room in your Netflix queue or TCM is running it during one of their science fiction marathons, your time would be well spent checking out Forbidden Planet. Just don't call it Shirley because, you know, that would make no sense.

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