Forbidden Planet, the 1956 film which introduced us to Robby the Robot, is widely regarded today as something of a masterpiece, and certainly ahead of its time. Wikipedia states that in the authorised biography of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Roddenberry notes that Forbidden Planet “was one of [his] inspirations for Star Trek.” On imdb.com, Forbidden Planet is rated 7.7 out of ten (over 31,000 votes), comparing well to the 1977 Star Wars which scores 8.7 out of ten, and higher than 2004’s I, Robot with Will Smith, which was rated at 7.1 out of ten.
According to the following write-up, taken from Picturegoer, the British national film and entertainment weekly, written shortly after the film was released, newspapers at the time had mixed opinions of the film.
Picturegoer magazine, 14th July 1956
Robby Mocks the Monsters
Monsters of the science fiction world – watch out! You’re being got at – by an upstart called Robby the Robot. He’s the star of Forbidden Planet and, if this isn’t the cheekiest skit on screen monsters, I’ve got a few atomic screws loose. It takes the mickey – and then some.
Robby’s a kind of steel-plated, maid-of-all-work reception party for the crew of a space ship exploring a dead planet. Working for his master-brain boss (Walter Pidgeon), he is an ultra-polite, English-speaking, ball-bearing Jeeves who manufactures anything on demand – even crates of whisky.
There may be giggles – but only in the right places. That’s the amazing thing about this science shocker: it never pulls a switch wrong.
There’s a Jules Verne kind of crazy logic running through the plot. It gets the enthusiasts, the disbelievers, the intellectuals and the thrill seekers and takes them all for a ride.
For SCIENCE there’s Walter Pidgeon’s crazy professor. He has decoded the secrets of a lost race of supermen on a dead planet. And his collection of electronic equipment threatens to blind and deafen you with science.
For PSYCHOLOGY there are fragments of Freud – the Ego, the Id and all that. For SEX there’s Anne Francis, dressed most of the time in sequined scanties, as a brazen reply to all those dreary blue-stocking science women who get caught up in space.
For THRILLS there’s a welter of trick photography that really staggers. Monster-sized footprints suddenly crater the ground, a tiger disintegrates in thin air, massive metal doors melt into candy floss.
And I’m giving away no vital secret when I reveal that the unknown horror, when it finally appears, turns out to be a snarling lion’s head. But MGM doesn’t appreciate the joke about its Leo the Lion trademark. In fact it seems slightly red-faced and ashamed about Robby.
Forbidden Planet gets what’s called ‘outside theatre’ treatment. That means it wasn’t shown at MGM’s own London showplace, the Empire, Leicester Square. It’s being released as a double bill with Lana Turner’s Diane. Curious mating.
MGM is doing wrong by Robby, I think. Some film critics have done the same. The press has been divided about Forbidden Planet, but the majority has agreed that it’s a wonderful piece of mickey-taking hokum. “Glorious balderdash,” said the Daily Sketch; “triumphantly entertaining,” said the Daily Express.
But there were some reviewers whose sense of humour seemed to have been dazzled by a ray-gun. The Daily Mail thought the film silly while the Evening News threw the word boredom at poor old Robby.
For my money, Robby’s the best thing to happen for years in the rather blasé world of screen space fiction. He’s a tonic indeed after all those routine, serious and dedicated space adventures.
It’s the best way to handle the tricky subject of science fiction – with tongue-in-the cheek (but deadpan) earnestness.