Friday, August 24, 2012

The Tempest

Shakespeare's Play: Tempest, 1611 (one of Shakespeare's last plays, often perceived as his personal farewell to the stage)

Definitive versions:
Hallmark Hall of Fame version (1960) with Maurice Evans, Richard Burton, Lee Remick, and Roddy McDowell; Wishbone version. Interestingly enough, this play has very few true-to-the-original versions; The Complete Dramatic Works version with Michael Hordern, which isn't bad, is kind of it.

Retelling: Forbidden Planet (1956)
KATE SAYS the impressive thing about this movie is how uncorny it is. I went in expecting silly special effects, silly robots, and silly acting. I love Leslie Nielsen (mostly from Due South but also from Columbo), but I have to admit, the most memorable thing about Leslie Nielsen is that he did a whole bunch of corny films, and he always looks like he is about to crack-up. He CAN do serious acting, but most of the time, his attitude seems to be "Why bother?"

So I was immensely impressed by the film's serious vision and attitude. Consequently, although it is really an hour-long episode that has been unnecessary expanded to 90 minutes, Forbidden Planet has a much more modern/dramatic feel to it than much of the sci-fi that followed it on television and on the big screen.

Even by the time Star Trek: The Original Series came around, corniness had crept into the genre. The first season of Star Trek: TOS has some solid sci-fi episodes. But there's still a bit of a wink and a nod at the back of the scripts and the acting. Forbidden Planet, on the other hand, is not only completely serious about but completely enamored with its own sci-fi nature.

After all, the 1950s were the hey-day of science-fiction! Asimov was producing stuff. Sci-fi magazines were flooding the marketplace. And although I love my Stargate, I have to admire the mentality that produced Forbidden Planet without flinching.

First, I really like the military aspect of the movie (this is where Stargate unabashedly comes out ahead of Star Trek: we're military! so what? get over it). The relationship between the captain and his men is quiet, even affectionate, yet real in its expectations and discipline. I was seriously upset when the men started dying. And I was also seriously impressed by the crew's response to the planet's threat. Although the guns fail to take out the monster, they do hold it off. 

Second, Anne Francis steals the screen as Alta. She may be blond. And she may be innocent. But she's no dummy. She delivers her lines with panache, amusement, and strength. She does get dumber towards the end of the movie, but in a way, this is inevitable: she can either stay on the planet with a fruitcake or take her chances in an obviously male-dominated society. She isn't wrong to opt for the latter; it's called growing up.

Third, the special effects are quite impressive. I think this is mostly because they are so simple. There are a few breathtaking scenes that are so well-designed, I forgot I was watching a 1956 film.

And the attendant lighting, costuming, and camera-work give some scenes a truly classic, literary effect. Towards the end of the movie, Adams faces Morbius in his office. Morbius is seated, leaning forward over his desk. Behind Adams to his immediate right, "Doc" leans against a wall. Further behind Adams, Alta--now dressed in black--waits in the shadows. The scene is beautifully shot and blocked and expresses more than all the remaining dialog about the movie's relationships, including each character's intentions.

The one major snag to the film is the middle portion where the "this is sci-fi!" excitement gets out of hand. There's almost 15-20 minutes of showing off sci-fi gadgets, stuff that sci-fi shows now take for granted. It's kind of like the middle of Moby-Dick where Melville starts telling us how to cut up a whale. Well, okay, that's nice, Melville. What's going to happen next?

And Forbidden Planet does make you wonder what will happen next!

As for the Shakespearean influence, while I was watching the movie, my reaction was, "Well, sure, it's kind of like The Tempest, but not all that much." After reading up about different versions of The Tempest, however, I've formed the conclusion that actually Forbidden Planet may be the closest version out there. It certainly seems to capture Shakespeare's theme more than the others!

MIKE SAYS after watching Forbidden Planet, and then doing a little research, I'm inclined to believe that any similarities to The Tempest were probably accidental, and in the best case scenario, a screenwriter or director noticed the analogs and enhanced them in a later draft.  But, this doesn't really ruin the movie for me. Instead, it highlights what makes Shakespeare's work so impressive: his ability to capture and represent archetypical stories in a near universally understandable manner (well, except for the old English).

As for Planet, the film is remarkably beautiful and striking.  I watched the DVD on my Blu-Ray player, which upscales the quality of the film.  Couple this with my 43" flat screen, and well, frankly, the film blew my mind.  The image was crisp, the colors were bold and bright, and every single special effect was convincing.

The effects especially impressed me, as they were easily comparable to the quality of current television, despite the years since the movie's release.  The simplicity of the images and their use really helped sell them all the more.

The plot is simple, though again, only incidentally comparable to The Tempest.  The film is definitely true to its era, with pacing, acting, and editing that is very straight, ordered, and evenly paced.  If anything, it helps show the strengths and weaknesses of modern editing techniques . . . while the film doesn't buzz along, it's easy enough to follow, and a viewer feels free to blink without missing a key plot point.

I do have to agree with you, Kate, that the film does feel weighed down by extra exposition showing off the sci-fi world.  I imagine that those seeing the film for the first time were anxious to immerse themselves in this new world.  For viewers today, however, most of this stuff is old hat, and it's a little tedious to sit through.

Despite this, I was completely impressed by the film:  I can now understand how this is considered the father of modern sci-fi.  It seems that filmmakers of the last 50 years have merely been trying to convey what they felt when they first saw Forbidden Planet.  While we can watch it now in all it's glory, I don't think we'll ever be able to appreciate the impact this film had on a society still new to a genre that has spawned a generation of geeks . . . on second thought, that may not be a good thing . . .

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