I’ve always been old. Last week, I wrote about my undying love for the brothers Marx, but it doesn’t stop there. I remain less than convinced that adding sound to motion pictures (or flicker shows, if you prefer) was an entirely good idea.
But, folks, there is some truly great stuff back there in the past, and I’d like to continue sharing some of that stuff with you this week.
Because everybody loves spaceship movies this week, I think there is no better time to introduce you to the spaceship movie. The original, you might say.
I could write—and have, on occasion considered writing—an entire book about Gene Roddenberry. Twenty-five plus years after his death, his legacy as the semi-messianic, borderline Hubbard-esque figure at the center of the Star Trek phenomenon. The truth appears to paint a far different picture of the man. At best, he is the template for James Cromwell’s portrayal of Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact (1996)*, at worst he was a credit-hogging charlatan, the worst parts of Trek are the parts for which he is most directly responsible**.
Nowhere is his status as “visionary” more in question, than when we realize that his precious vision of a semi-militarized, faster-than-light human race comes directly from the MGM science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet (1956).
Commander Adams checks in on a previously thought lost human expedition to the far-off planet Altair IV. There he finds remains of a super-advanced alien civilization, the humans left behind by early exploration to the region, and (because it’s a movie) a pretty girl***. Robots, spaceships, alien planets ensue. Everything you love about Trek (aside from the occasionally non-sensical utopia influences) appears in this movie first. While it’s electronic-synth score places the film firmly as a product of its time, it’s important once again to realize this film originated these tropes.
The movie transcends these tropes, and rises above the B-movie trappings not only through its innovation of a sub-genre that dominates the Sci-Fi world of today, but also its special effects. It would be hard to fathom that a movie now over 60 years old sports a mixture of model, miniature, process, and optical effects that still hold up today, but somehow they do. It’s almost as if the level of technology used in producing special effects is meaningless, and the real important matter is the care with which those tools are implemented. Miniature models can look great, like in this film, or they can dangle from a string in the works of someone like Ed Wood. I suppose CGI, as well, can be used to terrific effect by the like of…
All right, maybe practical effects work is always better. My bad.
At any rate, if you’re a fan of Star Trek or really any of what we now take for granted in the modern American science fiction film, and you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet, then you need to remember your roots. This might be the point in the article where I recommend various streaming services to find the movie… The thing is, it’s not on Netflix, it’s not on Amazon Prime, nor is it on Hulu. I guess you’ll have to just find it on DVD or Blu Ray, which come to think of it, might need to be a topic for another one of these “old things” blog posts.
Anyway, we may pick up this discussion again next week with some other items to consider. I may move on to some other topics as well. There’s probably some end-of-the-year things I want to ruminate on before 2018 begins, and with it, some changes to this space.
*The writers and producers insist that this isn’t the case, but I imagine that their denials are a bit of self-preservation, as the surviving Roddenberrys had and still have a significant influence over the fan base. I think they could probably admit the Cochrane-Roddenberry connection now, but people just aren’t asking the in-depth questions about movies from twenty years ago that I think should be asked.
**And I also have suspicion that, were he alive today, we’d be having a far different conversation about him.
***Sound familiar? It’s essentially the plot of The Cage, the first, embryonic trailer of The Original Series starring one-time-Jesus, Jeffery Hunter. I’m on to you, Roddenberry. Death will not protect you.