Friday, September 10, 2010

How I Would Re-Make "Forbidden Planet"

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


MAIN AND CREDIT TITLES SUPERIMPOSED ON THE BLACK OF OUTER SPACE—pinpointed with piercing stars, smudged with nebulae, scrawled across the cosmic dust. As TITLES END—

             A VOICE (O.S.)
        In the final decade of the
        21st Century, men and women
        in chemically-fueled rocket
        ships landed on the moon. By
        2200 A.D., with the perfecting
        of atomic  propulsion, they
        had reached the other planets
        of our solar system. Due to
        galactic distances, the fixed
        limits to expansion now appear-
        ed to have been reached. But at
        this moment--
             (AS CAMERA BOOMS IN)
        --not for the first time in
        human history—another ancient
        “absolute” of science was
        found to have been illusory.
        Almost at once there followed
        the discovery of quanto-gravi-
        tetic hyper-drive, through
        which the speed of light was
        first attained, and later
        greatly surpassed—and so at
        last mankind, now banded to-
        gether in a single federation,
        began the conquest and coloni-
        zation of deep space.

ADVANCING CAMERA has by now PICKED UP (MINIATURE) A SPACE SHIP IN FLIGHT—a relatively tiny object of polished metal. Shaped along the general lines of the planet Saturn, it hangs suspended before the infinite background, and seems hardly to move.

             VOICE (CONTINUING O.S.)
        United Planets Cruiser C-57-D, 
        travelling at 16 times the speed 
        of light, and already more than 
        a year out from Earth Base on a 
        special mission to the Fourth 
        World in the System of Alpha 
        Aquilae, the great main-sequence 
        star Altair.....



(From the screenplay, Forbidden Planet, by Cyril Hume, dated 8-26-54)

Perhaps the greatest science fiction film ever made, Forbidden Planet, will be re-made. While this is old news, I have gathered some information and have some thoughts as to how I would do it if it were up to me.

Has anyone ever done this before? Has anyone speculated in print and offered their own ideas for a re-make of a classic film that is in the works as such speculation is made? Normally, if you aren’t the writer hired for the job, it is seen as irrelevant not to mention jumping the gun (and perhaps “the shark”). My ideas may fall well short of the result. On the other hand, they may set “the bar’s” height, throw down a gauntlet indicating to the film-makers that they have a great responsibility in re-making such a classic. Or, maybe this will establish a record of what could have been. When it comes to my favorite films, FP is in the top 10 or 20. I can’t sit idly by and watch it get the same treatment another favorite, The Haunting, got. I have to get on record my thoughts for how it could be done properly.

If you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet, and you’re interested, I suggest you stop now and find a way to see it. Allow for the fact that it is over 50 years old, and pre-dates Star Trek by 10 years, and Star Wars by 21 years. Place it in its context, the 1950s, and then note how far above the competition it was way back in 1956. Light-years, in fact. Remember Plan 9 From Outer Space? How about Zsa Zsa Gabor in Queen of Outer Space? That film even used FP’s costumes!:

A great and informative essay on the film by Charles Tashiro offers some background:

Based on a screen treatment entitled "Fatal Planet" by Irving Block and Allen Adler, the film also takes at least equal inspiration from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The film might have ended up just another "B" movie quickie, as laughable as most of its contemporaries, had it not been for the interest of producer Nicholas Nayfack. Nayfack, working at MGM, interested the studio in the story. The involvement of MGM's top art department insured a higher level of special effects expertise than was previously available to most makers of science-fiction films.

With the help of MGM's special effects wizards, the wonders of the Krell world unfold before us. Invisible feet leave portentous footprints in the dirt; a "plastic educator" miraculously visualizes a man's thoughts; men cross over level upon level of self-repairing factories, stretching into seeming infinity; a mischievous monkey gets playfully zapped by an ever-attentive robot. In fact, the special effects department even contributed towards the creation of the film's most memorable character, Robby the Robot. Robby's charmingly superior manner, part Gentleman's Gentleman, part Shakespearean clown, part pot-bellied stove, influenced scores of imitators, from the Michelin man to C3PO.

If Forbidden Planet is The Tempest, it's Shakespeare crossed with Frankenstein and a good mystery story. For at the core of the movie is an enigma, the Krell. The Krell remain the great unknown in the dramatic equation of Forbidden Planet. If Morbius' description of them as a "mighty and noble race" is correct, there's still a nagging doubt -- if they were so mighty, why did they disappear? And as the achievements of their civilization are revealed, that doubt deepens.

Viewers familiar with the genre will recognize several ingredients: saucer-shaped spaceships; Man in a united federation, exploring the galaxy; hints of a lost civilization with super-human powers; a supercilious robot serving as dry-witted chorus to the human action; casual interplay between a stern ship commander and his more relaxed officers. But to catalogue these familiar moments increases Forbidden Planet's stature, since most of these elements appeared here first.

In hindsight we recognize a classic, but Forbidden Planet was a risky venture for the people who made it. In 1956, there was little precedent for an expensive bit of speculative fiction. Happily, the film made a profit in its initial release. But while the film continues to fascinate and influence, its greatest accomplishment was to prove that science fiction was a genre worth taking seriously. If there had been no Forbidden Planet, there might not have been a 2001 or Star Wars or Close Encounters. It's gratifying to see that the film that helped make them possible still holds its own with the best of them.
There have been rumblings about a re-make of the film for over a decade. In 2008 it was reported that screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, The Changeling [2008]) was working on a script for producer, Joel Silver:

"I’ve always wanted to do something involving Forbidden Planet," Straczynski told MTV News. "It’s my favorite science-fiction film of all time. I’ve watched the rights go from one company to the next. I heard that the rights at Dreamworks were about to expire and I went to Joel Silver and said I think if you move quickly you can grab it and I can write it. And he did. It’s the dream of a lifetime to play in that universe."
"I told [producer] Joel [Silver] this is how you do Forbidden Planet without pissing on the original that no one has ever thought of," said Straczynski. "When I told [the idea] to him, his eyes lit up. It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not exactly a prequel. You’ll have to see it. It’s something that no one has thought of when it comes to this storyline."
Straczynski will be paying close attention to detail, with the writer revealing conversations he's had to ensure the film is as scientifically attuned as possible. "[When coming] up with the Krell backstory and who they are, I sat down with some of the nation's best minds in astrophysics and planetary geology and A.I. and asked them -- based on what we know now -- what will a million years from now look like? The goal is to put things in there you’ve never seen before."

As for the 1954 film's retro look, audiences can expect an updated vision that keeps the original's iconic nature in mind. "At the time it was made it was cutting edge," Straczynski explained. "They weren’t trying to be 'retro' -- they thought they were right on the cutting edge. People that went to see that film saw things they had never seen before. What we have to do now is have this one be as innovative now as the original was then. It doesn’t mean we should look backwards."

Also, in 2008, it was reported that director James Cameron was interested in directing the film. Then, in early 2009, it was announced that the project had been cancelled due to web leaks. A little less than a year ago, this appeared, telling us that screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, was still working on the script. The news that he was still actively involved was encouraging because he is a pretty good screenwriter. He, in turn, described how he wanted to remain faithful to the original while adding back-story and leaving room for a sequel:

"We've actually decided to show more of the first ship when it first arrived 20 years earlier to sort of counterpoint what's happening in the present story," Straczynski said in a group interview Saturday in Hollywood. "If you're a fan of the original, as I am, and have always been, I think it's very faithful to that." Warner Brothers owns the rights. The biggest worry about the Forbidden Planet remake could be that the studio would turn it into a straight-up action movie. The original was carried by dialogue as Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), one of the planet's two survivors, explained scientific theory to the visiting astronauts. Tension between the astronauts and Dr. Morbius' daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), filled in the rest. Straczynski says not to worry. "There's a little more action, but it's still a strong character piece, because it's based on The Tempest and the idea of a father whose daughter is being courted by, in the original play, sailors that are washed up on shore," Straczynski said. "You need to have that dynamic still in place to respect the original and the source material. So there's a fair amount of talking, but there's some really cool action pieces in it as well."

Though somewhat out-of-date, another website, David’s Forbidden Planet, offers more information.

I've laid hands on a copy of J Michael Straczynski's script for the re-make of Forbidden Planet. I will read and comment in an upcoming update to this post.

L.M., 09/29/2010
I've read the Straczynski script and can report that it is terrific. Since Mr. Straczynski has already reported this himself, I can tell you that it reaches back to the events before the original movie. But it does more than that. In certain very cool ways, it is a re-imagining, and it takes the story to some very exciting places. It is imaginitive in the extreme, though I would have loved to see some of the ideas I present below in it. 

I will not give away the story because I don't want to hurt its chances. For those who want to read it, it is findable, but not through search engine efforts. It will take serious effort unless you know the places to look. Know this: the material is in good hands, and if it is produced, the writing is well-realized, and it is superbly-cast and directed, it will become that rare animal, a re-make that honors, rivals, and has a chance to surpass the original. 

L.M., 09/30/2010

So, while we’ve seen such great intentions fall hard in the past, with some few reservations: “It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not exactly a prequel. You’ll have to see it. It’s something that no one has thought of when it comes to this storyline.", and, “backstory” (read this: “exposition,” the kiss-of-death in screenwriting, simultaneously desirable and sometimes required, but with life-altering potential). With such caveats, then, these “elements” (Joel Silver and J. Michael Straczynski) still look promising.

I’ve wanted to write my own re-make for a long time, and, though disappointed that it won’t be me, I am excited at the prospect of a new film. I’ve commented on re-makes before. When there are good, solid reasons to justify them—in this case technology, primarily—I am all for it.

This film stands, for me, as one of the greatest sci-fi films (and stories) of all time. In one go, it reached the sublime potential that Star Trek was always trying to reach (and only did a few times).

Now, with its 1950s sensibilities, it seems dated. The military-styled space-ship and crew; the short-skirted blonde love interest, Altaira; the testosterone-oozing male rivals vying for her; the comic-relief of the boozing cook convincing Robby to make up a batch of hooch; all of these elements, while charming in a “campy” and nostalgic sort of way, would need updating, muting, or elimination entirely.

Still, the story underlying all of those is sound. It can and should underlie a re-make. That’s why that re-quote above from Straczynski mildly worries me. It could go too far off the spine and end up like those awful horror re-makes (The Haunting, 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill [Prod. Joel Silver], House of Wax [Prod. Joel Silver], etc.).

But let’s do something new, let’s speculate: what if I were re-making Forbidden Planet? (Fun! I get to lay out my ideas without violating copyright. It’s all just “what if?”)
First, let’s remind ourselves of the basic scenario: Far in the future, an interstellar colony ship travels to the Altair star system and is never heard from again. Decades later, a rescue ship with new, faster propulsion technology, arrives and is warned off by colonist, Edward Morbius. The rescuers land anyway. Eventually they make contact with the survivors: only Morbius and his daughter, Altaira (conceived en-route, her survivor-mother is now dead), remain, along with a remarkable robot, Robby, built by Morbius. The film’s action, then, is the story of what happened in the past, and what is done about it now.

The attractions of the film for me include:

  • Altair-4, the truly alien world – though it is not that it is inhospitably alien, but rather that it is just weirdly alien enough.

  • Robby, the Robot – because he is human-like, yet pure technology; smart and powerful, yet endearing.

  • The long since vanished Krell – because they are so impressive and because of the mystery of their disappearance.

  • The Krell’s brain-booster as a means to enhance and amplify the mind.

  • The idea of “monsters from the id” as a concept.

So, in asking myself, “What could be done with these that would make the film worth updating?” I’ve come up with the following:

--Increase the time interval from 20 years to 50 to better reflect the scale of things. Morbius, while unable to prevent his wife’s death, has, since arriving, somehow halted his and Altaira’s aging so that he remains at age 45, and Altaira at age 25, rather than at their true ages of 95 and 50, respectively.

--The alien world could be better realized through CGI and great production design. First, the planet, Altair-4, could become just an entry-way to the real world of the Krell, a fantastically larger world (think Larry Niven’s Ringworld scale): perhaps a web-world, a spherical geodesic construct of inter-connected arteries composed of dark matter enclosing the star, Altair, itself. These, in turn, would inter-connect dark matter-composed, planet-sized nodes, serving as habitats. And all of it would be, as is dark matter, itself, unseen. Perhaps it is out-of-phase with known reality so that, like dark matter itself, it is un-detected until deduced by its absence, or, in this case, through the brain-booster machine. And then it is entered into, revealing itself as a series of worlds fantastically more varied (think monumentally huge, wildly colorful, full of exotic life), with vast, deserted cities full of inscrutable Krell technology. And, all of it powered by an infinity of dark energy drawn from the never-ending oceans of “emptiness” surrounding and enclosing it, the universe itself.

--Robby, in this updated version, built by Morbius using the Krell’s brain-boost interface, is an artificial being, a man-child, yet, with immense mental abilities. He’s a being who intellectually experiences everything humans do, but does so, amplified exponentially through the collective knowledge-base of the Krell. He’s a character who has the wisdom of an ancient: vast awareness, deep empathy for human potential, respect for human tragedy, and an appreciation of basic noble and ethical goodness. He’s a character with the innocence of a child, someone who is a kind of reversal of the God/Man-perfect/imperfect relationship: though artificial, he is immortal, attuned to the finest, most delicate of human subtleties, capable of the greatest technological and mental achievements, and so, better than his creator. And he’s someone who has extrapolated humanity’s future and seen its destiny, yet, knowing what such knowledge might do, resists all human efforts toward gaining its revelation.

--The Krell, an ancient race from another star in another galaxy that was entirely consumed by the super-massive black hole the galaxy once surrounded. They re-located to the Altair system and transformed it as humanity finds it, having evolved on a far-slower scale than that of humanity. They took 20 million years of their own evolution to reach space, compared to humanity’s 1 million (since the dawn of Homo Erectus), and they took another 5,000 years to achieve interstellar travel compared to humanity’s 200. This implies that humanity has far more potential than the Krell because it learns faster. The Progenitors, a race the Krell encountered when they first ventured into space, millions of years ago, a race long-vanished, who were from a first-generation star system and therefore perhaps the first-generation life form, billions of years older, even, than the Krell. Despite the unimaginable vastness of the universe, it was the Progenitors who understood how much the product of accident and fortuitous coincidence, and therefore, how rare, intelligent life, as opposed to mere life, truly is. When, finally, after searching for eons, the only intelligence the Progenitors ever found was the Krell, they engineered their own discovery by the Krell in order to amplify the Krell’s progress. It worked, and the Krell learned much of their titanic knowledge from that discovery. Now, the Krell, too, have vanished (Morbius’s tests confirm the last Krell walked these corridors more than a billion years prior). What happened to them? Could their discovery by humanity have been intentional, to amplify us, just as they had been amplified before us? And, if so, what is our destiny? And how must we wield such knowledge, such power? For whom? For what purpose?

--The brain-booster isn’t merely a device that enhances a neural structure such as a human brain, but rather, it is a device that makes a human mind fully active, “turned all the way up to its physiological maximum,” so that it, in turn, is now capable of interfacing with the artificial “neural network” of the Krell, themselves. Yet even this capability does not gain them access to the full Krell/Progenitor knowledge-base. Only Robby, among them, can access that. Much as the light of the sun blinds, humans would be overwhelmed by the immensity of Krell/Progenitor experience and their combined intellectual power. They would die in the attempt. So they gain the towering mental potential from which the Krell built their world, their technology and its potential, but only at the lowest, most rudimentary level. And yet, even that is a level Robby tells them humans would not otherwise reach for tens of thousands of years of progress and evolution.

--Monsters from the id: a notion that, using the Krell brain boosting device, a being’s darker side will be boosted along with the lighter, ego-side, that the now-super-powerful id is able to manifest as a monstrous negative force, physically composed (in our updated version) of dark-“anti”-matter, and drawing upon the dark energy powering the still-running Krell infrastructure. This entity, the super-id, now threatens through un-bridled power to dominate and defeat the undefended super-ego and so the being, itself. This detail, in our update, is ultimately seen to be a “device,” a “cipher,” trickery designed to mis-direct, to shield and conceal the truth of what happened to both the Krell and their own mentor-race, the Progenitors: that the Krell and their predecessors both hide, effectively in plain sight, by having enfolded themselves and their existence within the dimensions of 11-dimension (M-Theory) space. They have, in fact, shrunk down to an existence at a sub-atomic, quantum foam level of vibrational energy where demands of the physical, baryonic self, survival, energy-dependence, influences of environment (including, even, time) are non-existent. They live now in a place where even the far-future heat-death of the universe will not end their existence. It amounts to a kind of “heaven,” open only to beings whose mental states and physical capabilities have advanced to the point where they can transit into such an existence. It is, in fact, a state lying at the end of humanity’s evolutionary path, provided it can make it without destroying itself or dying out in some other way. In the end, our humans finally communicate with the Krell (the Progenitors, too), through Robby, whose ultimate tragedy is that while he can see essentially all, he cannot achieve such existence himself.

--So the ending is, at first, a titanic battle with the id-monster; ultimately it is, with a dying Robby’s help (mortally damaged by battling the id), seen as a battle with one’s own reason, and when they realize that and convince Morbius of the truth of it, his own ego pushes the monster aside as easily as one swats a mosquito. But it’s too late for Robby, and too late to save the Altair system and the Krell’s stellar habitat, now irretrievably disintegrating under the onslaught of the id monster’s assault. The star, Altair, itself now boosted by the Krell power generators falling into it, is in a run-up to going super-nova. This allows them just enough time to phase-change out of the dark-matter web-world and back to the gateway on Altair-4, and so escape to their ship and out of the system. So Morbius and his daughter live, but Robby and all he knew and could connect to: the Krell, the Progenitors, and the knowledge of the universe, itself, all of it is lost until the time humanity either achieves it of its own evolution, or fails in the attempt.

All of these ideas could be terrifically-realized by state-of-the-art motion picture technology and production design. And none of these ideas violate the essential premise, the core spine, of Forbidden Planet. For me they make for a worth-while re-make, a Forbidden Planet for today.

Since this is kind of a first, a speculation on the re-making of a film I/we can never participate in, a film that is in active pre-production, your thoughts, reactions, and ideas would be interesting. Maybe the film-makers will notice us and take heed. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quotes of the Post:

“…its greatest accomplishment was to prove that science fiction was a genre worth taking seriously. If there had been no Forbidden Planet, there might not have been a 2001 or Star Wars or Close Encounters.”                
---Charles Tashiro
“…and there certainly wouldn’t have been a Star Trek!”                               
---The Last Reveal

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