A Sci-Fi version of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST is such a nifty idea, it almost makes up for the dull, dull CinemaScope megging of Fred M. Wilcox, a specialist in kiddie weepies with Lassie or Margaret O’Brien. Still, many of the effects still look pretty cool: like animated electro-surge blasts and some stupendous matte paintings to suggest miles of underground laboratories. In this telling, Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius, who rules over his ultra-advanced planet with only a daughter & a dutiful robot, is more megalomaniac Captain Nemo than a proper Prospero, but the rest of the characters line up pretty accurately with the play: Anne Francis - Miranda; Leslie Nielsen - Ferdinand; Earl Holliman - Stefano and Trinculo; Robbie the Robot - Ariel. And, in the most intriguing rethink, the wild Caliban (who Shakespeare probably thought of as Native American after reports coming from Virginia) is a sort of ectoplasmatic charge of dynamic energy, subconsciously generated out of Pidgeon’s ‘id.’ Lively thinking, but too often buried under hideous set & color-design, flat dialogue with acting to match (though hubba-hubba for the young Anne Francis), and Wilcox’s edit-shy mid-range shooting style. (The soporific electronic score doesn’t help, either.) But lots of fun for ‘50s Sci-Fi fanciers in a rare big budget for the genre at the time; and useful as a sort of CliffsNotes for any Star Trek oriented Shakespearean.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The script really misses a trick when Holliman sneaks off to collect a batch of illicit whiskey, courtesy of Robbie the Robot. In the original, Stefano & Trinculo get plastered with Caliban. Zounds!, what a challenge for this adaptation since the monster is pure thought & energy, without tangible mass. Literally unable to hold his liquor.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: TV versions of THE TEMPEST have played things ‘straight,’ but film adaptations can’t leave well enough alone. Gender reversals, modernizations, one-man recitations, played as a Western . . . the works. Or rather, everything but the work. Frustrating.
DOUBLE-BILL: Hardcore RtR fans can see Robbie go out of control in THE INVISIBLE BOY/’57; OR: In a Jose Ferrer episode of COLUMBO - ‘Mind Over Mayhem,’ where he’s programmed by a little boy genius boy cheekily named ‘Steve Spelberg.’