Forbidden Planet boasts better special effects than Hollywood had bestowed upon any science-fiction movie that came before it

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Thanks to the efforts of the Warner Bros. reconstruction crew, the studio was able to restore MGM's 1956 "Forbidden Planet" to its former glory in honor of its fiftieth anniversary. It looked pretty good in its standard-definition transfer, and it looks and sounds even better in HD-DVD. That's not to say it looks like it was made yesterday, but it should satisfy its admirers.;

Critics often cite this film as the most-important science-fiction movie up until its time, and I won't argue. I was in the sixth grade when it appeared, and I couldn't wait to see it. It was the "Star Wars" of its time. The studio advertised it on cereal boxes and lunch pails, and Robby the Robot became a household name. If today it doesn't quite live up to its reputation, it's through no fault of WB, who have given it their best shot in this restored, high-definition, widescreen transfer, with a remastered Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack on an HD-DVD that duplicates the materials the studio included in their two-disc special-edition set.

"Forbidden Planet" boasts better special effects than Hollywood had bestowed upon any science-fiction movie that came before it, and I remember being wowed by them as a kid. In fact, it would not be until Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking "2001: A Space Odyssey" over a dozen years later that any movie would surpass its visual magic. Then, of course, once Kubrick topped everything that came before it with uncanny realism, all bets were off. "Forbidden Planet" didn't look quite so spectacular anymore. Nevertheless, in this new Cinemascope color restoration, it still looks pretty good.

Based on a fanciful reworking of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," of all things, plus a psychological treatise on the id, "Forbidden Planet" is a forerunner of things like "Star Trek," "Star Wars," and "Lost in Space." Surely, there is more than coincidence involved in the "Trek" ship's crew and the one in this film, and surely the androids in Lucas's movie originated somewhere around here. The less said about "Lost in Space," the better. The psychology and Shakespeare angles, though, are ones where "Forbidden Planet" must concede a good deal to Freud and the Bard, but at least the film had sense enough to echo the best.

You may remember Shakespeare's tale of Prospero the magician, banished to a deserted isle with his daughter and their experiences with enemies, spirits, beasts, slaves, and conjurations. In our movie, it's the year 2200 A.D., and Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) have been stranded for twenty years on a desolate planet in a faraway solar system, waited upon by the doctor's trusted servant, the robot he has created, Robby. Coming to their rescue is Captain J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielson, in his pre-funnyman days) and a crew of intrepid outer-space explorers. Interestingly, space explorers of the twenty-third century are all white males between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. Must be a law they passed.

Morbius isn't too keen on being rescued. He says it's too dangerous to land, but Capt. Adams is insistent. They haven't come all this way for nothing. Morbius tells them that there is "some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force" holding the planet in its grip, and that "some devilish thing that never once showed itself" tore his companions apart limb from limb many years before. Ever since, Morbius has sensed the creature close at hand and in his dreams.

The first half of the movie goes by somewhat slowly, mostly plodding talk, but director Fred M. Wilcox ("Lassie Come Home," "The Secret Garden") finally brings the second half to life. Here, we learn about the Krell, the advanced but long-extinct civilization that once inhabited the planet, and their fantastic technology. It's here, too, that not only does the id come into play but a good dose of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as well.

In its favor, Pidgeon's acting embellishes the story with the seriousness of his approach, which tends to raise the film's level from corny sci-fi to a higher intellectualism. There is also a wonderfully spacey, atmospheric musical score, called "electronic tonalities," by Louis and Bebe Barron, some very impressive scenes in the Krell's underground facilities, and, of course, Robby the Robot (voiced by actor Marvin Miller), who steals the show, upstaging everybody in every scene he's in.

Tending to work against the film, at least, I would guess, for many of today's younger audience, are the movie's costumes, color schemes, and set designs, all of which reflect the hard, angular, ultramodern styles of the 1950s (think early "Star Trek" here also). Then, too, the outdoor scenes often suffer from being too stage bound, not always looking like the vast planet-scapes they're depicting. Ms. Francis's skimpy skirts, a romantic rivalry between the Captain and his Executive Officer (Jack Kelly), the inevitably wise ship's doctor (Warren Stevens), and a cook (Earl Holliman) whom the filmmakers clearly intended as light comic relief may also come across as more than a bit melodramatic.

But despite elements that can seem clichéd today, "Forbidden Planet" has a strong sense of maturity about it, a kind of moral imperative that "Star Trek" episodes would often emulate years later. The movie asks the fundamental question raised by "The Tempest": If you had all the power in the universe, how would you exercise it against your foes? Besides that, the film is still pleasant on the eyes. It's best to enjoy it for what it is and not for what you might want it to be.

MGM spared no expense on the production, filming in 2.40:1 ratio CinemaScope and Eastman color. Likewise, Warner Bros. spared no expense digitally restoring the film and transferring it to HD-DVD in its original widescreen ratio. My objections to the film's standard-definition reproduction was that while it did a good job with black levels, natural hues, and object delineation, it tended to make images a tad dark, and it pointed up the film's inherent grain. The result was free of age but not so smooth as a more-recent film might look.

With the exception of the film no longer looking quite so dark to me, its grain still shows up to an extent that makes the picture appear a tad rough. However, it is slightly more detailed now in high definition, with better flesh tones than in standard def. Robby's mechanical body seems more metallic, Morbius's lab instruments, and the vast underground Krell power plants are more realistic than ever. The better definition creates a bit more dimensionality in the image, too. There is not as much difference as in some SD/HD comparisons I've made, a result of WB's already fine, high-bit-rate, anamorphic standard-definition transfer, but there is enough difference to make the HD-DVD picture that much better.

Like many older films in stereo, this one has voices that follow the characters realistically left and right across the sound stage rather than being anchored out in the center channel. Nonetheless, like the regular Dolby Digital 5.1 on the standard-def disc, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remastering doesn't display a very wide front-channel spread, and there is still very little surround activity beyond some small musical and noise enhancement. Otherwise, like the regular DD 5.1 track, the DD+ sound is fairly quiet--a little hiss at volume--and well balanced, with the DD+ exhibiting perhaps a touch stronger dynamics and an overall cleaner, clearer response. If anything, I'd say I noticed a greater difference in the improved DD+ sound than in the improved HD picture, but that may only be my imagination. Certainly, there is more air around the dialogue and sound effects now.

The HD-DVD contains all of the items found on WB's 50th Anniversary Edition, and that's quite a lot. First among the extras is an entire bonus movie, Robby the Robot's follow-up film from 1957, "The Invisible Boy." The ninety-minute, black-and-white, widescreen motion picture is quite juvenile, as expected, and it was the first of many subsequent appearances by the celebrated robot, one of his most recent being a cameo in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" (2003). You might want to proceed through "The Invisible Boy" at your own risk, but the transfer is very clean, if slightly soft.

Following the bonus movie, there are three newly made documentaries. The first is the TCM original, "Watch the Skies: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us," fifty-five minutes long and divided into twelve chapters. Mark Hamill narrates, and it contains comments by directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron, among others. The second documentary is "Amazing: Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet," twenty-six minutes long with film-specific commentary by Anne Francis (looking as lovely today as she did fifty years ago), Leslie Nielson, Earl Holliman, Warren Stevens, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis, and various other filmmakers, writers, and film historians. The final documentary is "Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon," thirteen minutes on the famous, walking-talking mechanical device.

Next, you'll find about thirteen minutes of deleted scenes, a series of eleven "work prints," actually, often quite rough, and nine more minutes of lost footage, rare test scenes that have spent the last fifty years locked away in a film vault. After those things are a couple of excerpts from the "MGM Parade" television show, with host Walter Pidgeon telling us about "Forbidden Planet" and Robby the Robot. Then, speaking of Robby, there is "Robot Client," a 1958 episode of "The Thin Man" TV series with Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk, and Robby. And that's followed by a science-fiction theatrical trailer gallery that includes trailers for "Forbidden Planet," "The Thing from Another World," "The Time Machine," "Them," and four others.

The extras conclude with twenty-five scene selections but no chapter insert, English, French, and Spanish spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As always, WB also include pop-up menus, an indicator of elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
Nothing is probably as good as one's memory makes it, so if it's been a while since you last saw "Forbidden Planet," you could be a tad disappointed. However, taken in the right spirit, and despite the rather silly tone it sometimes strikes, the film does delve into some intelligent issues, and Pidgeon's acting elevates the proceedings well above the ordinary. Visually, the film is no match for today's computer-graphic extravaganzas, but on HD-DVD it holds its own. So, with minor reservations, I'd say "Forbidden Planet" remains one of Hollywood's better sci-fi accomplishments.


Film Value