TCM GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS: SCI-FI (2001, SOYLENT GREEN, FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE TIME MACHINE) - DVD review

...a relatively easy way for fans to acquire a large number of great motion pictures for very little money.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

As I've said before, Warner Bros. own what is probably the most extensive back catalogue of great older films on Earth, and they never tire of devising new ways to repackage them. In 2009 they began a series of sets they call the "TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Greatest Classic Films Collection," which package four classic movies per set. Although the studio released all of the films separately before, the collections are a relatively easy way for fans to acquire a large number of great motion pictures for very little money. Indeed, these sets are among the best values in the history of DVDs.

The set reviewed here, "Sci-Fi," is in WB's third wave of collections and offers one so-so sci-fi film, one good sci-fi film, one excellent sci-fi film, and one genuine sci-fi ultimate classic. (For the other collections in WB's third wave, see the closing paragraph.) Each set contains two double-sided DVDs, one movie per side, enclosed in a double slim-line keep case, with a slipcover and unique bonus materials. If there is any concern at all with the set, it's an issue we can all live with: That is having to mention "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Soylent Green" in the breath. Nevertheless, let's look at the movies chronologically.

FORBIDDEN PLANET
Critics often cite MGM's 1956 release "Forbidden Planet" 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 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 Warner Bros., who have done it up in a restored widescreen transfer, with a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

"Forbidden Planet" boasted better special effects than Hollywood had bestowed upon any science-fiction movie 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," 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 and his daughter, banished to a deserted isle, and their experiences with enemies, spirits, beasts, slaves, and conjurations. In the movie, it's the year 2200 A.D., and Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) find themselves 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 rather 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 by the seriousness of his approach, which tends to raise the film's level from melodramatic 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 movie, 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. 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 corny.

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.

Film rating: 7/10

THE TIME MACHINE
Among the opportunities that home video has afforded us is the chance to revisit some of the favorite sci-fi fantasy films of our youth. To a young imagination, one of the true classics was George Pal's 1960 production of H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine." It may not hold up to close scrutiny today, but it is always good to welcome back an old friend, timeworn or not.

As far as the story goes, the filmmakers managed to mislay most of Mr. Wells' eloquent language and philosophical questions in favor of a simplified "Classics Illustrated" approach. Rod Taylor ("The Birds," "Do Not Disturb") stars as H.G. Wells himself, only he's not a writer in the story, he's an inventor. Australian-born but thoroughly Americanized Taylor does his best to effect an English accent, but, regrettably, it comes and goes. The year is just before the turn of the twentieth century, and Wells has contrived his famous "time machine." In fact, the machine itself is the best part of the picture, all ornate mahogany, brass, velvet, and crystal, looking very much the Victorian artifact it's supposed to be. Taylor uses it to propel himself through two World Wars, a nuclear holocaust, and on to the year 802701. There he discovers that civilization has degenerated into two classes of people--the Eloi, beautiful, young, and passive, and the Morlocks, ugly and destructive. The names tell the story. The Eloi live above ground in a virtual paradise, but they have no culture, do no work, and have practically no minds; they are mere vegetables. The troglodyte Morlocks live underground and feed off the Eloi. In fact, they breed the Eloi as food, much as we breed cattle and sheep, taking them down into their subterranean caverns to butcher and eat them. Needless to say, this societal split gives the story some small room for moralizing and some room for Taylor heroically to show the Eloi a better way of living. Yeah, like not dying. Besides Taylor, the cast includes Alan Young as the hero's best friend; Yvette Mimeux as the hero's Eloi love interest; and Sebastian Cabot as a doctor who scoffs at the idea of time travel.

I appreciate that screenwriter David Duncan and director George Pal chose to keep the initial time frame in Wells's own day, 1899, as well as keep the place setting, England, rather than try to modernize the story or put it somewhere else. In the two major film versions of Wells's "The War of the World" (1953 and 2005), for instance, the filmmakers updated the time setting and relocated the physical setting to America. "The Time Machine" remains more true to Wells's intentions and retains its period charm. However, I could have done without some of the filmmakers' plot changes, especially the nuclear war they placed in 1966. Maybe before video tape and DVDs, filmmakers thought less about the longevity of their products, in this case figuring that at the height of the Cold War in 1960 it would be a good topical touch to show a devastating holocaust just a few years in the future. Viewed today it just seems silly. I mean, the filmmakers had thousands of years to play with, yet they chose 1966 to destroy the world; obviously, they didn't figure audiences might still be watching their movie fifty years on.

Other picky faults stand out today in "The Time Machine" that I hadn't noticed as a kid. The several fight scenes between Taylor and the Morlocks look badly choreographed, Taylor's punches clearly missing their targets by a foot or more while the soundtrack supplies some feeble contact noise. The filmmakers use cheap, five-and-dime-store toy cars in a scene where lava envelops a city street. Exceptionally phony miniatures attempt to replicate the Morlock's underground empire being destroyed. We see a Morlock set afire wearing a blazing sweater that we suppose to be his skin. OK, admittedly these criticisms were products of the film's budget constraints; what I always thought of as a lavish production turns out on closer inspection to be a low-budget affair, the whole project coming in, according the accompanying documentary, at about $750,000. Nowadays you couldn't hire a leading actor for that money. There's little excuse for the detail oversights, though. For example, where do the Eloi, who do no work, get their perfectly fitting clothes? Surely not from the Morlocks, who don't even appear capable of clothing themselves properly. And how do the Eloi women manage such meticulous hair styles, and who supplies their makeup and their false eyelashes? And how do the men shave or cut their hair without knives, razors, or electricity? And, worst of all, how can we believe that the English language would remain unchanged for over three-quarters of a million years? Most of us can't even understand what our kids are saying today. But I harp on trivialities. This is a comic-book adaptation with comic-book sensibilities.

Film rating: 6/10

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
"2001" does nothing less than attempt to deal with some of the ultimate questions of the universe: Who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going? The movie deals with the evolution of the human race and then muses on the probability that not only is Mankind not alone in the universe, but that we may have had outside help with our development. The screenplay, co-authored by Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, contains little plot and even less dialogue. Yet it conveys through its eloquent, often majestic images and creative inferences answers to age-old mysteries. Clarke said the film was "...an attempt to convey the probable place of Man in the hierarchy of the universe." Clarke went on to write three more books about the continuing adventure, in the process providing too much banal explanation for the far more imaginative possibilities he and Kubrick first proposed in "2001." Yet if one can put aside the author's later over-clarifications, one can revel in the film's endless mysteries and argue interpretations until the suns come up. Alternatively, if viewers prefer not to think about any of it at all, they can take pleasure in just watching the gorgeous scenery and listening to the atmospheric music. Again and again.

The film opens with Richard Strauss's introductory fanfare to "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and can you think of a more-famous opening shot? From there Kubrick divides the movie into four parts, each punctuated by the director's use of classical music to set the tone. In the first part, "The Dawn of Man," humankind's ancient, apelike ancestors learn to use tools through the influence of a giant, black monolith that suddenly appears in their midst. In the second part, "From Earth to the Moon" (preceded by one of the most audacious edits in the history of cinema--a split second that jumps millions of years), humans discover a giant, black monolith identical to the first one, buried under the lunar surface, apparently projecting a signal into space. In the third part, "Jupiter Mission," Earth sends several astronauts in the direction indicated by the moon monolith. And in the final part, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," there is yet another monolith, which leads one of the astronauts on a final, mind-bending adventure into galactic rebirth. The film implies that some unidentified higher powers have been guiding Earth's progress and destiny for eons.

There are only a few important characters in the film. The first is Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), head of the space agency that assigns the astronauts their mission to Jupiter. The next are astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). And the last is the HAL 9000 computer, with his easygoing voice (Douglas Rain) and maddening penchant for insisting on always being right. Arthur C. Clarke denied that he chose the initials HAL because they are one letter removed from IBM. Coincidence, I guess. In any case, John Eastman in his book "Retakes" says that "Kubrick had originally named the computer Athena, which would speak with a woman's voice; then he decided to name it by combining the acronym of 'heuristic' and 'algorithmic,' the two principal learning systems." Anyway, HAL has more personality than any of the other characters in the movie, a clue that this is a story of sights, sounds, and ideas rather than a story of human relationships. The American Film Institute voted HAL the thirteenth greatest villain in movie history.

The final twenty minutes or so of the movie contain what was in 1968 a state-of-the-art audiovisual show that delighted every pot-smoking hippie as well as every buttoned-down pencil pusher on the planet. It still makes a stunning impression today, and we can easily see how it influenced future films, like the similar climactic visuals in "Contact." For that matter, the whole structure of "Contact" owes much to "2001," a tribute to the older film's continuing impact on storytelling and filmmaking.

The production does not appear dated at all, except perhaps the women's hair and clothing styles and some of the space station's furniture. Additionally, no one in 1968 could have foreseen that in the real year 2001 we would have almost abandoned the moon as a destination for scientific inquiry, that transportation giant Pan Am would have gone out of business, or that phone calls from an orbiting space station would cost more than $1.70 to Earth. Certainly, nothing about the special effects looks dated, thanks mainly to the imagination of producer/director Kubrick and the wizardry of special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and others. It's easy to see how "Star Wars," "Close Encounters," "Alien," "Contact," and the rest owe their graphic origins to "2001."

Film rating: 10/10

SOYLENT GREEN
You might say 1973's "Soylent Green" is the odd-man out here. Star Charlton Heston had by this time forsaken the swords and sandals of "Ben-Hur," "The Ten Commandments," and "El Cid" for the world of sci-fi in films like "Planet of the Apes," "The Omega Man," and "Soylent Green." Unfortunately, he should have stayed in the robes and sandals because viewed today his sci-fi flicks seem dated and square. Frankly, this movie seems oddly out of place in a collection of more illustrious sci-fi classics.

In "Soylent Green," directed by Richard Fleischer ("20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "Fantastic Voyage") from a novel by Harry Harrison, the year is 2022 and urban blight, air pollution, water pollution, and overpopulation have all but destroyed the world. People are starving, and the government's answer is a concoction of high-energy foods, the most popular of which is Soylent Green, supposedly "garnered from the oceans of the world." No one eats real food anymore; it's too rare and too expensive.

New York City, where the story takes place, is a genuine mess, so hot, dusty, and dilapidated a person can hardly go outside. The city fathers have petitioned it off, with the rich living in relative luxury behind walls and guards, and the poor living in stairwells and allies. When people die, which is often, the city takes them outside the perimeter for "waste disposal." The thing is, this world still looks like 1973, with early Seventies clothing and typically Seventies garish colors. What's more, the men all wear long sideburns and longish hair. Nothing dates an old movie more than hair styles.

Heston plays a policeman named Thorn who investigates the death of a rich guy named Simonson (Joseph Cotten). It looks like a simple burglary gone wrong, but Thorn suspects it was a deliberate murder, an assassination, perhaps with the involvement of Simonson's bodyguard, Tab (Chuck Connors). With the help of several other people--his partner and roommate, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his final screen appearance), Chief of Detectives Hatcher (Brock Peters), and Simonson's mistress, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young)--Thorn delves into the crime, leading him eventually to a shocking government conspiracy.

Here's the thing: If you're looking for a penetrating, thought-provoking analysis of global problems or a in-depth study of human emotions and interactions, you won't find them in "Soylent Green." The characters are one-dimensional and the plot is mechanical and predictable. Well, it's a dog-eat-dog world.

"Soylent Green" is a movie based on an ending. And you'll see the ending coming early on in the movie.

Film rating: 5/10

Video:
MGM spared no expense filming "Forbidden Planet" in a 2.40:1 ratio CinemaScope and in Eastman color. WB's anamorphic transfer reproduces strong black levels, natural hues, and fairly sharp object delineation, but it also tends to make the images emerge a tad dark, too, and it points up the film's inherent grain. The result appears less smooth than more-recent films might look.

The Warner engineers present "The Time Machine" in its original 1.85:1 ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The colors are bright, vivid, and alive, with little color bleed-through. In the climactic scenes in the Morlock underground, the hues tend to fade somewhat in the dark, but overall it's a better print than one might expect.

The transfer of "2001" conveys all of the picture's rich, deep, crystal-clear colors, while the screen size captures the movie's Super-Panavision Cinerama image. There are still a few instances of line flutter, but the picture quality is really quite stunning.

"Soylent Green" also looks pretty good, considering its age and that WB haven't fully restored it. They used a good print, though, which on the one hand is dark and gritty and on the other colorful and well defined. It will not disappoint its fans.

Audio:
Like many older films in stereo, "Forbidden Planet has voices that follow the characters realistically left and right across the sound stage rather than being anchored out in the center channel. Nonetheless, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remastering doesn't always display the widest front-channel spread, and there is little surround activity beyond some small musical and noise enhancement. Otherwise, the sound is fairly quiet--a little hiss at volume--and well balanced, though somewhat limited in dynamics and frequency extremes.

The sound on "The Time Machine" is acceptable for its age. It's redone in Dolby Digital 5.1, and although a little bright, is somewhat narrow in left-to-right front-channel spread, and quite limited in what it artificially diverts to the rear channels.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for "2001" is remixed from its original sources, which, with the exception of dialogue, Kubrick took largely from commercially available, stereo recordings of music by Ligeti, Khachaturian, Johann Strauss, and Richard Strauss. As such, there is a touch of inevitable tape hiss present, which even this newly remastered rendition doesn't erase; still, the signal to the rear channels seems more natural than ever. Let it suffice that the sound is not quite state-of-the-art by today's standards but otherwise effective in submerging the viewer in the story.

After the sonic pleasures of "2001," the sound on "Soylent Green" comes as a definite let-down. It's a Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural affair with very little dynamic impact and very little transparency. Mostly, it's smooth and soft and dull.

Extras:
"Forbidden Planet" comes with thirteen minutes of deleted scenes; a series "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 items 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 "Robot Client," a 1958 episode of "The Thin Man" TV series with Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk, and Robby; 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; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

On "The Time Machine" there is a forty-eight-minute, indexed documentary, ""Time Machine: The Journey Back." Made in 1993, thirty-three years after the film's release, it's hosted by star Rod Taylor. He reminisces, gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of the filmmaking, and, most important, tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the history of the contraption used for the time machine in the movie. Then, to conclude the documentary, Taylor gets together with his old costar, Alan Young, to enact a sort of sequel to the story, bringing Wells back from the future and reuniting him with his friend. It's a touching sequence. The disc also includes cast and crew biographies and filmographies, twenty-nine scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken languages involved, with English and French subtitles.

"2001" takes up most of the side of one DVD, so there isn't much room left for extras. We get a commentary by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood; thirty-four scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitle choices.

Oddly, "Soylent Green" comes with some of the most-plentiful bonus items of all, although none of them are especially noteworthy. First, we get an audio commentary by director Richard Fleischer and co-star Leigh Taylor-Young in which the participants take the movie and its save-the-planet theme quite seriously. Next is a ten-minute promotional featurette, "A Look at the World of Soylent Green," followed by a five-minute MGM tribute to Edward G. Robinson on his 101st film. Then there's a text essay on "Charlton Heston: Science-Fiction Legend," a theatrical trailer, and a cast and crew listing. Things conclude with twenty-nine scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
In addition to the "Sci-Fi" collection, WB's third wave of "TCM Greatest Classic Films" includes "Horror" ("Freaks," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "House of Wax," and "The Haunting") and "Murder Mysteries" ("The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Big Sleep," "Dial M for Murder," and "The Maltese Falcon"). I don't see how a person can go wrong with any of these sets.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
5
Extras
4
Film Value
8