Has there ever been a more influential Sci-fi film than Forbidden Planet? Probably not. Star Wars was undoubtedly inspired at least in part by Forbidden Planet; same goes for Star Trek. Every aspect of it has inspired so many films from its electronic score to it futuristic terminology. Speilberg, Cameron, Lucas, Carpenter and Ridley Scott all claim it as an inspiration. The impact Forbidden Planet had on genre film, even beyond sci-fi, cannot be overstated. Though rarely counted among cinematic greats like Citizen Kane, it certainly earns its place among those films. If your only experience with Forbidden Planet is seeing clips of it in John Carpenter’s Halloween, you really owe it to yourself to check out this sci-fi masterpiece.
United Planets Cruiser C-57D, under the command of J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), arrives at the forth planet of main sequence star Altair to investigate the disappearance of the ship Belerephon twenty years prior and search for survivors, if any. When they enter orbit around Altair-4, they are contacted by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the Belerephon’s philologist, who cryptically warns them away from landing on Altair-4.
They ignore his warnings and land anyways, where they are immediately greeted by electronic servant Robby the Robot (voiced by Marvin Miller) who takes them to the home of Dr. Morbius. Over a pleasant lunch they find that, although Morbius is comfortable and safe, a nebulous creature destroyed the rest of the Belerephon’s crew. They also learn that Morbius has a daughter: the nubile, yet naïve, Alta (Anne Francis). The horny crewmen waste no time lusting after the pretty young girl.
Morbius reveals that he has been studying the original inhabitants of Altair-4, an extinct race called the Krell. The Krell were a race of super intelligent, technologically advanced, benevolent, possibly diamond shaped beings. They had unlocked the secrets of tapping their full potential intelligence, a seemingly limitless energy source, and were working on a way to free themselves from dependence on physical instruments. In doing so they unleashed a creature that destroyed the Krell and most of their civilization, murdered the crew of the Belerephon and is stalking Commander Adams and his men.
It’s no coincidence that the plot of Forbidden Planet resembles so many films that came after. Though not a huge hit when initially released, it connected with the right audience. The result? You don’t have to look too far to see Forbidden Planet’s fingerprints all over modern cinema. It coined the term “blaster,” a term George Lucas popularized with Star Wars. “Hyperdrive,” the standard nomenclature for faster than light travel, originated here. Star Trek’s transporter technology was predated by Forbidden Planet. Alta’s appearance in the plastic educator was also co-opted by Lucas for use in Star Wars. It’s this pervasive influence that helps keep it fresh since so many familiar elements have been recycled for so many contemporary films.
There’s also a plausibility to some of the smaller details that has helped it age well. For its time, it has a surprisingly realistic timetable for space exploration, stating that it took until the end of the 21st century for man to reach the moon and until 2200 before manned missions to other planets were possible. Adams’ orders to his crew also sound surprisingly plausible – the techno babble in Forbidden Planet is surprisingly solid. In an era when sci-fi films were ridiculously and quaintly optimistic, Forbidden Planet seems a lot more cautious about man’s ability to reach beyond the Earth. That attitude is indicative of the film’s overall themes: although humanity may one day overcome its weaker nature, it still has a long way to go.
Forbidden Planet plays like a story from Amazing Science Fiction come to life, brainy, fascinated with the minutiae of life in the future. It is sci-fi from a different time, when the genre was still about ideas and human truths, rather than space dogfights and malevolent aliens made primarily of teeth. Robby adheres to at least one of Asimov’s three laws of robotics as established in 1942, an important foundation for modern concepts of the ethics of artificial intelligence, at a time when no-budget drive in fodder like Teenagers from Outer Space made up the lion’s share of the American sci-if cinema.
What remains exceptional about Forbidden Planet is how it doesn’t rely on monsters, but on story to engage the viewer. The appearance of the long extinct Krell is hinted at by their unique architecture but never revealed and even the “id” that appears (courtesy animators on loan from Disney) still remains nebulous enough that Forbidden Planet never seems sensationalistic. The idea that man darker nature is his one true enemy is provocative and if it seems a bit tired to today’s audiences it’s only because it employs outdated Freudian terminology and because of the all the knock offs and homages that have employed the same idea.
For a studio film of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet is surprisingly frank when dealing with sexuality. The hornball crewmembers waste no time letching after the nubile Alta, even if they have to talk around their intentions with Hayes-approved language. Whiel Alta is clearly not swimming naked, I was still surprised that they went to great lengths to make it seem like she was by having her wear a nude body stocking.
The typical seams you’d expect from a film this age show through from time to time; when Alta summons the tiger, the edges of the travelling matte are clearly visible. Even with those technical flaws apparent, Forbidden Planet still holds up amazingly well. Once you get used to the aesthetic it’s easy to forgive the shortcomings in the special effects. It was expensive and elaborately produced in its day and the money spent in its production has helped it age far better than other films of the era. The only sci-fi film from the 50’s that looks better is George Pal’s War of the Worlds.
Forbidden Planet is ambitious and tackles serious subject matter for a genre that was ghettoized at the time as kid’s fodder and, if I have to find reasons to complain about Forbidden Planet, they mainly deal with how humour is handled. Pidgeon and Nielsen are so stoic and straight-faced that their seriousness threatens to get in the way of the audience’s enjoyment. All their scenes are consistently downers. Conversely, the comic relief poon-hound and cook characters are so over the top that they just emphasize how deadly serious the rest of the film is. Forbidden Planet would have been a stronger film and more fun to watch had the humour been balanced better throughout the entire picture. Still, that’s carping for the sake of doing so. Forbidden Planet is fantastic: entertaining, wide-eyed, cerebral and beautiful to behold. It’s not surprising that so many influential directors point to it as the nexus point of their inspirations.
Forbidden Planet was the first sci-fi film shot in Cinemascope. It’s presented here in a slight narrower aspect of 2.40. Not sure why the decision was made to change the aspect; other Cinemascope films, like Ben-Hur, have been presented on DVD in their true 2.55 aspect. That niggling complaint aside, Forbidden Planet looks astounding on Blu-ray. Although colours are a bit muted, that’s due to the process used in developing the original negative and not a flaw in the transfer. Forbidden Planet was shot on Kodak film stock and processed by Technicolor, a process referred to as Eastman Colour. This resulted in a slightly more muted colour palette than was typical of true Technicolor films of the era. That look has been accurately recreated here. The downside with transferring these old films to high def is that the seams around the edges show through much clearer. Matte paintings are very clearly paintings and the lines where they meet the set, or the composited live action footage, are easy to spot. That’s to be expected from a film this old, but it still may be jarring for some. On the other hand, the expected print flaws from the optical compositing are almost entirely absent. This is an amazingly clean looking film that was probably given a loving digital restoration.
Another minor complaint: the original theatrical mono track isn’t included. With the extensive supplemental package, it was an understandable omission on the HD DVD but considering that the Blu-ray use little more than half of its possible 50 GB of data, it’s unforgivable. Still, the DTS-HD 5.1 track is one of the best remixes of a classic film soundtrack I’ve ever heard. They must have gone back to the original sound stems and created the mix from those: this track displays none of the canned artificiality of remix tracks that use new or recreated sound effects. Hearing the otherworldly music in 5.1 surround is a trip.
Warner has a long history of lavishing their classic gems with the full-on, five-star home video editions and while the royal treatment is most often reserved for the more “respectable” films in their stable, the supplemental package they have put together for Forbidden Planet is a veritable embarrassment of riches.
The most notable supplement is the feature film “The Invisible Boy” (1:29:29) featuring Robby the Robot. Forbidden Planet was an expensive film that didn’t do well enough to justify a lavish follow up, but the character of Robby was popular enough with kids that the studio shoehorned him into a children’s cheapie. It’s not a very good movie, it eschews Forbidden Planet’s brainy thrills in favour of a heavy-handed anti-war message, but its inclusion for the sake of completion is admirable. It’s been nicely restored although unlike the main feature it’s presented in standard definition.
Also featuring Robby the Robot is an episode of “The Thin Man” entitled “Robot Client” (25:35). I’m not familiar with the show, but if this episode is typical of the series then what a weird show it was. In it, the “Thin Man” (Peter Lawford) who is a detective, I suppose, and his girl Friday, Nora (Phyllis Kirk), travel to a physicist’s estate where the physicist’s robot is running afoul of the physicist’s assistant. Strange.
“Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950’s and Us” (55:31) is an original TCM documentary, narrated by Mark Hamil. Featuring genre luminaries George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, James Cameron and Ridley Scott, it’s a discussion of the themes that occupied sci-fi films in the communist scared America of the ‘50s. A lot of the academic discussion is of the “no shit” variety but it’s amusing to hear these directors recount their experiences with the films that shaped their own cinematic sensibilities. Spiced with a lot of clips from classic (and not-so-classic) films, this documentary is a lot of fun, if not terribly illuminating.
“Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet” (26:35) looks behind the scenes, from the writing process- the concept was a sci-fi version of Shakespeare’s “ The Tempest.” Along with the surviving stars of the film, genre greats like John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis, Dennis Muren, John Dykstra and novelist Alan Dean Foster narrate the story behind the making of the film, all the while offering their own little insights and anecdotes. They do a good job of keeping the proceedings light and breezy while still placing Forbidden Planet in its proper historical context.
“Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon” (13:45) is exactly what the title suggests: a documentary about the challenges faced by the team tasked with bringing the character of Robby to “life” on the big screen. It’s really amazing how much affection people have for Robby; he’s as much an icon as R2-D2 would be a generation later. I hate to say it, but I’ve always thought Robby looked kind of stupid and impractical.
A collection of Deleted Scenes (13:14) are presented in unfinished work print form. A series of title card place the scenes in context, which are comprised mainly of couple of true deleted scene, unfinished effects shots and alternate takes. Although interesting, they’re pretty tough to watch. Even by work print standards they’re in poor shape, which is perfectly understandable given the age of the elements. Despite the shortcoming of their presentation their inclusion will please completionists. The best is watching Robby with location sound: he sounds like a PA shouting into a bullhorn. Which he probably was.
Lost Footage (9:22) is a collection of camera and effects tests. This is actually a really fun feature. Though the transporter ray tests are no great shakes, there’s something really majestic and beautiful about the test shots of Altair-4 moving through space. Intertitles put the clips in context and the silent footage is accompanied by some of the film’s eerie electronic score.
Two clips from the MGM Parade TV series, Episode 27 (2:17) and Episode 28 (3:59) are included. These are promotional pieces very characteristic of the era. Walter Pidgeon introduces clips from the film. Not informative in any way, but I’ve always found these vintage promotional pieces fascinating. It’s amazing that they could have made an entire television series out of what are essentially commercials. I guess people were hard up for things to watch in the early years of television.
Rounding out this packed collection of features are trailers for Forbidden Planet (3:41) and The Invisible Boy (2:31). Both are presented into in their respective theatrical aspect ratios and include all the solemnly intoning narration and antique fonts that you’d expect from ad materials from this era.
There is no way you can possibly understate the importance of Forbidden Planet and Warner’s Blu-ray is exemplary in just about every way possible, from fantastic audio and video quality to an extraordinary collection of supplemental material. If you’re new to the sci-fi films of the 1950’s and would like to see where the groundwork for modern films in the genre was laid, taking a trip to the Forbidden Planet would be a great place to start.
The Image Quality paragraph is a copy and paste of the last paragraph in The Story body. There is no mention of the picture quality.
Fixed. When I was proofing it I was looking at the start of each paragraph and since both started with "Forbidden Planet" the error just slipped through the cracks.
Forbidden Planet was filmed in Cinemascope 55™ not Cinemascope™.
It was also in 4 track magnetic stereo in selected cities, Perspecta™ Stereo in most others and in mono in the smaller theaters.
I have in my collection a 35 mm Cinemascope 55™ anamorphic 4 track print, a 35 mm Cinemascope 55™ anamorphic Perspecta™ Stereo sound print, a 35 mm Cinemascope 55™ mono sound print, a 16 mm Cinemascope™ mono sound print and an 8 mm standard silent selected scenes print as well as every tape, laser disk variation (laser, capacitive, dvd, HD dvd, BD). I think I'm in a position to be somewhat an authority on it.
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