Warner Bros. // 1956 // 99 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // December 3rd, 2003
In a movie orbit all its own.
Forbidden Planet is the quintessential science fiction film of the 1950s. It has been cited as a major influence on the original Star Trek series by none other than Gene Roddenberry himself, as well as countless other films and shows. It changed the very idea of what an outer space movie could be.
Sadly, this disc is also concrete evidence on why film restoration is not only important but crucial.
Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew lead a fact-finding mission into the sudden and mysterious disappearance of an entire population of scientists on Altair-4. After receiving radio messages from a possible survivor, they land on the planet and discover that there are two survivors: Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his luscious daughter Altaira (Anne Francis).
Morbius and his daughter live a surprisingly luxurious lifestyle with Robby the Robot, a sort of servant. But there is a secret lurking about -- an invisible force that may or may not have been responsible for the disappearances of those aforementioned scientists. Only Morbius knows the truth -- will he tell Adams and Altaira or will he go to his grave with the information?
Hang on to your seat over the 99-minute running time! It's going to be quite a journey.
A few words before I begin my review. This is a new look at Forbidden Planet. Retired Judge Mike Knapp previously reviewed the original MGM release. That release is currently out of print, so I have stepped up to review the in-print Warner disc. [Editor's Note: Because Mike Knapp's review lacked substantive comments regarding the film or the disc, it has been removed from the site.]
Forbidden Planet may seem hokey to some, but this was groundbreaking in 1956. Most science fiction films of the period were low budget, often silly time fillers that were forgotten immediately after viewing. Forbidden Planet is quite different. It was one of the MGM's most expensive productions, budgeted at $1.9 million. The screenplay, by Cyril Hume from a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler, is well plotted, intelligent, and witty. Block was actually responsible for some of the time-fillers I alluded to earlier (his worst credit also happens to be Roger Corman's worst: The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)). The film is loosely based on The Tempest and it's a solid backstory for this adaptation.
Leonard Maltin mentioned in his review that the pacing works against the picture. I couldn't disagree more. The slow, deliberate pace will test some viewers' patience, but it very effectively creates mood and tension. Those two attributes are extremely important to the success of good science fiction. The score, by Louis and Bebe Barron, may sound cheesy at first, but it weaves a spell over the viewer that is so powerful that you will never forget it. Sometimes, simple scores such as theirs sound more impressive than a loud, orchestral one.
George Folsey's CinemaScope cinematography is first rate. Making full use of the 2.35:1 frame, it shows how important widescreen composition can be to the success of a film. Directors cared more about it in the early years of the format, and unfortunately, most today are concerned about pan-and-scan composition for later home video releases.
Forbidden Planet also features good acting. Leslie Nielsen is known mainly for his comedic roles, but at this time, he was a serious actor (a good one, in fact) and Forbidden Planet allowed him to showcase his underrated abilities. Walter Pidgeon was one of MGM's "stock" actors, appearing in such hits as Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver. He could be relied upon to lend stature and nobility to any role, as he does that here with Morbius. In the hands of the wrong actor, the performance would have been over the top and goofy. Pidgeon plays it straight and realistic and the movie is the better for it. Anne Francis actually plays her role with intelligence and pluck, which was rare for female roles in sci-fi flicks in the 1950s. She was on a roll with strong performances in Bad Day at Black Rock, Battle Cry, and The Blackboard Jungle. She remembers that while it's good to be eye candy, it's even better to be memorable, heartfelt character.
The film's special effects are good for their type. They don't overwhelm the story, but actually enhance and reinforce it. Too many science fiction films (and all films in general) tend to forget that even the best CGI effects will not make up for an inherently weak picture. That's why we have so many duds -- Armageddon, anyone? Fred McLeod Wilcox's direction understands this basic concept and he marries all ingredients into one superb movie.
Warner offers Forbidden Planet on a double-sided disc. Side A contains a terrible pan-and-scan version, and Side B contains the widescreen version of the film, presented in the original CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The latter transfer is identical to the original MGM disc and is far from perfect. This movie shows its age through the many artifacts and imperfections present. Grain is constant in all scenes. Dirt and scratches are plentiful. The worst damage is in the color scheme. It was filmed with Eastman Color stock, which fades after ten years. As a result of this, the colors are very pale and muted instead of bright and eye-popping (as many of the CinemaScope films often were). Granted, the widescreen transfer looks better than most early VHS copies and television prints. However, it needs restoration and it needs it now.
The sound isn't much of an improvement. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround stereo mix is surprisingly sterile. Director Fred M. Wilcox and his sound effects team experimented with different effects, textures, and sounds and this sound mix doesn't do the film justice. What any future discs demand is a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround stereo mix.
Extras are limited to a mediocre anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer. It's your typical '50s-era trailer and worth a look if you enjoy vintage trailers.
What was the original DVD Verdict reviewer smoking when he reviewed the MGM release? Was he blind to all the blemishes and problems with the transfer? Either that or he was fixated on Anne Francis' "stiletto breasts" -- his words, not mine.
Believe me, this transfer is not reference quality in any area.
It's worth a rental just to see Forbidden Planet, with its terrific use of widescreen and terrific storytelling without fancy, overblown effects.
As for a purchase, if it's selling for under $15, it's worth picking up. But be ready to trade it in when a new transfer becomes available.
Warner is urged to pool their resources and begin working to restore this science fiction masterpiece to its original glory.
The filmmakers are not guilty and are free to go.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Theatrical Trailer