Warner Bros. // 1956 // 98 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 13th, 2010
"Why, it's a housewife's dream." -- Commander J.J. Adams, about Robby the Robot
Late in the 20th century, men land on the moon, and then quickly discover the secret of faster-than-light travel, breaking the bounds of the solar system. Jump forward to the 23rd century. Human beings have colonized other planets. United Planets Cruiser C-57D, skippered by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen Creepshow ), is on a mission to Altair IV to check up on the crew of the Bellerophon, who colonized the planet 20 years earlier. Once on the planet's surface, Adams, his pilot Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly, Young Mr. Lincoln), and medical officer "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens, The Barefoot Contessa) find that an eccentric scientist named Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, How Green Was My Valley) is the lone survivor of the original expeditionary group -- along with his 19 year old daughter Altaira (Anne Francis, Bad Day at Black Rock) and their mechanical manservant, Robby the Robot. Everyone else was ripped to shreds by a mysterious force that, for reasons unknown, left Morbius and Altaira untouched. Soon enough, the invisible antagonist begins targeting the crew of the C-57D. Adams learns from Morbius that Altair IV was once the home of a long extinct alien race known as the Krell. Far more advanced than humans, the Krell created a technological utopia, but fell victim to their own dark impulses. Could a dead alien civilization somehow be behind the attacks on the crew of the C-57D?
Before sitting down with this Blu-ray, I don't think I'd seen Forbidden Planet since catching it on TV as a kid (I doubt I'd ever seen it in its original Cinemascope format). I was curious whether it would play as a hokey artifact of a bygone era, or stand the test of time. While definitely a product of the 1950s, the movie holds up incredibly well. The craftsmanship poured into it is amazing. Made at a time when science fiction movies were B productions designed to turn reasonable profits on modest budgets, Forbidden Planet is a lavish and visually inventive piece of work. From the 1930s until the early 1960s, MGM was known for its elaborate productions, whether epics like Gone with the Wind or musicals like The Wizard of Oz. The studio was not distinguished for B-movies in any genre -- gangster, noir, or science fiction. That MGM had little experience in sci-fi shows in Forbidden Planet, a movie that has more in common visually with Dorothy's Technicolor adventures in Oz than typical outerspace adventure flicks made in the '50s. Everything about Forbidden Planet is colorful and expensive looking -- its costumes, sets, and special effects. The movie is a clinic in how verisimilitude is less important in visual effects than an artful grasp of aesthetics and composition. Forbidden Planet's alien landscapes and flying saucer don't look much more realistic than Oz's Emerald City, but it doesn't matter because the craftsmanship in the colorful matte paintings, model spaceship, and retro-future sets is so top-shelf that it sucks you into the world of the film. It's not about believing that you're seeing an actual alien world; it's about drinking in some truly stunning artistry.
None of that artistry leaves quite the same impression as Robby the Robot, the fantastic creation of Robert Kinoshita and countless other members of MGM's art department. Viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century, Robby is the epitome of retro-future cool, all vacuum tubes and blinking lights and sleek, rounded chassis. He's the sort of character that would be digitally animated today -- or reduced to a disembodied computer voice capable of cracking wise while playing butler to the human characters. Neither option is as stylish as Robby. In fact, the robot is such a fine piece of design work that MGM didn't credit the actor inside the suit, leading many audience members (especially children) to believe he was a real, fully functional robot. Robby the Robot was such a pop culture phenomenon that he became a kind of unofficial mascot of Hollywood science fiction, and remained so for a little over two decades before finally being replaced in the minds of moviegoers with R2D2 and C-3P0.
Forbidden Planet is one of those movies that was so influential, it's easy now to miss how inventive and original it was at the time. But remind yourself that audiences in 1956 had yet to see a single episode of Star Trek and it's impossible to miss the movie's influence on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, not to mention countless other sci-fi adventurers. From phaser-like ray guns, to a saucer-shaped ship, to landing parties, to a mysterious alien menace, to a surprisingly cerebral plot that says more about the nature of being human than about space travel, Forbidden Planet plays in many ways like an incredibly expensive pilot episode of Star Trek. And for all the talk of Trek being Horatio Hornblower in space, Gene Roddenberry basically just made a television version of Forbidden Planet. The movie's ideas are solid enough that director Guy Ritchie cribbed them for his 2005 crime flick, Revolver -- only Forbidden Planet's exploration of the human psyche is less pretentious than Ritchie's and doesn't require an end credits reel of psychologists to explain what the audience just witnessed. Forbidden Planet stands head and shoulders above its peers as a bold declaration of science fiction's cinematic potential. The baton it carried in the '50s was picked up by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late '60s, and George Lucas' Star Wars in the '70s. It's that important.
Back in the winter of 2006, Forbidden Planet was lovingly restored and dished out to movie fans in a spectacular two-disc 50th Anniversary DVD, as well as in high definition on HD DVD. This Blu-ray is basically a port of the HD DVD to the only disc-based high definition format left standing. The transfer is the same 1080p/VC-1 job on the previous disc, and it is utterly breathtaking. Framed at the movie's original Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.40:1, depth and detail are gorgeous, grain is tight and never intrusive, and colors are unbelievably vivid. There are some exceedingly minor instances of source damage -- so minor, in fact, that they only register if you're looking for them. Simply put, Forbidden Planet looks better in high definition than any film over half a century old has a right to. The folks at Warner Bros. poured a lot of tender loving care into gussying up this MGM catalog title for its 50th anniversary release. Their stellar work is a gift to fans of the movie.
Audio has been given a minor upgrade from the HD DVD's Dolby Digital Plus track to a DTS-HD Master Audio presentation. One would assume that a lossless 5.1 mix would be overkill for an analog monaural track from the mid-'50s, but one would be wrong. Forbidden Planet broke new ground in the use of a purely electronic (yet theremin-free) score, created and recorded by Greenwich Village beatniks Louis and Bebe Barron using a ring modulator. An abstract collection of bleeps, bloops, and low oscillating tones, the Barrons' work is simultaneously the film's score and its sound effects track. And it sounds better than ever before in the uncompressed DTS surround mix on this disc. The movie's dialogue has the flatness and pinched midrange of recordings of the period, but it still sounds great, all things considered. There isn't an ounce of annoying hiss or any other age-related flaws.
The disc's extras are the same as those on the previously released DVD and HD DVD:
Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us (55:31)
This is a fine documentary about the science fiction genre in the 1950s, and the influence the often schlocky movies had on later generations of filmmakers. Contributors include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott. Mark Hamill narrates. While the documentary isn't specifically about Forbidden Planet, the movie occupies a central place in the proceedings.
Amazing!: Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet
This featurette offers an examination of the making of the film, as well as its enormous influence on movie science fiction. Contributors include directors Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and John Landis; special effects gurus Dennis Muren and John Dykstra; novelist Alan Dean Foster; and Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis.
Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon (13:45)
This piece offers input from most of the talking heads in the previous featurette, but is all about the construction and design of Forbidden Planet's most famous character. Also on board is Robert Kinoshita, who was instrumental in consolidating the various designs and artistic interpretations of Robby and engineering them into a functional (and beautiful) suit.
Deleted Scenes (13:14)
This deleted scenes reel is sourced from a workprint of the movie. It contains alternate special effects shots, deleted dialogue, and other treasures. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, the sequences are rough around the edges but still fascinating for fans of the movie.
Lost Footage (9:22)
This is a reel of special effects test footage discovered in the MGM vaults after lingering there for over 50 years. The presentation is full frame and in color.
The Invisible Boy (1957/90 Min/B&W)
Often billed as a sequel to Forbidden Planet, this is a kid-friendly feature starring Robby the Robot. It tells the bizarre tale of a maladjusted kid named Timmy, a kid whose douchey father is a programmer working on a government owned computer containing all human knowledge (or something like that). When Timmy's old man tries to use the computer to cure the kid of his wussiness, the machine hypnotizes him and endows him with enormous intelligence. Timmy uses his newfound smarts to beat his dad at chess, and then assemble Robby, who was apparently brought back from the future in pieces by a wacky mad scientist who worked for the government agency before he died. Timmy and Robby team up to turn Timmy invisible and then a lot of weirdness ensues. The Invisible Boy is an odd little relic of 1950s children cinema. It's presented in standard definition on this Blu-ray, but the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is quite attractive. Contrast is subtle and print damage is minimal. Audio is presented in two-channel mono.
The Thin Man (1957 / 25 Min)
In addition to the bonus movie, the disc also houses a 1958 episode of TV's The Thin Man (1957-1959), starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora Charles (and Asta as Asta). In the show, the married detectives take on a case for "Doc" Niles, who owns a robot (played by Robby, of course) capable of 130 simple tasks (one of which appears to be pissing off Niles' human housekeeper, Mrs. Creavy). The presentation is full frame, standard definition. The image is in great shape considering the age and relatively low profile of the show.
The disc also contains a pair of two-minute excerpts from MGM Parade a playhouse style program designed to promote MGM productions. In the segments, Walter Pidgeon introduces us to Forbidden Planet and to Robby the Robot. In addition to the two television promo pieces, there are theatrical trailers for both Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.
Yes, there is a timeless quality about Forbidden Planet, but it's also a product of its time. There's an almost kitschy humor to the way that Adams, Morbius, and the other men enjoy the simple, manly pleasure of kicking back with coffee and sandwiches (a convention repeated on the surface of the moon in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). The dated aspects of the movie are more charming than distracting, though. The closest the movie comes to being offensive to modern sensibilities is when Adams upbraids Altaira for wearing skirts so short they're likely to drive his crew of 18 "super-perfect physical specimens" who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days crazy with lust. But I imagine that anyone who'd honestly be offended by Forbidden Planet's outmoded sexual politics has probably already died of an aneurism brought on by old episodes of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.
Forbidden Planet is pure fun -- a science fiction classic that holds up well a half century after its release because of its gorgeous production design and a reasonably intelligent story that steers clear of the radioactive monsters that litter most other '50s sci-fi. While it isn't the movie's first appearance in a high definition format, this Blu-ray delivers on the video and audio fronts. If you have a Blu-ray player, this is the way to see Forbidden Planet.
Review content copyright © 2010 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Bonus Film
* Deleted Scenes
* TV Episode