Warner Bros. // 1956 // 98 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // December 4th, 2006
It's interesting to listen to current-day science fiction fan prattle on at how modern technology and technique has just now made it possible to deliver tales of tomorrow. Insisting their treasured favorites including the Star Wars saga, the Matrix trilogy, the Chronicles of Riddick yarns and others are the marks of science fiction done right, its amusing to call their attention to the now 50-year-old cinematic milestone, Forbidden Planet. While modern sci-fi fans might assert their beloved adventures into the beyond are absolutely unique and original, a look at this groundbreaking MGM spectacle proves how truly derivative many of their favorites really are.
And, in celebration of its 50th anniversary, Warner Brothers delivers the original space opera in a stunning new HD-DVD disc that gives long-standing genre fans the epic of their day in a format that makes the return visit to Altair IV seem like an entirely new adventure.
See for yourself.
Interplanetary spaceship commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen, Dark Intruder) navigates his vessel, the C-57D, through hyperspace to the oddly silent Altair IV, a previously busy planetoid hosting a population of scientists. A distress signal of sorts has brought them across the galaxy to investigate and when they land, they're greeted by a barren landscape that appears completely bereft of human activity. The traveling dust cloud off the horizon, however, indicates something is alive and moving. Their initial alarm is allayed when greeted by the astounding Robby, a fantastic robot who has traveled in his surface vehicle to collect Adams and a few selected officers. They are whisked back to the home of Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, The Unknown Man), a lone scientist who lives in lavish opulence with his socially naïve daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis, The Rocket Man). Morbius explains how something mysterious and unseen had slain the other scientists and their families, this occurring as he was working to unlock the secrets of an advanced race, the Krell, that left its vast technology behind. And although Altair IV has been without incident for some time since the death of the other scientists, it appears that the arrival of Adams and his crew has somehow awoken the monstrous entity again.
Some casual science fiction onlookers would like to lump Forbidden Planet in with the usually derided 1950s genre dreck. The fact is, though, this picture truly separated itself from its assumed brethren of foil-wrapped alien spacecraft and overgrown radioactive mutations. This was clearly a departure for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, well regarded for their stable of musicals including Singing in the Rain and The Band Wagon (not to mention the envied pedigree of The Wizard of Oz). So, to begin their newest picture of 1956 with odd electronic "tonalities" and a sleek flying saucer gliding through the vacuum of space, well, this was surely not your Mom and Dad's sort of MGM feature. But because it did spring from such a proud studio whose pictures commenced with the iconic roaring lion, Forbidden Planet was destined to be different from those low-budget sci-fi quickies. Armed with a script that revisited William Shakespeare's The Tempest and enlisting the creative art direction of Arthur Lonergan, inspired cinematography by George J. Folsey, and even the on-loan animation talents of Disney Studio's Joshua Meador, this film was poised to reshape attitudes of the usually juvenile science fiction realm -- and it did!
Forbidden Planet, although it is rife with cheesy 1950s sensibilities by today's standards, was instrumental in bringing legitimacy to the genre, largely evidenced by the numerous "borrowings" that can be found in subsequent works. Easiest to detect is the sequence in which the C-57D crew step into the "DC stations" during the lightspeed deceleration, those being immobilizing columns of glowing light at obviously inspired Star Trek's transporter beams. Lightspeed travel itself would also go on to be featured as the preferred method of accelerated trekking, dubbed "hyperspace," in Star Wars. And, recognize that the C-57D cruiser was the saucer-shaped vehicle for transporting Earthfolk, finally providing them an alternative to the usual conical rocket ships. And though there's no intention to castigate subsequent pictures for their leveraging of this and other Forbidden Planet elements, the point is the picture broke through the usual stereotypical sci-fi hardware and whatnot of the 1950s to provide future creative minds more options for their space-themed adventures.
As a testament to their obvious reverence for this picture and what it represents within the overall science fiction genre, Warner Home Video presents Forbidden Planet in a sumptuous new HD DVD mastering (this being a review of the disc itself but it should be noted that this HD DVD version is also available in the collector's edition tin just as is the standard definition version). Beginning with the image quality, here again we see the benefit of increased resolution when applied to a vintage production. Even though this isn't the sort of modern-day CGI-laden spectacle, the film looks nonetheless vibrant and genuinely dimensional thanks to the new format. Framed at a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1 to capture the original CinemaScope format, the picture quality is excellent in its depiction of smooth and well-saturated colors and surprising detail levels. Although these aren't state-of-the-art achievements compared to current productions, the quality of the effects that are now 50 years old are well presented by high definition. The expansive matte paintings are superbly rendered and the effect shots of the C-57D sailing through space look incredible. The contrast is well managed and the black levels are quite smooth without too much noticeable film grain. The restoration done here is excellent, resulting in a picture that is 99% free of damage or distracting imperfections. No compression artifacts were visible and, from an authoring standpoint, the playback was unhampered by any technical issues.
The soundtrack was perhaps a bit less impressive than the image quality as the on-board Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track performed well but had a bit of hollowness to it. The audio tonalities absolutely surround the listenr when present yet the dialogue sometimes takes on a bit of an echo. This is nitpicking because the effect wasn't distracting in any way yet the discerning listener will certainly detect it.
As for the extras, perhaps the most generous here is the inclusion of the complete feature film, The Invisible Boy, a subsequent MGM feature that provided Robby the Robot another opportunity in front of the camera. The film is certainly more simplistic than its predecessor and would likely have a bit more appeal to kids, especially given that young actor Richard Eyer (immediately recognizeable as Barani the genie from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) gets to spend a lot of screen time with Robby. The transfer here is top notch and, though it clearly hasn't been dutifully restored, the smooth image quality and excellent contrast makes it one of the best pictures you've seen in black and white in a long while.
Other features include a fun, 50-minute Turner Classic Movies documentary, Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s, and Us. Mark Hamill narrates this 2005 retrospective that cobbles interview pieces with Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Joe Dante, and James Cameron as they comment on the impact of Forbidden Planet as well as other sci-fi favorites as The Thing from Another World, Invaders from Mars, Rocketship X-M, and others. Next up is a new documentary, Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet, where we catch up with Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, and several film historians as they all weigh in on the experience and impact of Forbidden Planet. Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon, spends some time with Robert Kinoshita, designer of Robby as well as the Lost in Space robot, giving an inside look at his creation. Most interesting is the way in which Robby had audiences believing he was a bona-fide automaton. Continuing the celebration of Robby himself, there's also an episode of Peter Lawford's The Thin Man that features the robot as he stands accused of murder. Back to the titular film, you'll find some deleted scenes from the original film plus some severely degraded "Lost Scenes" that were culled from a working print of the film. Lastly, there's a bevy of 1950s science fiction trailers including the title feature plus Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Time Machine, and others. In all, this is an incredibly well packed disc that will give you an entire afternoon's worth of sci-fi goodness.
According to the onboard TCM documentary, Forbidden Planet failed to draw large audiences or garner high praise upon its initial release. Believing the picture was best suited to kids, MGM re-released it within its "Children's Matinee" distribution arm. The film, rife with social commentary and propelled by Freudian themes, is hardly kiddie fare and it seems dubious that youngsters would be able to maintain attention throughout the methodically-paced action. Sorry but youngsters, then and now, may be challenged to sit still for this one. Invite them back into your screening room, though, when The Invisible Boy plays.
Appreciation is running high among fans and long-time film scholars who understand the importance of Forbidden Planet and are overjoyed to see the stellar treatment that Warner Brothers has given the picture in this HD-DVD transfer (as well as the other concurrent package offerings). If you owned a copy of the 2003 standard definition release, you owe it to yourself to take the double-dip here with this vastly superior version.
Not guilty, not in this galaxy or any other.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Additional scenes
* Lost footage
* Bonus Feature Film: The Invisible Boy
* The Thin Man Episode: "Robot Client"
* Documentary: Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s, and Us
* Featurette: Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet
* Featurette: Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon
* Science Fiction Movie Trailer Gallery