Judge Brett Cullum wonders if Robby the Robot can whip up a second season of Firefly.
Our reviews of Forbidden Planet (published December 3rd, 2003), Forbidden Planet (Blu-Ray) (published September 13th, 2010), Forbidden Planet (HD DVD) (published December 4th, 2006), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Sci-Fi (published September 25th, 2009) are also available.
[while showing the captain a plaster cast of a monster foot print]
MGM put its high gloss stamp all over science fiction with 1956's Forbidden Planet. The film was that decade's Star Wars, and it invented many of the trappings that would evolve into Star Trek and a host of other space epics. This influential movie demands respect and awe, but somehow it's only been available as a bare-bones, snapper-case release. Now all is right with the world as we look at Forbidden Planet (Two Disc 50th Anniversary Special Edition).
Facts of the Case
A star cruiser is sent to the planet Altair to find out what has become of a colony that has disappeared ten years prior. The military crew, led by Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!), finds only Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, How Green Was My Valley) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis, Blackboard Jungle) still living on the desolate planet. Apart from an advanced robot named Robby, they exist alone among green skies and rocky landscapes. Dr. Moribus warns the space crew to flee the planet, or suffer the same fate that mysteriously killed his fellow space travelers a decade ago. But it's too late as the space explorers discover the monster is still loose. Solving the puzzle of where it came from could prove deadly.
The story is a loose retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest with an old magician and his beautiful daughter facing a military crew after a long exile while hiding a monster. Like all great science fiction masterpieces, Forbidden Planet says more about America in the 1950s rather than any comments on the future. It's a world where men face the consequences of robotics, female empowerment, and life in a postwar economy. Yet Forbidden Planet remains timeless as it delineates what it means to be human, and meditates on the state of man eloquently even if the production is all cheesy effects, colorful costumes, and fanciful matte paintings.
If you haven't seen Forbidden Planet and you're a sci fi fan, then shame on you. MGM produced this lavish epic to create a sensation out of the genre, and boy! does it hold up well after all these years. Leslie Nielsen is an earnest leading man, Anne Francis is great as the innocent daughter, and Walter Pidgeon turns in the definitive mad scientist performance that would become a stereotype down the line. And of course there is the film's breakout star, Robby the Robot, an elegant butler capable of replicating anything. He's the prototype for every film robot to come after him, and C3-P0 owes him a huge debt. You can see in Forbidden Planet many elements that would form Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Aliens, and even Blade Runner. Big screen space movies would never be the same after this production; its legacy is vast and far reaching. Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and George Lucas wax poetic about the film on the extras and discuss how it personally affected their careers.
Two wonderful editions of this science fiction classic have been released for the film's fiftieth anniversary. One is an "Ultimate Collector's Edition" which comes in collectible, oversized packaging with lobby cards and a Robby the Robot figure. The other is a two-disc, standard set labeled the "Special Edition." Both contain the same features on the two DVDs, but the choice to make is if you want the memorabilia or not. You can't lose either way, because this new and improved edition is light years ahead of the former releases of the film.
Key to these new editions (including an HD DVD format release) is a brand new transfer which significantly ups the ante from the 2000 version. Faded colors are renewed, digital encoding and contrast levels are upped, and the result is stunning. This is close to the Technicolor original print save for some tweaks to Robby's short circuits (which seem to have been altered slightly from the theatrical print.) The prior release seemed overly bright, and here we see a deeper look to picture and color. The only gripe I have is there does appear to be some shifts in color schemes from reel to reel that are still present. Watch the uniforms, and you'll notice the gray tone shifts sometimes noticeably even looking brown in some stretches. A garden sequence with Anne Francis seems to change tints mid scene. This is a vast improvement, but hardly what I would define as perfection. Still, fans will be more than satisfied by the efforts, and despite some grain the picture looks almost new. Sound delivery is a robust full surround affair. The electronic score swooshes around the room, and speakers are worked out anytime the monster attacks quite effectively. Curiously there is no option for an original track, but the one here works fine and dandy even if purists will raise an eyebrow at the manipulation.
The real reason to double dip are the extras which include three documentaries, another feature film starring Robby the Robot called The Invisible Boy, and a television episode from The Thin Man series with the metallic thespian showing up again. All surviving cast members make an appearance in the features, and luminaries from Hollywood testify their adoration of the film. We even get an entire featurette on the design of Robby to explore and marvel at. A carryover from a Criterion edition features cut scenes and a look at the work print of the film. The "lost scenes" are displayed in a pan and scan format, and seem to be rough footage without effects. They add little to the film other than further discussion of the "unicorn theory" which is already clear in the final print. The Ultimate edition includes a toy of Robby and lobby cards, and an order form to get a reproduction of the poster. I'd say it's only purpose is to give fans unique packaging, and everyone else will be fine with the traditional two disc release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The '50s trappings of Forbidden Planet date the film. Though the special effects are certainly still worthy, some of the social sentiments will seem not quite as progressive. Robby is referred to as "a housewife's dream," and the Anne Francis character seems to be a toy to the men who view her as communal property in an annoying way. The pace is slow especially in the first few reels, and younger viewers may find that taxing in this overamped day and age.
Forbidden Planet is a bona fide science fiction classic, and should end up in the collection of all serious space fans. It was meant to be an enjoyable thrill ride for all ages when it debuted (complete with a gimmick of special glasses to see an invisible threat in the theatres), but it does have deeper themes that still resonate today. The entire Freudian drama that plays out before us still rings true, and for that reason alone the film is a must-see for all cinema aficionados. This is classic movie making in Hollywood's golden studio era, and it's a fine piece of storytelling complete with space ships, robots, and monsters.
For quite a few years we've only had a bare bones rather poorly mastered release to enjoy. Kudos to Warner Brothers for giving Forbidden Planet two deluxe editions on DVD as well as an HD DVD copy for us to finally feel the title is a must buy. It ranks up there with last year's stellar release of the original King Kong.
Guilty of being one of the most amazing science fiction masterpieces ever made, Forbidden Planet is free to go for influencing everything that comes after it for years to come.
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