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Forbidden Planet: 50th Anniversary Special Edition

Warner Home Entertainment

Starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens,
Jack Kelly, Richard Anderson, Earl Holliman, and Robby the Robot

Written by Cyril Hume, from a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler,
William Shakespeare, from his play The Tempest (uncredited)

Directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Now fifty years on, Forbidden Planet is still the best original spaceships-rayguns-and-alien-worlds movie Hollywood has produced. Those are fightin' words in some quarters, but I'm standing by them.

In 1956 with Forbidden Planet, MGM did for science fiction what it had done for musicals four years earlier with Singin' in the Rain. The studio took the stuff its audiences loved, gave it that high-polish MGM razzle-dazzle, and produced an enduring best-of-breed favorite, a CinemaScope spectacle that's terrifically entertaining, smartly written, memorably cast, briskly paced, and production-designed to the hilt. Instead of Gene Kelly's tap shoes or Debbie Reynolds' pertness, this time we get Leslie Nielsen as a proto-Captain Kirk, plot points lifted with an Amazing Stories spin from Shakespeare's The Tempest, special effects photography that still knocks our socks off, Hollywood's most famous robot before Star Wars' less imaginative and interesting droids, and (the stuff space-kids' dreams are made on) leggy Anne Francis ably modeling miniskirts a decade early. It has aged well, and any dated elements — that great flying-saucer design of the starship, the crew's baseball-cap uniforms, the casual Rat Pack-era sexism — only add a quaint charm to the film's robust retro-future vibe.

Although MGM's top brass never considered Forbidden Planet an A-list project, the film's writers and director — none of them typically in the Space Opera business — treated the material and their potential audience with respect, all in the name of creating something better than the zipperback monster fare so common at the time. Ten years before Star Trek used Forbidden Planet as a template for an entire franchise of boldly-goingness, and 21 years before Star Wars microwaved Joseph Campbell and Saturday matinee shoot-em-ups, here's a movie that proved you can do good things with "that outer space stuff" without dishing up more invading aliens or other fast-turnaround juvenilia.

Today, after two post-Star Wars generations that have seen science-fiction become as mainstream as westerns in the '50s, this one continues to rank in the top tier of Hollywood's contributions, arguably besting other period watersheds such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World. It impresses us with its scale, its relatively grownup plot, and its determination to employ its wall-to-wall visuals and sure-footed cast to the service of crackerjack storytelling. As the extras on this two-disc 50th Anniversary DVD make clear, if Forbidden Planet had never been made, there would be no Star Trek, any generation. And without the Star Trek phenomenon to prove that voyages to "strange new worlds" had audience appeal, odds are that Star Wars would never have seen frame one. Forbidden Planet balances the tawdry with the sublime, mixing its color-comics gee-whiz sci-fi tropes with aspirations more thoughtful and engaging than most "sci fi" films before or after.

Its plot hangs on a simplistic but effective interpretation of Freud's theory of the Id, the primal brute we all carry inside us no matter how evolved our so-called civilization has become. Soon after Nielsen's Capt. Adams lands the United Planets star cruiser C-57D on planet Altair 4 — the most beautiful spaceship landing ever filmed — what's supposed to be a routine rescue mission turns into a nightmare of destruction and murder. The cause is an all-powerful monster, a giant roaring beast that's visible only when engulfed in a force-field blaze and the energy bolts from the crew's ineffectual blaster guns.

At the center of the mystery stands Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), one of the lone survivors of an expedition decimated by the malevolent force twenty years earlier. Imperious and relishing his solitude on "his" world, Morbius lives alone on the planet with his robot manservant, Robby (who Morbius "tinkered together" with science far beyond Earth's), and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). The girl is beautiful and brilliant, but has never before seen other humans. So her naiveté on matters of "basic biology" is more than just a pheromonal attractor for the spacemen ("eighteen competitively selected, super-fit physical specimens with an average age of 24.6") who suddenly surround her. To a degree that would have Freud himself reaching for his pipe, her heretofore innocent maturity is also the catalyst for subconscious energies Morbius is teasing from the remains of the alien Krell, a super-race whose miles-wide cavernous machines apparently contributed to their overnight annihilation thousands of centuries ago.

In the film as we've known it for years, Altaira's virginal influence on the men — not to mention on her father — is handled with precisely tuned between-the-lines understatement. However, the deleted footage available on this DVD makes it clear that originally her newly discovered nubility received more direct attention. Snipped from the final release print was dialogue between Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) and Capt. Adams, with the good Doc trying to explain Alta's seemingly magical rapport with her animal friends on Altair 4. He references the myth of the unicorn and the girl's "maiden purity." Later, Doc points out that she possesses an "exceptionally fine human brain in a totally unawakened female body." Adams replies, "Of course, it'll be a pity when the time comes that she has to lose a gift like that." Gift schmift. Had those lines remained, the tropes of Fifties-era female "virtue" would have collided with the hormonal imaginations of every male in the audience already picturing the "awakening" of that female body. Suddenly Forbidden Planet's sense of wonder takes on a whole new prurient vividness, and might have ushered in a generation's puberty — or boosted enrollment in the space program — years before America was ready.

As it stands, there's no question why it's Anne Francis who got her name marqueed in the opening lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The 50th Anniversary DVD

"Look at the color of that sky ... a man could get used to this, grow to love it." — Doc Ostrow

For the film's golden anniversary, Warner has done such a good job refurbishing the film and filling a second disc with quality supplements that chucking out the 1997 DVD edition for this upgrade is a no-brainer for any fan, not to mention an essential acquisition for anyone who doesn't yet have this title on the Genre Classics shelf.

This improved print and transfer (also available in Hi-Def) restores at least most of the original gorgeous Metrocolor gusto to its widescreen canvas (2.35:1, anamorphic). Colors are, predictably, stronger than in the previous edition. Black levels appear deeper, along with improved clarity and definition. While some faint hairline scratches remain in the print, the image has been cleaned up considerably. So while this disc doesn't approach the heights of Warner's finest vintage restorations, the quality is so high that long-time fans will mutter "So that's what it's supposed to look like" a few times.

The audio, also cleaned-up and boosted, has received the DD 5.1 treatment, and it's done well. The surround spread is given mainly to the environmental ambiance of the film's unique "electronic tonalities" score and some sound effects. The temptation to place the audience in the middle of all-encompassing blaster barrage during the Id Monster battle must have been hard to resist, but this remastering is effective yet restrained. Purists, though, have reason to grouch that the original monaural track is absent, a curious omission.

The range of extras is impressive. For aficionados, highlights include "Lost Footage" and "Deleted Scenes" that genre experts have talked and written about for years, but that haven't been widely available since the film's old Criterion Laserdisc edition. Also here are promotional material produced by MGM for TV, three documentaries, and two follow-up features capitalizing on Robby the Robot's popularity (not to mention his availability as an expensive ready-to-use prop).

The Lost Footage (9 mins.) features test footage of special-effects sequences, such as planets and starfields, "DC Stations," the C-57D model over Altair 4, alternate takes of the spaceship landing and the Id Monster's "footprints," matte paintings of the Krell Machine, and footage incorporated into the Id Monster blaster battle.

Deleted Scenes (13 mins.) presents footage from a "workprint" used by the film's composers, editors, and effects artists during post-production. Some of these moments were deleted from the film entirely, while other footage gives us scenes in their rough state before the addition of special-effects and sound. The material is displayed flat and heavily picture-boxed, and some of it is poor shape, but it's certainly welcome. The chief points of interest are the alternate opening narration; the spaceship landing; a wholly cut sequence of Robby speeding Adams and his men across the desert in the "atomic car" toward their first encounter with Morbius; and the dialogue concerning Altaira's "maiden purity."

Amazing: Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet is a new and well-made 26-minute documentary/appreciation about the film's genesis, production, and lasting influence. On hand are actors Lelsie Nielson, Anne Francis, Earl Holliman, Warren Stevens, and Richard Anderson; co-composer Bebe Barron; Robby's designer Robert Kinoshita; director-fans John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and John Landis; genre film historians Bill Warren and Bob Burns; special effects pros John Dykstra and Dennis Muren; science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster, and others. Production designs, behind-the-scenes footage, and warm reminiscences highlight this informative tribute.

Film clips are plentiful in an entertaining hour-long Turner Classic Movies special from 2005, Watch the Skies: Science-Fiction, the 1950s and Us. It places Forbidden Planet and its kin within the context of the 1950s' boom in science-fiction movies. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and other enthusiasts recount their personal experiences with the giant bugs, alien invaders, and other manifestations of our national psychology in movies from an era steeped in Cold War paranoia, Atomic Age anxieties, and post-war optimism about voyages to the moon, Mars, and beyond. It was written, directed, and produced by film critic, author, and documentarian Richard Schickel, and narrated by Mark Hamill.

Robby takes center stage in Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon (13 mins.), an examination of Robby's design, creation, and pop-cultural impact, a celebrity status that no other robot received until C-3PO and R2-D2 hit the screen. Giving the big guy his due are Robby's designer, Robert Kinoshita; collector/film director William Malone, who now owns the original Robby; and Fred "The Robot Man" Barton, who builds beautiful authorized, full-scale Robby replicas for the more well-heeled devotees.

Walter Pidgeon addresses us in MGM Parade Excerpts from Episodes 27 & 28. While hosting a TV adaptation of "Captains Courageous," he breaks to promote his new MGM feature, Forbidden Planet. Robby joins him in one of them, and the spot gives Robby a weird malevolent twist that must have come from some PR hack's idea of what a giant robot was supposed to act like.

Robby returned to a co-starring role in 1957's The Invisible Boy, a feature-length kids' film written by Forbidden Planet's scriptwriter Cyril Hume. This time Robby teams up with a boy on present-day Earth to save the world from an evil super-computer created by the boy's father. It's strictly for the young males who spent their lawn-mowing money at the Saturday cinema, but as such it's a nifty wish-fulfillment fantasy: precocious Timmy gets to have his own personal super-robot pal, fly above his suburban neighborhood in a new heli-vehicle, become invisible to evade his parents' anti-shenanigans watchfulness, take a ride into outer space aboard a purloined rocketship, and help save the world. At the end of his adventures, he avoids a spanking when Robby intervenes, prompting Dad to give him a glass of juice instead. It's not a bad film, all things considered, and its low-fi, dreamy boy's-eye-view approach makes it a more nuts-and-bolts companion to the surreal Invaders from Mars. The print and transfer on this DVD are very good.

Robby, with various modifications, made appearances on TV shows for years afterward, most famously on The Twilight Zone. Here we find him framed for murder in "Robot Client," a 1958 episode of "The Thin Man" TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora Charles. It's a bland episode from a middling series, but a welcome bit of Robby TV nostalgia nonetheless.

Rounding off the extras is a Theatrical Trailer Gallery with a generous collection of trailers for Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Black Scorpion, The Time Machine, Them!, and The Invisible Boy.

—Mark Bourne

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