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Blu-ray Review: Forbidden Planet (1956)

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Every now and then, there comes a science fiction moving picture that shatters through the barriers of conventional fantasy filmmaking. Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s initial Star Wars entry forever changed the face of sci-fi in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the Fred M. Wilcox-directed masterpiece Forbidden Planet broke the mold of outer space adventures in 1956.

It was a time when science fiction was not taken very seriously by movie studios. Earlier contributions to the genre usually consisted of a group of sexist males clad in unflattering jumpsuits who combated some of the oddest matte paintings and the most unbelievable of special effects known to man. But what set Forbidden Planet apart from many of its predecessors was the fact that it had full financial backing from its studio (MGM). It also offered filmgoers one of the more cerebral scripts of the time — even if it was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Sure, Forbidden Planet definitely boasts more than its fair share of male chauvinism. Hell, it was the ‘50s, after all: a time when the female of the species was considered to be “weaker” than that of her male counterparts. Yes, it also has a lot of now-dated FX (courtesy several animators who were on loan from Disney). But, much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet’s hand-drawn imagery still succeed in causing one’s jaw to drop to this very day.

But wait, there’s more! The film even stars Leslie Nielsen, back when he was a “serious” actor.

Set in the 23rd century, Forbidden Planet begins with the brave (and utterly stereotypical of the time) all-male crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, who have been assigned the task of finding out what happened to the crew of a colonization expedition to Altair IV some two decades before. A radio transmission from Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) informs the ship’s captain, Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), that they are not welcome there, and that he will not assume any responsibility for anything that may happen to his crew. The ship lands anyway, and Adams, along with the ship’s doctor (the great Warren Stevens) and Adams’ second-in-command (Jack Kelly), are promptly greeted by a bulky yet extremely intelligent (not to mention useful) robot named Robby.

Despite the fact that all of his fellow scientists were torn to shreds by an unseen menace some 20 years earlier, Dr. Morbius has managed to build himself a pretty posh pad, where he lives with Robby the Robot (who serves as caretaker/butler/security/etc.) and the doctor’s 19-year-old temptress, Altaira (Anne Francis, who is the very epitome of “yummy” here, as she frequently was in other motion pictures and television series). But Morbius’ cryptic answers as to what happened to the rest of the colonization crew are not satisfactory for Adams and Co. — and so they proceed to stick their noses in the scientist’s affairs until the real (and deadly) truth is uncovered.

While the story may be a bit “slow” for modern audiences (yes, kids, there was a time when movies relied on story rather than CGI-animated blue people), Forbidden Planet still succeeds in being first-rate (if vintage) entertainment. It presents its viewers with an intelligent story, some truly amazing special effects, Anne Francis in several skin-tight outfits, and cinema’s first “smart” robot. Yes, despite his physical clunkiness, Robby the Robot’s design and personality surpassed any and all mechanical men in motion pictures of the time. He even got to star in his own follow-up film, The Invisible Boy, the following year — a film that many will argue over whether it actually is a sequel to Forbidden Planet (like the studio promoted it as) or not — despite the fact that he wasn’t even a “real” entity.

Forbidden Planet also holds a cinematic first for being the foremost film to use an all-electronic score. Whereas previous films had relied heavily on the theremin to convey their science fiction-ness, Forbidden Planet made use of circuits and a ring modulator (isn’t that what Marvin the Martian was always after?) to create what the film’s credits refer to as “electronic tonalities.” Evidently (and the story varies, with one variation claiming the studio simply didn’t want to pay any music guild fees), the musician’s union was none too pleased with such a non-traditional score, and objected to the studio calling such rubbish “music” (if they thought that was bad, I wonder what those same lads would think of Ke$ha if they were still around today).

But, complaints (or not) from any musician’s union aside, Forbidden Planet remains a masterpiece of science fiction to this day, and is a highly recommended feature all around.

As some HD fans may know, this Blu-ray release of Forbidden Planet isn‘t the first High-Def issue the classic film has been suited up for. In 2007, Warner Home Video released a now-out-of-print HD-DVD issue. While I have not seen said HD-DVD issue, it would appear that Warner used the same transfer (but don’t quote me on that). Either way, this Blu-ray release is a truly glorious one. The film has been completely remastered in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer and is presented in its original 2.41:1 widescreen ratio. The transfer is a very crisp one, and its solid colors, deep contrast, and thorough detail make it a keeper.

On the audio front, Warner’s Blu-ray of Forbidden Planet presents a DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack which makes the most of the film’s initially limited (read: mono) audio mix. On the whole, the audio aspects of Forbidden Planet are front speaker-oriented, with the occasional sound effects and dialogue shining through the rear amplifiers. Honestly, there isn’t a lot that could be done with the original source material here without completely re-doing the entire affair (and thus risking a healthy debate from purists). The 50GB disc also includes Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks in French, Spanish, Castilian Spanish, German, and Portuguese. Subtitles in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Castillian Spanish, Portuguese, and Norwegian are included.

Lastly, we come to the special features. Warner has spared no expense in recycling the many bonus materials included in the previous HD-DVD and Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD; releasing them here in Standard Definition. They begin with the 2005 Turner Classic Movies-made documentary Watch The Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us, and are followed up by two retrospective featurettes: “Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet” and “Robby the Robot: Engineering A Sci-Fi Icon.” Next up are two excerpts from the television series MGM Parade, with Walter Pidgeon promoting the film to eager TV audiences everywhere.

For those of you who wish to tackle the “Is The Invisible Boy an actual sequel or not?” controversy, you’ll be pleased to know that the complete feature film in question is presented here in all of its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen (one of the few items that can boast such a claim on this release) glory, so you can judge for yourself (a nice addition indeed). An additional Robby the Robot-oriented goodie is an episode from the ‘50s TV version of The Thin Man (entitled “Robot Client”) featuring the famous automaton. The dynamic selection of bonus items is rounded out with several deleted scenes and “lost footage” (outtakes) which were buried away in the MGM vaults for half a century. Finally, trailers for both Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy are included.

While the SD-only special features bit may leave a few perfectionists gritting their teeth, there’s no denying that Warner’s Blu-ray release of Forbidden Planet is an exceptional one — a truly amazing presentation of an equally incredible tour de force!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.