Few science fiction films of the 1950’s left as much of an impact as Forbidden Planet. Gene Roddenberry often cited the film as the birth of Star Trek. It is in this film that he took away the interactions of an interstellar craft’s bridge crew. Even the United Planets organization in Forbidden Planet heralds Trek’s United Federation of Planets. Robby the Robot would become a science fiction icon and lead to a great number of copycats, most notably the Lost In Space robot. Robby even made a cameo on that show. MGM …ulled out all the stops on what must have appeared to be a risky proposition. Certainly science fiction films were popular, particularly as drive-in fare, but most were created on shoestring budgets. Forbidden Planet was an honest to goodness blockbuster budget film long before the steady stream of big budget genre films were popular. MGM launched one of its largest promotional campaigns. For one of the first times in Hollywood history, there were product tie-ins and cross promotion on other MGM properties. Many of the images from Forbidden Planet were already familiar to the movie-going public before the film’s actual release. If anything else, this film would provide a model that huge budget films of today still follow when they hit the market. More than just science fiction cinema changed with this milestone release.
The cast of Forbidden Planet was another trend setter. Walter Pidgeon was already quite an established name outside of science fiction circles. Until this time, most of these films featured no name actors or contract players obligated to participate in whatever was tossed their way. Some prestige was bestowed upon the genre with that kind of a cast decision. Anne Francis, of course, steals the show whenever she is present on screen. Unlike the roles for women often provided on these kinds of things, Francis was given a chance to show true acting skills instead of simply being eye candy for the male audience. That’s not to say she wasn’t quite attractive, but the part required a great deal of emoting that this young actress was able to pull off nearly perfectly. Leslie Nielsen, now more renowned for his deadpan comedy, plays the ship’s commander. It’s not hard to see where Kirk got his flair for the feminine charms while watching Commander Adams working on Altaira. Future Six Million Dollar Man’s Oscar Goldman, Richard Anderson is also a pleasant casting gem.
The real star of Forbidden Planet has to be the f/x. The first truly big budget f/x film utilized almost every option available at the time. There were wonderful practical effects using state of the art models. Quite a few camera f/x can be spotted, such as the shutters that protect the family’s home. The spectacular work, however, can be found in stunning animated effects. From the Id creature to a full out assault sequence, the f/x are quite effective.
Finally, credit must be given to the story itself. Originally titled Fatal Planet, the script manages to touch upon some heavy psychological material here, concepts such as the Id and the control it might have on our actions is ripped straight from the texts of Freud. The not so subtle subtext of Altair’s loss of innocence was also very heady stuff for a science fiction film in 1956. All too often f/x films sacrifice any pretext at high concepts in a mistaken belief that too much philosophy takes away from the grand spectacle itself. As Sam Raimi has discovered, such concepts only make the spectacle that much more believable. Forbidden Planet never talks down to its audience. Instead, it expects you to keep up or risk being befuddled by the plot. It invites you to guess along with Adams what force is threatening the crew. It is also nice to see Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics given perhaps their first film reference. The story never lags long enough for you to simply enjoy the display, and it is in that quality that Forbidden Planet is just as enjoyable today as it was 50 years ago.
Forbidden Planet is presented in its original Cinescope aspect ratio of 2.45:1. This print is dazzling in its brilliance. The animated f/x are exploding in vivid colors, the likes of which I suspect even the original audiences never quite saw. The print is nearly flawless, which considering its age is evidence of a tedious but rewarding task of restoration. This is perhaps the best job of print restoration I have seen in a film this old. You will simply not believe you are watching a 50 year old film. Black levels are excellent, providing a tremendous level of depth and detail. There is the occasional shot that hints at the film’s true age, but the overall effort is nothing short of a miracle..
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not near as outstanding as the video, but it does deliver. The expanded sound field is simply glorious. The ethereal score comes through clean enough without any of the hiss the earlier version provided. Dialogue is clean and always understandable. Some of the film’s sound f/x get lost in the mix but are still remarkably preserved.
This is a 2-disc set. Disc 1 features the film and some of the bonus material:
“Deleted Scenes” This footage is incredibly rough, and some of you will find it to harsh to attempt to view. For the rest of us, the historical impact of the footage is the true treasure here.An alternate opening narrative begins the 13 minutes of footage provided. Text screens introduce each segment to provide some perspective. There is also an included section called “Lost Footage” which offers more of the same. Here you’ll see some of the shots before and during the f/x process.
“MGM Parade” As part of the extensive promotional campaign the film underwent, Walter Pidgeon appeared twice on the Captains Courageous television show to plug the film. These are in black and white. The second segment features Robby and a sinister but humorous showcase.
“The Thin Man: Robot Client” Robby the Robot has appeared in many other films and television programs including Lost In Space and Columbo. This set includes a 25 minute episode of The Thin Man that featured a role for Robby.
Disc 2 features the full length film: “The Invisible Boy” which also included Robby. This black and white film is also restored somewhat and quite enjoyable.
“Watch The Skies: Science Fiction, The 1950’s and Us” This feature clocks in at nearly an hour. I believe it has been included before on DVD, but I can’t remember where. It’s a documentary on the science fiction films of the 1950’s and talks about what influenced them as well as how they influenced us. There’s tons of vintage footage here from pretty much all the big films of the era.
“Amazing: Exploring The Far Reaches Of Forbidden Planet” This 26 minute feature is a vintage behind the scenes piece that acts as a promotional piece as well as an entertaining look at the making of the film. None of this information is really new; however, it’s worth a look.
“Robby the Robot: Engineering a Science Fiction Icon”This is a great piece. If you’ve never seen the workings of Robby, you’re going to like this peek inside. Most of you have seen this before, but it’s certainly worth having.
Forbidden Planet will always share a small place somewhere in my heart. Much of the joy I’ve had watching genre films over the years owes greatly to this masterpiece. A real investment by a top studio was the important first step in taking sci-fi out of the drive-ins and pulp magazines and making it acceptable as mainstream entertainment. And today MGM has once again set a new standard for restoration of genre films. This should be a lesson to studios like Universal with equally important properties that have been less than stellar in their “restored” releases. Hopefully this will begin a new trend of care and effort to bring our science fiction heritage to light. Forbidden Planet is “the real stuff”.”
Special Features List
- MGM Parade
- Additional Scenes
- Lost Footage
- 1958 MGM feature film The Invisible Boy
- The Thin Man TV Series Episode Robot Client
- Forbidden Planet featurette
- “Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon” featurette
- “Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us”
- Science-Fiction Movie Trailer Gallery