Forbidden Planet: Premium Collection Review
Before Star Trek, there was Forbidden Planet and it is impossible to understate the influence of this film on that behemoth. Would it have even existed without it? Very hard to say, but it doesn’t matter. Thanks to glorious unparalleled imagery, a scope for invention and a sly, entertaining screenplay, it casts a spell over anyone who loves science fiction, even today. It may still be potent enough to win over young fans. There’s an innocence here that’s missing from more cynical modern equivalents.
Not to suggest it’s perfect; in fact, it’s a bit of a mess in some respects, with inconsistent pacing and over-loaded with exposition. Based on Shakespeare’s Tempest, the story is timeless, but the telling of it is clunky and dated and, sadly, there is no avoiding the great thumping swathes of misogyny. Still, some of its darker themes cast a shadow; where do we come from and what is our fate?
The charming synopsis could be that of a dozen Star Trek episodes. The crew of a space mission from Earth led by Commander Adams (Leslie Neilsen) are investigating the disappearance of a colony of scientists on a distant planet. They find Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the only survivor of the original mission, his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and an indestructible man-servant robot called Robby. Dr. Morbius tries to warn them off, claiming the very planet itself poses a threat and shows them the remnants of an ancient, brilliant alien race that just disappeared, leaving behind their astonishingly advanced technology.
The key point where Forbidden Planet differs from Trek and others it inspired, is the crew, for better and worse. They’re played exactly as if they were manning a submarine in a WWII war movie, which acts as a perfect touchstone for audiences of the time new to colourful sci-fi weirdness. The banter is cheeky, the camaraderie instantly believable. Unfortunately they take it too far where Anne Francis’ naive Altaira is concerned.
Captain Kirk was a maverick, for sure, but he’d surely have been horrified to find his officers in competition with him for her affections. Despite protestations to the contrary, Commander Adams seems to even take a boys-will-boys attitude, while joining in! It’s here where the problems start. Altaira is as forbidden as the rest of the planet and the screenplay makes her dumb enough to not understand men and their desires, but condemns her for it too. Adams even gets angry with her for the effect she has on his crew. And on him, of course. It is certainly a film of its time!
However, this clumsiness is completely offset by the innocence and sheer inventiveness of the wonderful visuals. Forbidden Planet is a giant sandpit of sci-fi ideas and a perfectly delivered premise allows the effects guys to be indulgent. From Dr. Morbius’ home to the secret alien tunnels and caverns, it’s perfectly realised. The detail paid to things like the flying saucer craft landing, the vehicles they use and the areas they explore is astonishing. And when the invisible alien creature starts attacking the ship, it’s genuinely scary, especially given substance by an ambitious psychological edge. The links to Tempest are worn proudly. But an invisible monster might make you think it was a cheap shortcut; on the contrary, while it probably was difficult to create a convincing monster, revealing it’s shape by laser blasts and footsteps appearing in the sand are brilliantly done.
There’s always one eye on fun too, like Robby The Robot who is fantastic, whether defending his master’s house, or brewing 60 gallons of bourbon for the ship’s cook; his silly name an example of the self-deprecating humour evident throughout (especially by the end, which has a sting in the tail and gives the robot a little grit). But he's tough as nails and there is a feeling he is holding back. If anything, one small criticism of the film is that it doesn't deliver on implied promise; Robby isn't throwing girls around like he is shown doing on the evocative cover, nor do the ancient Krell come back like the three bears wondering who has messed with their porridge. Actually though this is a mark of the film's longer ambition that has sustained it over the decades since its release.
Poor gender attitudes aside, the characters are all defined and theatrically well-played. Fans of Naked Gun may need a moment to get used to Leslie Neilsen being deadpan and meaning it, but that’s hardly his fault! And Walter Pidgeon is superb as the intelligent, but soul-tortured Dr. Morbius. He’s similar in many ways to Captain Nemo and while the film as a whole sits somewhere between Silent Running and Flash Gordon, it’s heart belongs to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the innocent era that gave us gloriously entertaining films like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The very opening credits evokes nostalgia for a bygone age of Saturday morning at the pictures, even for those of us that weren't there!
These days we are saturated by sci-fi and a fresh aesthetic seems elusive now. The delivery may be flawed, it’s attitudes dated, but for pure flight of science-fiction imagination, where modern equivalents like Prometheus stumble, the imaginative charm of Forbidden Planet is timeless for sci-fan fans of any age.
The opening credits proudly boast “Technicolour!” and this fine transfer exploits the original intentions better than any previous release I have seen. The spacecraft and the crew themselves are largely muted and grey or crimson, making a solid, bright contrast with the strange colours of the planet and its inhabitants. The source material isn’t perfect, but given a glistening HD presentation, it simply adds to the charm. It’s hard to say if it’s George Folsey’s photography, the set production, the effects or model work, but it’s a solid looking film in all respects.
Like the colours of the film, designed to be unusual and alien, Bebe and Louis Barron’s electronic music is a powerful tool in the movie. Forbidden Planet was one of many films at the time capturing the public’s thirst for paranoid science-fiction, but as well as the oddly witty dialogue, the experimental soundtrack helps it stand-out. The DTS-HD remix is perfectly balanced and crisp.
Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 50s and Us (56m) is a collection of clips from classics of the genre from more paranoid times. Directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron talk about growing up in those times and watching films like Forbidden Planet and Them.
Amazing!: Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet (27m) looks at the film’s place in cinema history and the considerable benchmark it set for many years.
Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon (14m) explores the legacy of Forbidden Planet’s wonderful robot character, at odds with the artwork for the film that suggested he was a threat in the film.
Deleted Scenes / Lost Footage is a fascinating collection that sheds some light on one of the film’s few flaws. Is the pacing and editing a bit off because it was never finished properly? A rough cut proved so popular, it was rushed out for release.
The Invisible Boy (89m), a full length movie, sequel to Forbidden Planet to exploit the popularity of Robby the Robot. A contrived plot finds him on Earth, befriended by a young boy. It’s a bit silly, but it’s more Robby! Was this the first sci-fi character to escape his origin film? We get even more of him in the TV episode…
The Thin Man: Robot Client (26m) with Peter Lawford. Daft, but a wonderful curiosity.