Forbidden Planet: 50th Anniversary Edition Review
Two hundred years from now, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D is travelling through space en route to Altair IV, where it hopes to learn what happened to the expedition that travelled out twenty years earlier. During that time, not one signal was received, nothing to say that the expedition was successful nor that its members are even alive. As Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) guides his ship nearer the planet, a long range scan indicates that there is an enormous power source on Altair IV but a voice is heard on the ship's communicator, identifying itself as Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the only survivor from the original expedition, which warns the crew of Cruiser C-57D not to come any closer. Acknowledging the warning but not its message, United Planets Cruiser C-57D continues its journey down onto the surface of Altair IV, curious as to what awaits them.
On landing, they are met by Morbius, who introduces himself, his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and their metal-and-circuits servant Robby The Robot (Frankie Darro and Marvin Miller). When asked about the rest of the party that travelled with them to Altair IV, Morbius takes Adams to a set of graves in the dust of the desert and explains how they died by unknown means, each one of them ripped apart soon before his own wife died of natural causes. Since then, Morbius and Altaira have lived peacefully on Altair IV, one pursuing the knowledge of the alien civilisation who once lived on the planet and the other a life that might well be described as idyllic. But as the days pass and Adams' crew take advantage of his hospitality and that of his daughter, Morbius is seen scowling at them, letting them know that they are no longer welcome. And that night something invisible creeps through the defences around the ship and slaughters one of Adams' men. It would seem that the death has come once again to Altair IV...
Like many of those who have enjoyed Forbidden Planet over the last fifty years, I certainly wasn't aware of what a monster from the Id was when aged seven or eight and watching this on a late-night showing on the BBC. One can well imagine theatres full of similarly-aged children watching this in the mid-to-late-fifties and being suitably terrified by the actual monster, the final approach of something unseen and the bleeps, groans, whines and screeches of Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score but being entirely baffled by Doc Ostrow telling Commander John J. Adams, "Monsters, John. Monsters from the Id!" as he lay dying on a sofa. Morbius' "My evil self is at that door and I have no power to stop him!" is no less confusing but as the Barrons pre-Moog tones reach an excruciating pitch and something melts down the door that exists between it and Morbius, Forbidden Planet reveals itself as a film that asks nothing of its audience than that they enjoy being terrified. And certainly no knowledge of the id, ego or superego.
My own liking of it comes from its handling of the horror staple of the haunted house, albeit this time cast as being planet-sized and in space, and how terrifying that is, not only the passing of the journey there but also what they will encounter on their arrival. One fully expects that films made well before this one dealt with a group of travellers being warned off entering a haunted house and being picked off during their stay there - regardless of how innovative Forbidden Planet is elsewhere, this feels like familiar territory - but this places it not only in a beautiful Techinolor landscape but with a picking up of titbits from elsewhere to make a rather wonderful whole. Similarly, the lifting of The Tempest feels perfectly natural, the lift of Anne Francis' breasts less so with even the notes, if they can be described as such, of Louis and Bebe Barron's fitting perfectly into a film that nudges against Tron for its complete immersion in science-fiction. It is marvellous and gets better with age, when its smarter moments can be better appreciated, even to its monsters from the id!
The first ten minutes or thereabouts do much to set the tone of the film, reveling in the technology and the visuals of space flight whilst a no-nonsense crew led by a serious, pre-Airplane! Leslie Nielsen conduct what we're led to imagine will be routine operations two centuries from now. The long-range scans, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D soaring through space and the crew steeling themselves for the deceleration from faster-than-light travel are all handled in a manner that might be described as nonchalant, everything functioning perfectly in a way that is at odds with Morbius' meddling with the vast array of the Krell technology on Altair IV. The descent of the ship carries on in this manner but recognising that the film needs space to breathe, Morbius not only brings Robby The Robot to Cruiser C-57D to serve its crew as it does he and Altaira but to give the film a sense of humour, cracking a techno-gag or two about his own strength and, doing the decent thing by the ship's cook, supplying gallons of rye whiskey via a sampling. That Robby burps after doing so might be rewarded with a groan had it occurred in another film but it's rather a charming moment here.
However, there are three great setpieces that are worthy of mention, all of which will be indelibly printed on the mind of anyone who watched this at an impressionable age. Most memorable of all is the attack on the defences around the Cruiser C-57D, which follows two earlier breaches by an unseen force that only makes its presence felt via a footprint in the sand. With Robby telling the crew of something approaching their location and then, acting somewhat suspiciously, deciding to leave, the invisible threat is revealed when the defences around the ship capture the creature, outlined in the flickering blue lights of the particle beam weapons. Contrary to the warnings of their commanding officer, several of the crew of the C-57D approach the monster and find themselves being torn apart or trampled underfoot, which, were that not terrifying enough, is accompanied by Louis and Bebe Barron's primitive electronic instruments surging towards a crescendo that is somewhere between screaming in pain and as a warning.
Almost as impressive is what we're permitted to see of the Krell underground city, which disappears deep into the Altair IV and, as Morbius describes it, has been tuning and lubricating itself, replacing worn parts during the two-hundred-thousand years between the Krell becoming extinct and the arrival of the Bellerophon expedition. Eight-thousand-cubic-miles in volume, seven-thousand-eight-hundred-levels and with powered by nine-thousand-two-hundred nuclear reactors working as one, the Krell facility is a marvel of visual design and, thanks to the Barron's bleeping, audio effects. In particular, the sight of a giant ventilation shaft with lightning striking between contacts, various pieces of machinery descending on rails and Morbius, Adams and Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) appearing as tiny specks on a giant walkway is a sight that would be unequalled in sci-fi until the release of Blade Runner. Finally, there is the attack of the Krell creature on Morbius' own home with his subconscious drawing on the entire Krell powerplant to feed the appetite of the monster it has created.
That the monster isn't outside the door at all is an entirely fitting end to a film that in amongst the moments of comedy, special effects and kissing with Anne Francis was a film that aimed much higher than the average sci-fi horror. But in recognising that too many smarts could make for a very dull film, Forbidden Planet basks in a stunning set design, some lovely characters and, with the Barron's electronic groaning, bleeping and throbbing, a genuinely innovative soundscape. Most of all, though, it revels in being of the future, almost as much as would Tron much later, with it hardly aging over the fifty years since its release. By any use of the word, that implies classic status and so it is with Forbidden Planet, one of the all-time sci-fi masterpieces. This time, the hype is quite right.
Once again, Warner Brothers have done a superb job with their transfer of Forbidden Planet. Appearing on television in a hodgepodge of aspect ratios - a recent Five Saturday-afternoon broadcast was in 1.33:1 whilst TCM's showings are in grainy widescreen - it is presented here in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and looks terrific. The print has been restored by Warner's archive team to their usual standard with not a blemish in sight, leaving it looking pristine. There has always been a slight softness to Forbidden Planet, which is evident here as well, but it is still a sharper presentation than this viewer has ever seen it before, with the animated sequences - the attack of the Id Monster, the landing of the spacecraft and Robby's shorting-out - looking better than ever. Colours are exactly what one would want from a Technicolor feature and the whole thing is yet another title that Warner Brothers have done an outstanding job on.
However, the soundtrack is even better. Mixed into DD5.1, the dialogue is a touch flat but the music by Louis and Bebe Barron is wonderful, perhaps even amongst the best experiences that I've had with watching a DVD this year. Using the rear channels to bring the soundtrack out from the front a little and enveloping the audience in the shrieks and oscillations of the Barron's equipment, Forbidden Planet sounds as good as one could ever have hoped it would and whilst there may be grumbles at the lack of a mono audio track, I don't think I've ever heard a film treated with such respect. What they have achieved is more than one could have asked for.
Deleted Scenes (13m13s): The title screen here says that, "the footage you are about to see originates from a Forbidden Planet workprint that was used as a reference tool for the film's composers, editors and effects artists during post-production." What follows are scenes that were either deleted from the film entirely or are presented in a fairly rough state, which appears visually scratchy and audibly noisy. Opening with a new introduction to the film, these scenes would have been scattered throughout the film, presenting three scenes set on the United Planets Cruiser C-57D and others on the planet's surface. Robby, for example, has a different voice artist to that used in the final film whilst a scene set on Robby's land cruiser clearly doesn't fit with the standards of effects throughout the rest of the film. Still, what is presented here is of a high standard and with some of the effects shots in place, such as the attack by the Id Monster, is only let down by the state the print is in.
Lost Footage (9m21s): Included here is footage that has been locked away in the vaults for the last fifty years, which is presented with title cards to make it easier to place in the world of Forbidden Planet. What we see are special effects, matte paintings, the flight of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D over the planet's surface and test footage of the invisible Id Monster making footprints in the sand.
MGM Parade (6m16s): Walter Pidgeon presents both of these, leaving his current location to get into his space suit, grow a beard and travel two-hundred years into the future to the surface of Forbidden Planet. With Pidgeon now returning as Dr Morbius, he narrates footage from the film in these two features on MGM's film presentations, using one to plan on the horror in the film and the other to introduce Robby The Robot to the folks at home.
Episode From The Thin Man (25m34s): Peter Lawford, once a member of the Rat Pack and brother-in-law of John F Kennedy, stars in this episode of the detective show based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name. With Robby The Robot guest-starring, MGM are clearly getting their money's worth out of building him, putting him in a story that implies he's run amok and injuring his human colleagues whilst Lawford wonders if he's not being used by someone bearing a grudge. However, this does seem like a peculiar choice on this set when it could have been included in the Engineering A Sci-Fi Icon on the second disc.
Finally, there is a set of Trailers, including those from The Thing From Another World (1m32s), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (2m31s), Them! (3m17s), Forbidden Planet (3m40s), The Black Scorpion (2m05s), The Invisible Boy (2m30s) and The Time Machine (2m30s).
The Invisible Boy (89m23s): Although there is no commentary - one can only imagine how the Leslie Nielsen of Forbidden Planet would compare with the Nielsen on the commentary who's now rarely without his fart machine - this DVD set more than makes up for it with the inclusion of this film, a black-and-white movie that mixes an anti-war message, Robby The Robot and hints and tips on how to be a better parent. Starring Richard Eyer as Timmie Merrinoe, he's something of a disappointment to his father, Dr Merrinoe (Philip Abbott), who can't quite understand how his son, in spite of being aged ten, doesn't play a decent game of chess, can't quite work out fractions and struggles with the most basic of melodies on the piano. Using his knowledge of artificial intelligence and the thousands of transistors at his disposal, Dr Merrinoe puts his son into a deep sleep and has his computer read a chess manual at him.
The next day, Timmie beats his father at chess and puts a dusty old robot together, one that a photo on the wall suggests came through a time machine from a point three hundred years in the future. But Robby's no fun. Everything Timmie wants to do, such as take a trip in the giant kite Robby has constructed, the robot says no to, telling Timmie that should any harm come to him, Robby would be breaking his prime directive. Until, that is, Timmie requests that the computer bypasses this limitation but seems to be rather keen to do so. Could the computer, which shows signs of an increasing intelligence, be planning something? And might it involve Timmie, Robby and a space rocket that's due to launch in the near future?
The Invisible Boy is certainly nowhere near being on a par with Forbidden Planet but there's some fun to be had with it, largely with a set of performances that threaten to tip over into parody and, of course, Robby The Robot. However, were it not for Robby, who has a certain charm from his appearing in Forbidden Planet, it might well be the kind of film that MST3K would have happily chatted over, with its homespun characters favouring an, "Aww, shucks!" school of expression and looking as cheap as many an early Roger Corman movie but without that same excitement.
Watch The Skies!: Science Fiction, The 1950S And Us (55m28s): Whilst not looking as though it was made specifically for this set, this is still a good documentary on classic sci-fi, interviewing Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and Ridley Scott amongst others to paint a picture of the genre during the fifties. With much footage of giant insects, aliens and atomic weapons, this is an entertaining feature, which continues to walk the well-worn bridge between the fear of atomic destruction and fifty-foot monsters. However, there are some marvellous films that are included here, such as The Monolith Monsters - giant crystals grow and fall over on homes, cities and people - The Incredible Shrinking Man and Them! All of these are talked about without any sneering and with a genuine love of their willingness to explore the boundaries of filmmaking via weightlessness, alien planets populated only by women and homely cups of coffee and they zoomed through the stars. There is, as an example, one funny look at the times, showing, via the distorted faces of two male space-pilots, the effects of g-forces but which then cuts to a female pilot whose two-torpedoes-in-a-sweater breasts remain unmoved. But it does eventually take matters more seriously with Destination Moon, the superb The Thing From Another World and, of course, Forbidden Planet.
All-New Amazing! Exploring The Far Reaches Of Forbidden Planet (26m33s): After a long lead-in via all these other features, this 50th Anniversary Special Edition finally gets around to a documentary on the film in question. Featuring interviews with Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and Eart Holliman as well as Rudy Behlmer and John Carpenter, this describes the making of Forbidden Planet, the stunning visual effects and the inventive musical score. Best of all, this interviews Ben Burtt and Bebe Barron regarding this score, allowing half of the husband-and-wife team of composers the opportunity to describe her work on the film and the difficulty there was in not only making the music but in also making the electronics to play it.
Robby The Robot: Engineering A Sci-Fi Icon (13m44s): Featuring a good man sci-fi icons and film historians - Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Rudy Behlmer, Ben Burtt and Alan Dead Foster - as well as Anne Francis, this feature describes those first reactions everyone had to seeing Robby for the first time before discussing the problems the makers of Forbidden Planet had in working with Robby on the set. With the original Robby showing up to be poked, prodded and presented to the audience, this goes on to highlight Robby's guest appearances in other shows, such as The Thin Man, Wonder Woman, Gremlins and Looney Tunes - Back In Action as well as model builder Fred Barton showing you can have your very own Robby at home.
In the contributor's list of favourite science-fiction films, I included Tron to the list, saying that - and I apologise once again for the use of this term - science-fiction-y of the lot. More than any of the actual scenes listed, Forbidden Planet works for being completely in love with what is possible in science-fiction, that everything will be of the future. From the visuals, the use of animation, terms like quanto-gravitetic drive, blasters, a robot, a vast alien civilisation and the inventiveness of the Barron's musical score, Forbidden Planet is a long love-letter to science-fiction. Taking simply one small moment, there is more invention in the showing of the Krell doorways and the kind of creatures they suggest than there is in almost every other film of the genre released at that same time and for this consistency, it is a remarkable film. So remarkable, in fact, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if we were celebrating its release in another fifty years.