Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fifties Science Fiction films are known more for opportunism than their overall pursuit of excellence. The public at large considered written Sci-Fi to be children's fare or simply Buck Rogers in pulp fiction form, fodder for comic books. When they came to see The Thing from Another World or This Island Earth, a big part, if not all of the attraction was to see an old-fashioned monster in an up-to-date setting. Books about horror films often dismiss the entire fifties Sci-Fi boom by implying that outer space monsters were unwelcome guests that stayed for seven years, until The Curse of Frankenstein reclaimed the Gothic spotlight.
Forbidden Planet is the lone fifties effort that embraces the genre's potential for speculative ideas, backed by the committed production resources of a major studio. The futuristic science is more than an excuse for a monster; entire sequences are dedicated to the exploration of abstract, wondrous concepts. It is also perhaps the first "out of this world" film that really shows what special effects can accomplish when a sizeable budget is allocated. Most earlier Sci-Fi tales limited their depictions of spaceships and strange environments to a few scenes, or even a few shots. Forbidden Planet is the first film to take place entirely within a fantastic and futuristic world, all of which had to be conceived and constructed from the stage floor up.
Star cruiser C-57D returns to the planet Altair-4 to check up on the Bellerophon expedition, that disappeared there ten years before. They find only Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), living alone with an amazing robot named Robby. Displeased by his host's insistence that they leave, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) presses for more information on the fate of the other Bellerophon colonists, and an explanation for Morbius' possession of scientific knowledge far in advance of Earth's. Morbius' secrecy combined with an awareness of a strange ghostlike presence on Altair-4, lead Adams to decide that further investigation is required ... even when Morbius alludes to dire consequences.
Forbidden Planet has all the elements for unlimited audience appeal: An engaging script, romance and a congenial robot butler named Robby to amuse space-crazy kids. The film's middling box office performance can only be chalked up to the public perception of the Sci-Fi genre. By 1956 audiences had already been burned by plenty of cheap pictures hiding behind attractive ad campaigns. Space pictures were out of the mainstream, something for teenagers. Forbidden Planet's ethereal charms didn't appeal to the broadest demographic. In many homes weird and far out film fare wasn't exactly encouraged. The space movie did better business than other Sci-Fi pictures but not enough to justify its enormous cost: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers earned almost as much, but was made for relative peanuts.
All that means nothing in the long run, for Forbidden Planet has persisted as the wonder film of its time. Kids hungry for a glimpse of a rocket or a neat special effect sat astonished at the film's wall-to-wall visual feast. The previous year's This Island Earth seemed cheap by comparison, with its cartoonish Mutant and a spaceship interior that used glass bricks from the garden store. There's no waiting until Act 2 to see something unusual; a beautiful space cruiser glides through the frame in the very first shot, followed by one amazing visual after another: A planet turning in space, a glowing eclipse, a saucer landing in an eerie desert under a green sky. The characters are professional spacemen and not gawking civilians. And that's only the beginning of the wonders to be found on Altair-4.
Forbidden Planet's vision is like the Monsanto Kitchen of the Future, with a little sex. Anne Francis' virginal Altaira communes telepathically with a deer and a tiger, providing a thematic harmony with the mythological. Altaira's miniskirt and coquettish ignorance of 'space wolves' only makes her more attractive.
Allen Adler and Irving Block's story appealed to MGM's Dore Schary because it goes beyond space opera hardware. The sophisticated back-story for the "Fatal Planet" still has the power to energize the imagination. The narrative stops dead still for what is essentially a fifteen-minute archeological rumination, an investigation of an extinct civilization. The ancient Krel are long gone but their technology lives on. An amazing twenty-square mile power plant and machine complex still functions under the surface of the planet. Morbius says that he's tapped a tiny portion of its knowledge, doubled his own brain-power and used it to 'cobble together' wonders like Robby. (spoiler)
The mystery of the Forbidden Planet is based on Freudian principles, spelled out in the script as clearly as are Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, the ethical 'prime directives' that govern Robby the Robot. Morbius reveals that the giant Krel machines were built to convert desires into physical realities by thought alone, without "instrumentalities." Its purpose was to allow each Krel citizen to be free of the physical limitations of their bodies, to essentially become demi-Gods. The very human-seeming Krel didn't realize that they would be giving this power not only to their ethical conscious selves, but also to their unknown secret subconscious selves -- potential monsters if ever set free. Soon after the Krel activated their massive machine, they perished in an orgy of destruction and murder.
Morbius tells this entire tale unaware that its lesson applies to him as well. He deciphered the secrets of the Krell, and when his fellow colonists disagreed with his 'enlightened' decisions his subconscious sent out an Id Monster to destroy them.
That's deep-dish stuff for a space opera partially aimed at kiddies, and it opens many channels of thought. First, the Krel machines resemble a modern computer on a vast scale. Morbius talks of relays opening and closing, which of course makes us think of the micro-switches that form the basis of computers. The ultimate machine links the entire planet and its inhabitants in a World Wide Web that goes beyond communication to actually perform physical actions. It's as if a 'flame' E-mail had the power to punch the recipient in the nose. If the Web suddenly projected our secret malign thoughts into violent actions, the ugly aftermath would certainly resemble the Freudian holocaust described in Forbidden Planet.
Morbius is a dark character. His conscious mind has invented the benign Robby and built a beautiful oasis in the Altairian desert, but he's unaware of his own inner demons. His elevated intelligence is mirrored by an unconscious sense of superiority and a lust for power. The Id is his Mr. Hyde, so to speak. The public Morbius is secretive but concerned, and honestly hopes that his visitors will leave before his paradise is disturbed. It doesn't work out that way. Adams disrupts his plans and announces his intention to take the Krell discoveries back to civilization. Morbius knows that to possess the knowledge of the Krel is to commit genocidal suicide. It's a Fatal Planet.
Morbius is also a father, in a vague competition with his daughter's suitors. "Nobody is good enough for my daughter" is easily interpreted as an incestuous expression. In this case Morbius' subconscious wishes to keep defending its kin when that function is no longer wanted.
To take this examination one step further, Forbidden Planet displays a refined version of the basic Sci-Fi argument started in The Thing from Another World. Howard Hawks' film overtly states that Science is ultimately anti-humanistic and not to be trusted, that scientists live by cold rules of logic disconnected from spirituality, faith and sentiment. Pure science, The Thing teaches, is an ideology unto itself, an unholy cult. Hawks' film came out strongly in favor of the patriotic, aggressive soldiers and against Dr. Carrington, the pacifist & defeatist scientist.
Forbidden Planet's Morbius is a more refined Dr. Carrington, a liberal monster as defined by conservatives. Morbius is a grand elitist convinced of the superiority of his viewpoint; other men are midgets by comparison. But Morbius is blind to his obvious inner flaws; he's overblown with hubris and his altruism hides a basic narcissism. He's supremely intelligent, yet must have the lowdown about the Id and the 'primitive savage' explained to him by the relatively unintelligent -- but spiritually correct -- Captain Adams. Only Adams brings up the subject of God and spirituality. Morbius is damned because his new intellectual talents have him knocking on the door of God-hood, a religious taboo even when done for the most benign of reasons. Being Super-Smart feeds the Ego, which makes one disloyal to one's fellows (Adams even uses the word comrades) and thus a terrible monster. Dr. Morbius might be a backlash to Ayn Rand, an anti- Howard Roark. The common good requires the elimination of the occasional visionary egghead, as they tend to be wholly irresponsible.
The conclusion goes back to the basics of moral suppression. Inner demons must be held in check by laws and limits, and for their blasphemy the Krel paid with their entire civilization. The super-science of the Krel is BAD, and God-fearing humans have no use for it. Nobody cries when Altair-4 is eradicated by an atomic blast.
Pauline Kael's Forbidden Planet review noted its clever adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and also expressed her disappointment in the film's conception of a militaristic space-age future. Our brave spacemen are ray-gun toting soldiers with itchy trigger fingers. Outer space is an extension of the Wild West, where one anticipates violence and aggression in every encounter. Although Forbidden Planet's ideas run deep, its surface is firmly anchored in the middle of the Cold War.
MGM's Ultimate Collector's Edition of Forbidden Planet contains the 50th Anniversary Edition with its new improved transfer, also soon to be available in Hi-Def. The color and encoding are an improvement over the earlier disc from 1997 and the image shows signs of digital clean-up along with a Herculean attempt to recover faded color values. Never having seen a new, un-faded Metrocolor print, I can't say if the film originally looked this way. Only Robby the Robot's animated pyrotechnics when his brain short-circuits seem wrong -- color values seem to have changed there. Elsewhere the new version is beautiful. Somebody finally thought to slightly enlarge the shots of Morbius' steel shutters closing, which have always betrayed flickering splice marks with every jump-cut panel banging into place.
The two-disc set has plenty of extras. Viewers that never saw the early Criterion disc with the work print excerpts will be happy to know that they are here; they came originally from a 16mm print sent to aid Louis and Bebe Barron in concocting their revolutionary synthetic soundscapes and 'electronic tonalities' score. Fans that have seen the film too many times sometimes complain about its measured pace and the often static early CinemaScope camera style of Fred McLeod Wilcox. But they'll also see why these deletions were made. The discussion of Altaira and the myth of the Unicorn are too literal about what we can intuit for ourselves.
A set of 'lost' scenes are just some effects outtakes, unaccountably transferred pan-scan -- or perhaps shot flat? "Lost Footage' doesn't seem an accurate description, but who's complaining?
The extras include material old and new. Walter Pidgeon plugged the film on an MGM TV show so we get two glimpses of him interacting with Robby. A new interview docu rounds up a number of critics and interested parties such as Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet and the welcome Bill Warren to express why Forbidden Planet was the effects 'n' fantasy touchstone for their later ambitions. Anne Francis is there as well. The relatively lavish TCM docu Watch the Skies! presents similar enthusiasm from top 'student filmmaker'-era directors -- Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott and James Cameron -- and extends the field of investigation to the whole decade of 50s Sci-Fi.
Another new featurette examines the design and construction of Robby the Robot, still the most popular and recognizable movie robot and far more interesting and practical than those Star Wars pretenders. Actually, none of them are capable of using an ordinary flight of stairs, that I can see.
We're also given an entire Thin Man TV episode in which Robby makes a guest-starring appearance, as well as a full second feature in an excellent B&E enhanced transfer, the 1957 The Invisible Boy. Deserving of its own review, the film will strike viewers as a retreat to the level of typical 50s Sci-Fi, albeit with some fanciful touches. The son of a scientist uses a super computer to make himself invisible and becomes entangled with a robot (Robby) that falls under evil influences, like the research robot tanks in Ivan Tors' GOG. Besides the expected army attack and robot rampage, the kid uses his invisibility for some rather disturbingly naughty purposes ... like peeping into his parents' bedroom!
The Ultimate set comes in a fancy, colorful tin handsome enough to serve as a household decoration. The little Robby the Robot toy seems to be very detailed; I'm leaving mine in its package wrappings. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Forbidden Planet rates:
Supplements: Deleted scenes (work print deletions), Lost Footage (unused effects), 2 clips from The MGM Parade, TCM docu Watch the Skies!, new docus Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon; Bonus Feature The Invisible Boy, TV episode of The Thin Man featuring Robby, Warners Sci-Fi Trailers gallery.
Packaging: 2 discs in card & plastic folder with second folder for printed extras in card sleeve in metal tin 'lunchbox' case with 3" plastic replica of Robby the Robot (not a flying toy).
Reviewed: November 12, 2006
1. From the DVD Savant Daily Column, an account of the Warner Home Video HD Premiere of Forbidden Planet, November 8, 2006:
Had a terrific time last Wednesday night at the Egyptian theater at Warner Home Video's premiere promotion event for its new DVD (and HD DVD) of Forbidden Planet. DVD Talk's generous Geoffrey Kleinman secured the invite, and we gathered dutifully in the foyer with a retinue of WHV suits, their guests and the invited celebrities. The host for the screening was robot restorer Fred Barton and his talking Robby the Robot duplicate; Robby provided the actual intro speech for the screening.
I took a seat next to some dedicated fans that had come from out of town to see the screening; one had a rather good-looking FP blaster replica and a stack of magazines ready to be signed. The kicker was that these weren't kids but marginal senior citizens only a little older than myself. Being only four years old when the movie was new, I of course had no personal memories of its original release; for me it was a pan-scanned B&W item chopped up on TV until MGM once again made (faded) theatrical prints available in the 1970s.
Forbidden Planet looked fine projected on the giant Egyptian screen; the colors are now brighter than I've ever seen them even if they still look as if they had to be 'rescued and revived' from faded materials. And on the huge Egyptian screen the audio sounded better than ever. (Note, 01/05/07: Bruce Chambers has corrected me ... Warner Home Video supplied a DLP projector and a hard drive containing a K2000 version of the film; what we saw projected was not a 1080 DVD.)
After the screening Barton invited the guests down front for a lengthy discussion. Earl Holliman, Warren Stevens and Richard Anderson joined the lovely Anne Francis, still as trim and frisky as ever. Faced with some uninspired prompting, the group self-generated a lively discussion of the Sci-Fi movie that pleased the audience and showed plenty of respect -- if they once dismissed it from their personal list of proud achievements, it's back up there now. Ms. Francis has always been a favorite, and she's every bit as charming today.
Savant doesn't drag cameras to these events, so there won't be any photos posed with the Robby the Robot facsimile. That now seems like a slightly missed opportunity. But you may report me to Warner Home Video for filching an extra Robby the Robot Cookie to create the above graphic. Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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