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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Forbidden Planet (HD DVD)
Forbidden Planet (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // G // November 14, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 23, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Forbidden Planet was released at a time when science fiction cinema traditionally meant boxy black and white compositions, pie pans on strings, and stock formulas with nuclear fallout mutating ordinarily harmless creepy crawlies into barn-sized beasts. It's not that '50s sci-fi filmmakers were lazy or incompetent -- not all of them, at least -- but studios treated the genre like a cheap, reliable, red-headed stepchild. It just wasn't something to be taken all that seriously. The wildly ambitious Forbidden Planet was the first science fiction film of the era to have the full weight of one of Hollywood's most powerful studios behind it. The mission statement wasn't to dress up a stock horror plot with some surface sci-fi trappings but to inspire a sense of awe and wonder that hadn't been captured on celluloid before. In the half-century since its original theatrical release, Forbidden Planet has proven to be one of the most enduring and influential films the genre has produced.

Although Forbidden Planet opens with a shot of a UFO touching down on a desert-like landscape, it's a group of thoroughly human men who emerge, not the little green variety. Leslie Nielsen, back when he delivered straightlaced dramatic performances instead of punchlines, stars as Commander J.J. Adams. He and his crew have been dispatched to investigate the lack of communication from the Bellerophon expedition to Altair IV. Their reception is unusually chilly, but Adams and company are grudgingly granted permission to land.

There are only two survivors of the ill-fated Bellerophon expedition: Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his stunning young daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius claims that the rest of his party had long ago been devastated by an unseen force to which he and his blissfully innocent daughter are inexplicably immune. They've eked out a life for themselves in the ruins of the lost civilization of the Krell, and their every need is attended to by Robby, a fantastic robot of Morbius' own design. Morbius repeatedly warns of the danger that awaits Adams and his crew, fears that become a grisly reality when the invisible menace attacks the landing site for a second wave of destruction.

Many fans are quick to point out how groundbreaking Forbidden Planet is compared to the glut of sci-fi churned out in the '50s, but the most familiar elements are present. We still have a stalwart, square-jawed military hero in the lead, a romance with an impossibly beautiful gal that blossoms throughout the havoc, and there are even a mad scientist, a robot, and a monster for good measure. Still, these space opera mainstays are used in what amounts to a futuristic adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and there's a great deal of intelligence and imagination infused into nearly every frame of the film. Even the nature of its primal monster is far more original and much more compelling than the oversized bugs of years past.

What I find so entrancing about Forbidden Planet is the grand scale of its vision, a spectacle from an era before effects-driven movies were a dime a dozen. It's not difficult to see why Forbidden Planet became a mainstay in children's matinees; even to adults decades after cameras rolled, the film still evokes a sense of child-like wonder. Innumerable shots in the movie have some sort of hand-drawn animation, matte painting, or optical effect used to flesh out this fantastic vision of the future. Even a half-century later, hardly any of these effects look laughable, a claim few '50s sci-fi films can make. That's not to say that they're indistinguishable from a nine-figure budgeted summer tentpole from more recent years, but many of the effects in Forbidden Planet still hold up, particularly the enormity of the Krell underground and the visualization of the monster. At worst, they're charmingly dated, and likewise for the way its characters act and speak. Forbidden Planet is inexorably rooted in the 1950s, but a more modern approach doesn't seem nearly as appealing.

Jaded viewers with a distaste for classic cinema will find plenty to sneer at this widely influential film, but it's their loss. Forbidden Planet is a crowd-pleaser that's quite a bit brighter than it lets on at first glance, and even as the movie rings in its fiftieth anniversary, the scale of its ambition still fascinates me. Those who claim to be science fiction fans owe it to themselves to see Forbidden Planet at least once.

Video: Forbidden Planet isn't quite the revelation that other classic titles such as The Searchers and Mutiny on the Bounty have been, but this 2.39:1 HD DVD still looks sensational, further proof that it's not just CGI-era blockbusters that stand to benefit from the increased resolution of high definition.

Warner's recent restoration wipes away nearly all visible signs of wear and speckling, and film grain remains tight and stable throughout. Crispness and clarity vary somewhat from shot to shot, particularly whenever optical effects come into play, but the level of depth and detail are often striking. I'd be curious to see how this HD DVD compares to the original theatrical screenings from fifty years ago; the increased resolution of this format pulls back the curtain in ways I don't recall from previous viewings. For example, the optical mingling of Anne Francis with her character's pet tiger is now much more apparent. Another scene sees Alta skinny-dipping, and her innocent question "what's a bathing suit?" gets an even bigger smirk now that I can very clearly spot the wrinkled, fleshtone swimsuit she's wearing. Despite a few other similar cases, I was surprised how well many of Forbidden Planet's effects still hold up fifty years later, even under the unforgiving light of high definition.

Forbidden Planet was shot using Eastman Color, and this early incarnation of the process is notoriously prone to fading. Warner's restoration team has done a commendable job injecting life back into the film's palette, and even though some of its hues don't leap off the screen as I would've expected from a film with such a lavish visual style, Forbidden Planet is still an eye-catchingly colorful movie. Black levels are generally robust, and if there are any flaws with the authoring or compression of this HD DVD, they escaped my eyes.

I was floored when I first caught Forbidden Planet on HDNet Movies last summer. It was the first film of this vintage that I'd watched in high-definition, and afterwards, I was quick to point to it whenever I'd hear the much-repeated, entirely baseless claim that only movies from 1990 on stand to gain much over a standard definition DVD. Forbidden Planet may not boast the most exceptional presentation of the classic films on the new format, but this HD DVD looks terrific by any reasonable standard, yet again leaving me anxious to see what Warner dusts off next.

Audio: The age of the original recording is an unavoidable hurdle, but despite its somewhat dated quality, Forbidden Planet's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix sounds better than I expected. Its attempts at localizing sounds across the front speakers are usually effective, even if the audio doesn't seem quite sure what to do with the surround channels most of the time. The mix doesn't have the sort of dynamic range to keep the subwoofer rumbling from the first frame to the last, although there are a couple of decent low-frequency assaults, and the film's sound effects sport a solid presence overall.

The audio isn't marred by any hiss or background noise, at least none loud enough to distract. As a fan of vintage electronic instruments, I'm fascinated by the "electronic tonalities" that take the place of a traditional score, and that swooping analog squawking emerges very well in the mix. Not the most overwhelmingly impressive track but certainly a solid effort, especially considering that this is a film celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

Monaural dubs are offered in French and Spanish, and the disc also features the usual assortment of subtitles.

Supplements: The extras from the simultaneously-issued two-disc special edition DVD have all been ported over in standard definition. As always, it's a mild disappointment that even the more newly-produced extras aren't in high-def, but the overall quality of the material is so high that the limited resolution is easy enough to shrug off.

The first of the extras is the Turner Classic Movies documentary "Watch the Skies". Narrated by Mark Hamill, the hour long doc features Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott excitedly discussing their favorite '50s sci-fi flicks and how these films were such a reflection of their times. Forbidden Planet is given a great deal of attention, and some of the other films they touch on include Destination Moon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Them!, Rocketship X-M, The Monolith Monsters, Invaders from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Space Children, and War of the Worlds.

The exceptionally well-researched retrospective "Amazing!" (26 min.; anamorphic widescreen) presents interviews with much of the surviving cast and crew of Forbidden Planet, including stars Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen, as well as a number of sci-fi historians and some of the seminal film's more famous fans. This aptly-titled featurette offers a very comprehensive look at the production of the film, including glimpses of conceptual art, test footage, early monster designs, and unobscured shots of the cel-free Disney animation.

Several of the same interviewees pop up a second time for the fourteen minute "Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon", one of several extras anchored around Robby the Robot. The featurette notes Robby's washing machine-inspired design, the role MGM's leather department and former Lockheed machinists played in its creation, a runthrough of how Robby works by current owner and Forbidden Planet superfan William Malone, as well as the robot's enduring popularity.

Two brief excerpts of Walter Pidgeon shilling the film on the television series MGM Parade are also included, along with a full 1958 episode of Peter Lawford's The Thin Man in which Robby the Robot stands accused of ::gasp!:: murder. Similar to their release of The Dirty Dozen, Warner has also provided an entire movie as an extra on this HD DVD. The endearingly kitschy The Invisible Boy gave MGM a chance to amortize their automaton with an appearance in this tenuous follow-up to Forbidden Planet. Timmy thinks his newfound robot pal Robby is too overprotective, so he uses his scientist pop's supercomputer to strip out a couple of Asimov's laws, unwittingly setting into motion a nefarious plot that threatens the survival of the human race. Oh yeah, and Timmy can turn invisible. The Invisible Boy is whimsical and altogether kidsy early on, but it takes a darker, more sinister turn as the movie progresses, feeling like more of an "armageddon approach-eth!" '50s sci-fi flick than mindless kiddie fare. The anamorphic widescreen, black and white presentation is surprisingly good, especially considering that the movie is only being tacked on as an extra.

There are twenty-two minutes of additional material leftover from filming, although the tantalizingly titled "lost footage" is really just nine minutes of cropped effects plates, offering fans a glimpse of how some of these elements looked in their unfinished states. The thirteen minutes of deleted scenes, properly letterboxed but culled from what looks like 18th-generation VHS, are of more interest. Some of these aren't actually deleted scenes; there's a good bit of extended dialogue along with an alternate voice for Robby, for instance. One full scene was yanked for its dodgy special effects, following Robby's land cruiser as it races across the alien landscape, and a couple others liken Alta's rapport with her animals to the unicorn myth. This material was justifiably trimmed out of the movie, but it's still interesting to see what could have been.

A trailer gallery rounds out the extras, featuring plugs (in chronological order!) for The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Black Scorpion, The Invisible Boy, and The Time Machine. The quality of these vintage trailers is all over the map, but several of them look unexpectedly great. Even though it's heavily speckled, I still couldn't decide if the clip for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had been transferred in high-definition or not.

A collector's edition is also available on HD DVD in a collector's tin with a miniature Robby the Robot figure, lobby cards for Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy, and assorted other goodies.

Conclusion: Forbidden Planet is a seminal slice of science-fiction, and its ambitious scale and pervasive sense of wonder make it as fun to watch now as I'm sure it was a half-century ago. To awkwardly nick the movie's tagline, Forbidden Planet looks amazing! on HD DVD, and the scores of extras are of an equally high quality. A near-essential purchase for fans of the genre. Highly Recommended.
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