May 1999

Forbidden Planet
Reviewed by Greg Weaver
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: *****
Picture Quality: ***
Sound Quality: **1/2
Packaged Extras: 1/2

Starring Anne Francis, Jack Kelly, Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon

Directed by Fred M. Wilcox

Theatrical Release: 1956
DVD Release: 1997
Dolby Digital Surround
Widescreen/Full Screen

Taking advantage of the great success science fiction in general was enjoying during the early heydays of the "Project Blue Book" 1950s, Forbidden Planet was MGM's first attempt at a big-budget science-fiction film. They were following closely on the success of 20th Century Fox’s 1951’s superlative The Day the Earth Stood Still and Universal’s big-budget This Island Earth in 1955. The soundtrack, for what it was in 1956, was done by the team of Bebe and Louis Barron and was comprised of what were called "electronic tonalities." Most of what could be considered the visual effects for this film were handled by none other than Disney Productions and primarily encompassed many matte paintings, but they earned Disney an Oscar nomination. Disney’s technique was effective then, and even though obviously dated now, when viewed in its historical context, it serves to show how films have always had a major hand in driving associated technologies.

The most obvious "effect" in the film was the powerful protector/servant robot, Robby. Designed by Bob Kinoshita and "animated" alternately by stuntmen Frankie Carpenter and Frankie Darro, this was Robby’s first appearance. But as is so often the case in Hollywood, over the years he was cannibalized and deconstructed to serve in many, many other "B" films. He even turned up in a slightly revised form on the highly popular ‘60s TV series Lost In Space, spouting the now historical phrase, "Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!"

Beside the ostensible cost of all the special effects, MGM put together an impressive, if mostly unknown, cast. Leslie Nielson, of Naked Gun and other Zucker slapstick comedies fame, was a young and handsome newly discovered leading man making only his third screen appearance. Ann Frances, who had been a child star of radio, was picked for the comely young daughter of grizzled film veteran Walter Pidgeon. But as a 26-year-old ingenue in this film, she made my pre-pubescent eyes pop out of my head! Hey, come on -- I was twelve when I saw the movie for the first time. What sticks with this then teenager the most was Frances’ leading role in a short-lived mid-‘60s James Bond-esque TV spy spoof called Honey West.

Gene Roddenberry took the Nielson role as his model for James Tiberius Kirk in his pioneering and visionary television series Star Trek. He also got the character for the colorful and overachieving Engineer Scotty from the brilliant but facetious Lt. Doc Ostrow, played by Warren Stevens. Take the scene where, due to the destruction of the ship’s radio gear, Doc is forced to try to cannibalize the rest of the ship to repair it. When the Commander states, "OK, so it’s impossible; how long it will take?" Doc quips "Well, if I skip breakfast...." Even the Enterprise and its internal workings were modeled after the United Planets cruiser C-57D from this masterpiece.

The plot, in essence, takes the United Planets cruiser C-57D to the fourth planet of the faraway star Altair to check on and rescue the survivors of the "Bellerophon," sent on its colonization mission some 20 years earlier. They find the ship's only survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pigeon), who, after surviving some "planetary force" ripping all but one of the rest of the stranded survivors limb from limb, settled into his idyllic life here on this otherwise agreeable planet. The only other original survivor of the ill-fated Bellerophon, Morbius’ wife, had died the following year of natural causes, after giving birth to the now nubile young Altiara (Anne Francis). The newly landed and space-worn crew, or at least its officers, each play to the young woman and, in scenes that look totally camp now, were considered fairly racy in the mid ‘50s.

What the cruiser C-57D finds when it arrives at Altair-4 is a less-than-gracious Dr. Morbius who has absolutely no intention or need of being rescued or returned to Earth. With this new wrinkle, the Commander must radio Earth for instructions. Guess what? Foreseeably, the ship’s radio gear gets destroyed by some unseen intruder, making it all but impossible for the crew to get new orders. More attacks occur, giving Morbius cause to believe that the destructive planetary force, long dormant these past 19 years, has been loosed again. Morbius feels somehow responsible, and decides to inform the Commander and the ship’s doctor of the planet's secrets.

According to Morbius’, some 2000 centuries ago, the very wise and advanced race known as the Krell perished in a single night on the eve of their greatest accomplishment. (Hey audiophiles, ever heard that name before? Watch this movie and you’ll see where they got their stylized looks as well.) One of Morbius’ diversions during his marooning was the tinkering together of Robbie the Robot, only possible due to the Krell knowledge he had gathered over his two decades of study. The unseen force continues to wreck havoc with the ship and its crew as well as Morbius’ home and the underground stronghold of the Krell. Then…well, you’ll just have to rent or buy this classic.

The first thing anyone suffering from a classical education will likely note about the film is the marked similarity to Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest -- with a dash of Sigmund Freud thrown in. A shipwrecked group of people represent society in compressed form; Prospero’s (Morbius) magic raised to put them through some purgatorial trial; his young daughter, Miranda (Altaira), Ariel (Robby) are the instruments of the magic; and the monster from the id materializes as Caliban. I didn’t notice this when I first saw the film on Chilly Billy Cardill’s Saturday Night Science Fiction/Creature Feature in the ‘60s. As a matter of fact, my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Paxton, nearly had a coronary when, as I was reading The Tempest, I pointed out that it seemed like a take off on this film!

Is this the first film you will be dragging out to demonstrate your super-duper-deluxe, state-of-the-art home theater or DVD player to all your buddies the first time they come to visit? Not likely. The video transfer is quite good in several respects, given the age of the film, but abominable in others. The vibrancy and insight of the original seems to have made the transfer in tact, but there are lots of film scratches and other mars readily visible. The soundtrack is quite dated, and though it has been updated to stereo, it leaves much to be desired for your Dolby Digital surround decoder. Folks, in this regard, it ain’t no Apollo 13. Even the menu and its options are limited by comparison to most of today’s current releases.

What it is, however, is a wonderfully vital and surprisingly well-aged trip through historical cinema and an absolute must-have for any fan of science fiction. No film in the annals of science fiction other than Stanley Kubrick’s singularly spectacular 2001: A Space Odyssey has had more influence on the genre.

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