As fears of nuclear disaster and rising technology drove Americans into a general paranoia in the 1950s, Hollywood provided a therapeutic and highly profitable outlet for those worries through science fiction movies. With invaders from Mars stepping in as surrogates for Russian air bombers and mutated insects demonstrating the potential effects of radioactive destruction, the sci-fi genre experienced a monumental boom that produced some of the most frightening films of the decade. Taking a decidedly more adult approach than anything of its kind before it, MGM's slick "Forbidden Planet" (1956) explored a fear that was far closer to home, and in many ways more threatening, than the bomb. It examined with startling frankness the sexual awakening of a young generation and the subconscious danger of the old. Packing superior visual effects and an intelligent story into a concise running time, the movie remains one of the most influential of that time period and has just received a special 50th Anniversary release from Warner Home Video.
Twenty years after a colony of Earthlings settled on the distant planet of Altair and subsequently fell out of communication, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) leads an expedition to discover what became of them. He finds that nearly the entire colony was annihilated by a mysterious and unseen force that also wiped out an ancient civilization millions of years earlier. All who are left are scientist Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his 19-year-old daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who have concocted a kind of isolated paradise for themselves. To keep them company are Robby, a domestic robot invented by Morbius himself, and a host of exotic animals. When Adams tries to persuade them to return with him, Morbius declines the offer, insisting that he and his daughter have everything they desire. Adams' men, and eventually Adams himself, soon find their desires pointed right in the direction of the beautiful Altaira.
Raised by her father on Altair and having had no other human contacts in her life, Altaira is completely unaware of sexual development or biological urges, except from a purely theoretical perspective. Her naïveté is quickly taken advantage of by the all-male expedition crew, until a disgusted Adams puts a stop to it. His protective stance and forceful attitude awaken Altaira's own inner desires, and the two begin to develop a genuine romance. Seeing the influence the men have over his daughter and the disturbance they are bringing to his utopia, Morbius begins pushing for the crew to leave his planet. However, the mysterious force that obliterated the colony seems to have returned, this time targeting the spacecraft that Adams and his men arrived in.
It is well-known to most by now that this futuristic space epic was based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and when examined from the right point of view, the similarities are obvious. In both, a man and his daughter are isolated in a deserted land where they utilize the local technologies/magic to accommodate themselves. What screenwriter Cyril Hume removed from Shakespeare's work was the theme of revenge and forgiveness, instead giving the new story a strikingly Freudian twist. Unlike the Bard's Prospero, Morbius has no previous connections to his visitors or any vengeful designs on them. What the two characters do share is an overwhelming sense of hubris, something that brings about surprising destruction in "Forbidden Planet." The story draws upon Freud's theory of the id, the unconscious level that contains all that is repressed by our consciousness. What the film suggests is that as his daughter comes to her full sexual bloom, Morbius' hidden jealousy and fear bring upon her the unseen monster of his subconscious.
A cinematic marvel for the ages, "Forbidden Planet" possesses a look and feel that was far ahead of its time. With an unusually large budget for the genre, director Fred McLeod Wilcox filmed the movie in glorious CinemaScope to fully showcase its artful sets and visual effects. The most impressive sequence in the film is Adams' tour through the underground world of the Krell, the ancient civilization that first inhabited the planet. Featuring a combination of miniatures, matte paintings, and animation, this sequence alone justifies the movie's status as one of the most influential of the 1950s, leaving its stamp on just about every major sci-fi movie that has been made since. The unforgettable sound effects of Bebe and Louis Barron, who basically invented the electronic score, add to the surrealistic landscape of the film, taking it out of the typical studio-bound world and creating a fully active and convincing universe.
For Warner's special edition release, they have presented the film in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer. The print is remarkably sharp, bringing out fine detail. Colors are bright and nicely saturated, with solid black levels and very good contrast. There is still some dirt and a few noticeable vertical lines throughout the film, especially in the special effects shots, but it is a great improvement over the previous release. No edge enhancement or pixilation is to be found, and there is a nice amount of grain to retain a good filmic appearance. Overall, this is a job well done.
The audio comes to us by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that sounds quite pleasing, in spite of its age. Dialogue is clear, if not always smooth, and there is no background hiss or distortion. The sound effects score is wonderful, with the surround providing lots of atmosphere. Except for the climactic scenes and a few assorted moments throughout, there is not a lot going on here that should give your system a workout. An alternate French mono track is provided, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
On disc 1 of this set, the movie is followed by 13 minutes of deleted scenes and nine minutes of "lost" footage. The deleted scenes include moments not used in the film and some that were, but without the special effects added. The "lost" footage consists of rare test footage and includes a few alternate takes and some beautiful shots of planets that were built but never used in the final product.
After this, we get a couple of clips from "The MGM Parade" TV show focusing on "Forbidden Planet." Both clips are hosted by Walter Pidgeon, and one features a special appearance by Robby the Robot.
Speaking of Robby, he makes a guest appearance in the next feature as well, an episode of "The Thin Man" that originally aired in February 1958. Based on the 1930s movie series, the show starred Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora Charles, the mystery-solving couple who always seem to find themselves at the scene of a crime. In this episode, entitled "Robot Client," Robby is the prime suspect in a murder (!), and Nick acts as his defense lawyer.
A gallery of trailers for this and other great sci-fi movies of the 1950s wraps up this disc.
On disc 2, we find "The Invisible Boy," a 1957 feature film that marks another appearance by Robby the Robot. A power-hungry computer starts to unleash its whims of world domination through the use of a robot (guess who!) and a 10-year-old boy, while all of the adults seem trapped in a perpetual state of oblivion. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, this oddball flick has its moments, particularly when the boy has Robby concoct a way for him to become invisible. The sheer perversity of the situation comes to full fruition when the little trickster uses his transparent state to watch his parents as they get frisky in bed! The movie shifts unevenly from comical to serious and back again, never quite hitting its stride or eliciting much interest. The good thing is that it is only 89 minutes.
Up next are three documentaries. First is the excellent "Watch the Skies! Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us," a Turner Classic Movies original that takes a historical look at the context and subjects of some of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Narrated by Mark Hamil, this feature boasts insightful interviews with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and George Lucas. Among the films discussed are, of course, "Forbidden Planet," as well as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "The War of the Worlds" (1953), "Them!" (1954), and "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957). The documentary runs 55 minutes.
The second documentary is "Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet." At 26 minutes, this gives us a thorough look inside the making of the film, featuring interviews with Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, directors Joe Dante, John Landis, John Carpenter, and many others. Paired with the third documentary, "Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon," a 14-minute tribute to that lovable android, this is a pretty fantastic offering and brings a nice close to this release.
"Forbidden Planet" proved to be a benchmark in the annals of science fiction, turning what was once considered B-movie material into a genre worthy of the utmost respect. Creating a universe of mysterious planets and psychologically induced monsters, the film paved the way for the special-effects extravaganzas that came afterward and influenced a string of filmmakers. With its thematic roots in psychoanalysis, the movie bears a distinctly 1950s stamp that makes it both oddly funny and hugely entertaining today. In Warner's new Two-Disc Special Edition, or their "Ultimate Collector's Edition" with collectible memorabilia, the film truly gets the deluxe treatment that it deserves and should be highly sought after by classic movie fans.