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Forbidden Planet Print E-mail
Monday, 01 January 2007

Image On my 13th birthday in 1956, my mother drove some friends of mine and I from Gardiner, Oregon 30 miles south to North Bend to see the movie I had been almost desperately anxious to see: “Forbidden Planet.” It was the best birthday present of my life, and became part of my life; though I knew it wasn’t perfect, it was my favorite movie until “2001: A Space Odyssey” supplanted it. It’s still one of my favorites, enough so that I’m among those interviewed in the “Amazing!” documentary included on both the high-def and standard DVDs recently released by Warner Bros.

Warners has treated the movie very well. The original negatives were used for the digital transfer; flecks and specks were cleaned up perfectly, and the color has never been better, not even in the original theatrical releases. It’s in Eastman color, which tends to fade very rapidly, but now has been restored to its full palette here. In the past, when movies cut to a sequence involving optical effects, the sharpness declined and the color underwent a change as well. Here, there seems to have been serious effort made to compensate for and correct those flaws; the effects scenes here are usually not detectable by those changes.

Warners has released both standard and high-definition DVDs of “Forbidden Planet;” there’s even a collectors’ edition house in a tin box with extras such as postcard-sized replicas of the original lobby cards, and a small version of Robby the Robot, one of the longest-lasting aspects of “Forbidden Planet.”

However, even freshly-struck Eastman color prints never were quite as sharply-defined as Technicolor prints, three-strip or otherwise. There was always a slight softness to films in Eastman color, at least those of the 1950s, such as “Forbidden Planet.” This means that though some sequences, such as the opening shots of space, are sharper and more detailed in this Hi-Def version—the planets of the Altair system are visible—the rest of the film doesn’t look significantly—perhaps not even detectably—clearer and sharper than the standard DVDs. A side-by-side comparison could prove me wrong, but I suspect not. Since the space scenes in “Forbidden Planet” were the best in movie history until Kubrick’s “2001” came along, this does mean that those most interested in the effects—and “Forbidden Planet” is lavish with its effects—probably should seek out the Hi-Def DVD. Others will probably be content with the standard (and cheaper) edition.

The special effects of “Forbidden Planet” were not groundbreaking—that is, the effects team made no innovations. They used miniatures, starfields illuminated from behind, matte paintings, vast backdrops (as in the scene of the spaceship landing on Altair-IV, the planet of the title) and effects animation under the direction of Joshua Meador of Walt Disney. This is one of the few times Disney technicians worked on a non-Disney film, and their work here is outstanding. Whoever saw this movie as a kind will never—ever—forget the assault of the Monster from the Id, the crackling rays of the 20-cubic-mile subterranean machine, the blaster beams, the pressor rays supporting the ship as it lands.

This was not a major MGM production, but it wasn’t a B film, either—that is, intended to be the bottom half of a double bill with a more prestigious MGM film. But it was primarily produced through the MGM B unit, making it something like an A-minus release. In the first few years of the 1950s, a few science fiction movies, including “Destination Moon,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Thing from Another World” surprised Hollywood by being major hits. Most studios soon had science fiction films on their production slate, and MGM was no different, but they were slower and more deliberate. Under the title “Fatal Planet,” “Forbidden Planet” was purchased by MGM in 1952, but it moved slowly through the halls of the respected studio, finally being released in the spring of 1956. It was not a major hit, and MGM’s few other SF movies of the period had much lower budgets, as with “The Invisible Boy” (also on this disc), or pickups from independent productions, as with “Fiend Without a Face.”

Though the excellent effects were not innovative, in science fiction terms, the movie definitely broke new grounds. It’s the first movie to feature, or even mention, a faster-than-light propulsion system, referred to (as in contemporary written science fiction) as a “drive.” We see two levels of technology, that of the C-57D, the spaceship captained by J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), which is presented casually though it’s astonishingly advanced. The other level is aeons beyond that of the Earth ship—the underground machines of the Krell, the now-extinct alien race that once inhabited Altair-IV.

The movie is also casual, unforced, about the future itself; when Chief Engineer Quinn (Richard Anderson) reports they’re being hailed from the unexpectedly deserted planet below, Adams offhandedly asks, “Human?” Clearly these people have met enough alien races to not be excited about the possibility of meeting another. “Forbidden Planet” is a space opera, the first in movie history, and still one of the very best. Gene Roddenberry, when pressed, would admit that “Star Trek” was largely inspired by “Forbidden Planet”—just compare the bridge of the Enterprise to that of the C-47D.

There were a few SF movies of the 50s that made indelible impressions on kids all over the world, some of whom went on to work in special effects, write SF for the screen or books, become film historians, even become directors. The documentary, “Amazing: Exploring the Far Reaches of ‘Forbidden Planet’,” part of this package, features many people of this nature: effects maestros Dennis Muren, John Dykstra and Phil Tippett, directors Joe Dante, John Landis, Bill Malone (so devoted to “Forbidden Planet” that he restored Robby the Robot, which—or whom—he now owns) and John Carpenter, SF writer Alan Dean Foster, film buff/historians Rudy Behlmer, Bob Burns and yours truly, and people who worked on the original film: Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Earl Holliman, Richard Anderson, Warren Stevens, Robert Kinoshita (who designed Robby) and Bebe Barron, who did the film’s unique, innovative “electronic tonalities” with her late husband Louis. This is one of the best DVD documentaries on a science fiction movie; it’s extremely well edited, chock-full of information but never seeming overcrowded or busy. I had nothing to do with its creation other than being videotaped sitting in a chair and going on about this movie I love. I’m objective when I say that this is an exceptional piece of work.

The documentary on the creation of Robby is less detailed, but full of information “Forbidden Planet” fanciers will love to have at hand. Richard Schickel’s worthy but much too brief TCM documentary “Watch the Skies!” is also included. There are two brief clips from a 1950s TV series, “MGM Parade,” featuring Walter Pidgeon and Robby. And there’s an episode of the TV series “The Thin Man,” starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk, which makes good use of Robby.

The best extra, other than “Amazing,” is the inclusion of the complete feature “The Invisible Boy,” the closest thing MGM made to a sequel to “Forbidden Planet.” It’s a very clever, intelligent and low-key comedy/thriller about a boy who reassembles Robby (explained as having been brought back from the future by a time machine). But the robot falls victim to a super computer, dubbed Super Computer, the first such machine in movie history intent on taking over the world—but certainly not the last.

Both “Forbidden Planet” and “The Invisible Boy” are very much science fiction movies of their period. Today, science fiction movies are usually first and foremost action movies, often at the expense of their science fiction elements. But “Forbidden Planet” is science fiction for the eye and the mind, not designed to pump up adrenalin levels. The basic idea, the mystery of Altair IV, is a sophisticated, mind-boggling concept, still very advanced for movies. (In brief: the Monster from the Id, the invisible creature made visible by blaster beams, is NOT a surviving Krell.)

The rhythms of “Forbidden Planet” are not slow, but they’re not quick, either; it’s no slower than other studio films of its period. Adjust yourselves to its rhythms, and your effort will be rewarded. Much the same is true of “The Invisible Boy;” it’s a comedy, but it’s nothing like other kid comedies of the time. The humor is almost entirely in the dialogue and the attitudes of the characters; there’s no slapstick, there are no jokes—it’s straight-faced humor, and very good on its own terms.

There was an earlier DVD of “Forbidden Planet” which, in its own way, was acceptable, but the eye-popping print used for these new DVDs puts it to shame. This is the definitive version of “Forbidden Planet,” and for some of you, I know that’s the only recommendation you’ll need.

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