DVD Review Of Forbidden Planet: 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/3/07


  When one thinks of 1950s science fiction films one thinks of the sort of schlocky black and white B films that were parodied on the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show. Yet, while there were far more films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster than good films, the 1950s did have some very good, if not great, science fiction films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, War Of The Worlds, and The Thing From Another World. Yet, the best of the bunch, for its literacy and production values, was undoubtedly MGM’s first big foray into A level science fiction, Forbidden Planet, released in 1956. It was a 98 minute color film, directed by Fred M. Wilcox, that featured then state of the art special effects, and was endowed with a very good screenplay by Cyril Hume, from a screen treatment called Fatal Planet, by Irving Block and Allen Adler, who adapted aspects of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest into it.

  The film drew raves when it was released, for its Oscar nominated special effects, its all electronic music score, by Louis and Bebe Barron (although credited as Electronic Tonalities, to avoid music guild fees), vivid matte paintings- inspired by Chesley Bonestell, and the famed Monster Of The Id (MOTI), which was animated by an animator, Joshua Meador, on loan from the Walt Disney studio. Even more famous was the appearance of Robby The Robot, in his first role in either film or television. Later he would appear in the film The Invisible Boy- included in this DVD as a bonus, as well as several appearances in the 1960s sci fi tv shows The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and Lost In Space- with whose own robot he is often confused, and a cameo appearance in the 1984 film Gremlins.

  The tale is simple, but elegantly constructed, and filled with humorous asides that leaven the forced ‘love story’ aspect in the film. In the 23rd Century, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D- a flying saucer, led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen- yes he was once a leading man type before his Police Squad days), is en route to the planet Altair IV, to investigate what happened to the crew of the Bellerophon, sent to the planet twenty years earlier. After a year’s journey, there they encounter the lone survivor of the party, Doctor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the Prospero stand-in- a philologist, his gorgeous blond daughter Altaira (Anne Francis)- the Miranda character in a pre 1960s miniskirt, and Robby the Robot, the domestic servant who is the Calibanian counterpart. Morbius warns the crew of a mysterious force that killed the Bellerophon party in their first year, yet he was immune to it.

  After a mid-night attack that kills one of the ship’s men, Adams and the doctor confront Morbius, who explains that below his home is a twenty mile by twenty mile wide single machine- 7800 levels high, and powered by 9200 nuclear reactors- that catchall of the ‘50s, the only remnant of the extinct Krel race, which perished 200,000 years earlier, in a single night after a million years of high culture. They were on the verge of non-material existence when the calamity struck, even having traveled to earth to bring back samples of animal and plant life. He shows them a Krel nursery, with a plastic educator machine that killed the Bellerophon’s captain, and almost killed Morbius. He survived but had his intellect doubled. In it, Morbius can project a hologram of Alta, that clearly inspired a similar moment in Star Wars, with Princess Leia. With this knowledge he built Robby. Meanwhile, Adams and his number two, a commander- Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly), vie for Alta’s affections. Adams wins.

  Meanwhile the MOTI attacks again, killing three more men, including Farman, and after the special effects of the invisible animated monster- still scarier than many of the monsters of the last fifty film years, Morbius wakes from a concomitant nightmare; but so does Alta- and hers is even more vivid than her father’s. Adams and the doctor, Lt. Ostrow (Warren Stevens), resolve to get back into the Krel nursery and have one of them boost their mind power. The doctor does, and discovers the secret of the MOTI before he dies. Adams realizes the MOTI comes from Morbius’s id, yet Morbius does not believe it, although he accepts it as the reason for the Krel’s demise. He, Alta- who now loves Adams, and Adams, hide within the nursery, and a twenty-six inch thick Krel metal door, which earlier resisted the blaster gun’s blasts. Yet, the MOTI slowly but surely heats up the door, and Morbius accepts that it is his evil self at the door. He relinquishes it and perishes, thus killing the MOTI, but before doing so instructs Adams to self-destruct he planet. Twenty-four hours later the ship is in deep space as the planet explodes, and they head back to earth.

  Yes, there are many logical errors- such as why Adams would destroy the planet with Morbius dead, and also not knowing if his ship was ready to lift off. But, these are minor, and compensated for by the film’s often humorous scenes- such as when Cooky the cook (Earl Holliman) gets the sixty gallons of Kansas City bourbon he wants from Robby- to help him cook (yeah!)- after his anger at the robot when Robby finishes off his last pint of booze, to test its chemical makeup, then burps, or when Alta asks Robby to make her a new dress and the robot exasperates over another petty request, after stating, ‘Sorry miss, I was giving myself an oil job.’ This film, as literate and well acted as it is, would not be the iconic film it is without Robby the Robot, who can speak 188 languages, including dialects and sub-tongues. He simply steals every scene he’s in, such as those above mentioned, or whether telling Adams, who comments on the planet’s high oxygen content, that, ‘I rarely use it myself, sir. It promotes rust,’ or zapping a little monkey who tries to steal fruit from a bowl.

  There are also some interesting antinomies regarding technology. As example, the film opens with the claim that mankind did not reach the moon till the end of this century- when it was just thirteen years later that it happened in reality; many of the ship’s devices run on atomic energy- clearly antiquated, and many of the technologies are gobbledygook- such as quanto-gravitetic drive to travel in hyperspace; and there still being no wireless communicators, yet many of the other devices in the film seem plausible. Unlike, say, the large industrial technology in later sci fi films, the sleek simplistic designs of many of the ship’s devices mirrors the sleekness of technology getting smaller and better. The film also follows Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics, a bonus for sci fi fans, as well as having manifest influences on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

  The 50th Anniversary Edition come son two disks. Disk one has Forbidden Planet, replete with a great new transfer. There’s an excerpt from the 1950s TV series MGM Parade with Walter Pigeon appearing with Robby, as well as Robby’s appearance in the The Robot Client episode of the Thin Man tv series (starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk) that originally aired on February 28th, 1958. There’s also seven science fiction film trailers. Unfortunately there is no audio commentary for this terrific film- a big downer. Disk two has 1957’s The Invisible Boy, a solid B movie that was Robby’s first post-Forbidden Planet appearance. Then there are three documentaries. The first is an hour long documentary on 1950s era sci fi films, Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, The 1950s And Us, with appearances by current blockbuster sci fi filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott. The fact that it was written and directed by Time magazine critic Richard Schickel explains many of its omissions and flaws- such as no mention of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Then there’s a making of featurette, Amazing! Exploring The Far Reaches Of Forbidden Planet, with Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson- the ‘Scotty’ of the ship (the engineer, Chief Quinn, who can do the impossible and later went on to star in The Six Million Dollar Man, as Oscar Goldman), Warren Stevens, and Earl Holliman providing reminiscences about the film. There are also special effects experts, like Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, who discuss things like the making of invisible footprints of the MOTI. The final documentary is Robby The Robot: Engineering A Sci-Fi Icon, which documents the robot’s making and life after Forbidden Planet. There are also deleted scenes and lost footage.

  Whereas the Freud and Shakespeare cocktail of Forbidden Planet is a great sci fi film, if not a great film overall, the other film in the package, The Invisible Boy, a black and white film based on a short story by Edmund Cooper, is a cute little film that has moments as silly as Robot Monster, but also some intriguing concepts that predate later sci fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus: The Forbin Project and The Terminator series. Yet, like Robot Monster or Invaders From Mars, the film may all be the dream of the title character, for so much of it does not make sense, and is propelled by a young boy’s boredom. The title is based upon the invisibility accorded to ten year old Timmy (Richard Eyer) by Robby- to gain vengeance on a bully, whom the boy has cobbled together after being hypnotized and subliminally enhanced by a super computer that is bent on world control, one that his dad (Philip Abbott)- who works at a supposedly super-secret lab that his son can yet roam around in unhindered, built.

  Apparently the film is set in the 1980s, for the supercomputer- the typical room sized models of that era, has slyly encoded seven wrong answers over 29 years to somehow gain consciousness. But, it would have to be conscious in order to plan such a thing, no? Then there are 1950s type scenes, where Timmy is spying on his parents- who actually have a single double bed to sleep in, and is spanked, where his dad longwindedly explains to him that a computer would have to be larger than Jupiter to be as good as a human brain or looks at his wife when he explains to Timmy that being a man- rather than a boy, has its ‘compensations’, there are references to 1950s television, and a colonel says that Reds invent things by ‘stealing’ them. Yet, no one notices nor cares that Timmy has built Robby, supposedly from plans that were brought back in time by a mad scientist who traveled to the future (and this is all treated with a shrug by the scientists) when the United Planets Cruiser C-57D returned home with Robby from Altair IV. The dim parents even believe Timmy’s invisibility is just a phase devised to ‘get attention.’

  Eventually, the computer enthralls military men- by having the clumsy Robby somehow kidnap and surgically implant vacuum tubes into them, and Robby later kidnaps Timmy into outer space- apparently by being able to teleport himself past an army barrage to the base of the rocketship (why not teleport himself right into the ship?), where he will help put the computer, where it will enslave the world. Timmy’s sexy mom (Diane Brewster) chides him, ‘Timmy, if you don’t bring that rocketship back this instant, you’ll get the spanking of your life.’ Yet, despite the computer’s rewriting of Robby’s program to not hurt sentient beings, Robby cannot pull out Timmy’s eyes when the computer commands him, and the plan is foiled. The next day, Timmy and his dad go to disconnect the computer, but it appeals to the dad’s ego, hypnotizes the both of them with its blinking ‘pretty lights’. It’s up to Robby to walk through a doorway filled with lights that feed the computer, thus killing it.
  All in all, it’s a technically good film- especially with some rear projections and matte paintings, and the absurdity of the adult reactions to Timmy’s and Robby’s exploits borders an Dalian surreal absurdity. Yet, it’s manifest that the filmmakers had no sense of the sublime absurdity the film conjures, for it’s played straight, thus making it even funnier. As for the main feature? Forbidden Planet deserves all its kudos. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours, and far better than Star Wars, which although made twenty years later seems much more outdated, and juvenile. Only such films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien and Aliens, and the first two Terminator films, have really equaled or surpassed this classic in depth and effects.

  It’s worth knowing that, despite Forbidden Planet’s ‘happy ending’, there is the possibility that the MOTI is still dormant within Alta, as well. After all, she is her father’s daughter, and had an even more vivid nightmare than her father when the MOTI attacked the ship a second time. Also, the film wisely only ‘shows’ the MOTI once, and never shows the Krel, for the imagination can always conjure greater scares than the best special effects. The film also makes good use of narrative ellipses to condense the tale, something that far more realistic art films often fail to do. Forbidden Planet is one of those rare films that both defines yet transcends its era- unlike other sci fi films which were rather obvious Cold War allegories. Watch it, and you will agree, as well as sleep a little less easy. But, even if you don’t, there’s still the scene of Anne Francis skinnydipping. That alone is timeless.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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