Oscar Nominated for Best Effects, Special Effects
Warner Home Video has been slowly bringing out HD transfers of select titles originally released on the defunct HD-DVD format to Blu-ray, and Forbidden Planet is the latest to hit the shelves, with a sparkling hi-def transfer and stellar uncompressed audio.
The 2006 release (dubbed the 50th Anniversary edition) was available as a standalone disc and pricey tin in both DVD and HD-DVD formats, with the standalone editions packaged in 'gun metal' tin boxes that also housed a booklet on Robby the Robot, a collection of lobby cards, stills and posters from Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy, and a Robby the Robot toy. (For further details, you can examine an 'unboxing' of the now-vintage HD-DVD tin on YouTube.)
WHV's BR edition doesn't include the physical extras that came in the tin, but the movie and its supplements are back in circulation in HD, sporting the same HD master, extras, and some of the artwork used in the 2006 release.
If one ignores the Freudian imagery and the fact Forbidden Planet is a sharp riff on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," it's easy to see why this film remains a popular sci-fi classic for adults and kids. The colours are brilliant, the special effects are startling - the spaceship's approach of the planet Altair IV are stunning in big screen HD - and the film's eerie mood is massively enahnced by Louis and Bebe Barron's electronic score. There's a monster attack that's gripping, lethal threats are often left to the imagination of the viewer, and the gradual mystery surrounding the planet's long-dead civilization unfurls like a good pulpy episode of Star Trek.
Perhaps due to the wide CinemaScope ratio, the filmmakers were obliged to fill every inch of the frame with detail; coupled with a slower fifties pacing, one is also lulled into the film's futuristic world, and can appreciate the giant relics of a dead alien race known as the Krel.
Although Forbidden Planet wasn't a blockbuster release during its original 1956 theatrical run, it became a beloved genre classic over the next twenty years as it played on TV, and captivated kids in second-run theatres before eventually making the transition to home video.
Within those decades, Forbidden Planet left indelible impressions on future robotic technicians, science-fiction writers, artists, composers, and filmmakers-to-be. WHV's 50th anniversary set was obviously assembled by a team that loves the film, and the group had no trouble in getting major cinema artists and technicians to talk about the movie, plus the sci-fi genre that thrived during the fifties: an era of the perfect family, surrounded by paranoia, fear, and terror from nuclear bombs, aliens, Communists, and un-Godly peoples.
Some of the film's surviving actors appear in the making-of featurette, "All-new Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet," but they're admittedly dwarfed by the film's gigantic aura, so while fans do get to see Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Earl Holliman, Richard Anderson, and Warren Stevens, their comments - particularly from the non-stars - are very brief. One really wishes the same level of background info in the compact vignettes for Francis, Nielsen, and co-star Walter Pidgeon was applied to the marvelous character actors in the film, but as a whole, the surviving cast appear quite delighted that a work from decades ago still stands on its own.
Beginning as a B-movie, the gradually augmented budget upgrade meant some A- and upper B-level actors and technicians were assigned to the production, some of which, like lead art director Arthur Lonergan knew this was his chance to shine and create a career-making slice of the future. The clean lines, geometric arches, circular objects and use of glass and polished metal was inherently fifties, but even when applied to the crew's spaceship, the results were eye-catching, particularly in CinemaScope's broad ratio.
Just as notable are the matte paintings for the gigantic underground power plant built by the ancient Krell civilization, which fused that clean, industrial look of harnessed power, housed within a simple, elegant superstructure with ambient blinking lights. (As any technogeek will attest, it's the blinking/strobing/fluttering/neon/glowing lights that make tech truly real.)
The expansive elevated walkways leading alongside industrial turrets are still extraordinary images, and both the high angle and low-level shots of the powerful Klystron complex are perpetually being riffed by filmmakers.
In the superb 2005 TCM documentary, "Watch the Skies!: Science Fiction, the 1950s and Us," George Lucas doesn't wholly own up to some of his own creative appropriations, but his colleagues single out Robby the Robot as a partial inspiration for Star Wars' C-3PO and other assorted droids. The aforementioned Krell power plant was a self-cleaning, self-perpetuating creation - a concept that also showed up in Disney's The Black Hole (the giant ship whose lobotomized cyborgs keep the engines oiled, tuned, and running), and James Cameron's pre-Terminator short, Xenogenesis. Even the name Klystron moniker popped up as the gizmo Dan Ackroyd uses to bring space-babe Kim Basinger to Earth in the otherwise idiotic My Stepmother is an Alien.
In Aliens, Cameron also mimicked the sequence in Forbidden Planet where the ship's laser canons are trained on the unseen Id, and soldiers stress out as each salvo misses the approaching creature; in Aliens, the sequence was upgraded to sentry canons in a dark corridor, similarly set to auto-fire at an oncoming menace, except Cameron ratcheted the tension by intercutting sound and images of guns blazing, ammo gauges waning, and the human soldiers fearing the guns would fail to keep the alien creatures from invading the secured medical lab.
Cameron is one of several established directors who appear in the doc, and like contemporaries Steven Spielberg, Lucas, and Ridley Scott, his take on why the sci-fi genre blossomed during the fifties is funny, incisive, and quite personal. Most of the interviews are overlaid with film clips from multi-studio productions, so the filmmakers are free to cite classic works such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Invaders from Mars, and others, and it's the filmmakers' memories and observations that drive the doc's narrative, and elevate writer/director Richard Schickel's program from what's often designed as a generic, fluffy movie clip special. Forbidden Planet figures within the doc's scope, but it doesn't override a really engaging 55 minute discussion on a special period in sci-fi history.
When The Thing from Another World is profiled, fans might find themselves wondering, 'Where the heck is John Carpenter?' The BR's making-of featurette, along with the Robby the Robot featurette, is where our own present day B-moviemakers are given room to talk, but because the social aspects of fifties sci-fi are already covered, the group - mostly consisting of Carpenter, Joe Dante, and John Landis - are retained for short comments that overall stay within the domain of affectionate nostalgia. "All-new Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet" is still a good featurette, but as with most featurette & doc productions, the pacing's brisk, with few allowable tangents.
Some rare outtakes appear in the featurettes, but WHV went further and actually included mostly unedited, unused effects footage - moving planets, the sailing spacecraft, celestial star patterns and more - in a separate archive. Set to corresponding cues from Louis and Bebe Barrons' ground-breaking electronic score, the montages have some wear, but are gorgeous vignettes that fans might want to splash on a wall with a digital projector, just to ogle at their beauty.
Co-composer Bebe Barrons also appears in the making-of featurette, and with fellow pioneering sound craftsmen, like Ben Burtt, detail of the score's conception. Unlike the doc and the Robby the Robot featurette (both of which use unsuitable stock music), the making-of featurette sticks with the original score, and provides the perfect soundscape. The BR's extras don't really give more than the basic facts about the score - enriched by a few rare stills - but fans interested in more details should check out the CD review at the end of this review, and my review of James Wierzbicki's accessible and beautifully researched score analysis.
In his Forbidden Planet book, Wierzbicki provides a more interesting view on Robby the Robot's post-Forbidden Planet career - MGM sunk $100,000 into the iconic creature, and tried to extend the prop's life in a subsequent B-movie and TV appearances - but some of the featurette interviewees note how the prop was a real-life character to kids, and did become an internationally recognized icon of the film, and of streamlined fifties sci-fi design. (Joe Dante even posits how the revelation of Robby being just a guy in a robot suit was on par with discovering that Santa Claus isn't real.)
As a major bonus, WHV have included Robby's follow-up film, The Invisible Boy, plus the complete The Thin Man episode "Robot Client" (lacking chapter stops, however), in which MGM further extended the lifespan of their expensive character. (Because of the wealth of archival extras and featurettes, these shows are sometimes sampled in featurettes or chopped down, as with the TV show of Casablanca on Warner Bros.' anniversary set, so it's nice to see a show in complete form.)
Invisible Boy is reviewed as a separate title HERE, and we've added a short WKME window for a rundown of Robby's Thin Man appearance HERE.
As for the robot's creation, he deservedly gets his own featurette, with current owner - writer/director William Malone (House on Haunted Hill) - showing off the robot's fine details. Reproduction creator Fred Barton discusses the robot's components, and original designer Robert Kinoshita gets plenty of room to talk about how he came up with the robot's final look. The featurette includes lots of design stills, and a good array of Robby's first and subsequent film and TV appearances, plus some info on actor Marvin Miller (TV's The Millionaire), who voiced the robot.
Also from Warner Bros.' TV archive are four clips of Walter Pidgeon, shot during his 1956 tenure as host of the MGM Parade. Between ad breaks for an adaptation of "Captains Courageous," Pidgeon 'steps into character' and re-appears in his Dr. Morbius costume and introduces us to Robby and some of the characters in the soon-to-be-released Forbidden Planet.
It's the same promo fluff Warner Bros. applied to The Searchers, with host Gig Young presenting clips from John Ford's latest film over episodes of Warner Bros. Presents in 1955, although Pidgeon's first two intros were repeated with longer film extracts for the final two promo segments.
Also of note is a long gallery of rare film excerpts from a workprint that Wierzbicki discusses in his book. Used by the composers to score the film, the longer version contained many chunks of dialogue and scenes shorn from the release version. Of note is Robby's first encounter with the newly landed spacemen, and one notices how the neon lips that make up his mouth are in perfect synch with the temp vocals used during filming, than the final vocals dubbed into the final sound mix.
The Forbidden Planet workprint was screened back in 1977, and served as a vital source to compare the script, pre-release edit, and final version for a number of comparative articles, including a 1979 Cinefantastique piece, "Making Forbidden Planet," by Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin. Some of the footage also appeared on Criterion's laserdisc, but this is the first time longer extracts and complete scenes have been assembled for home video.
Some excerpts demonstrate effects sequences minus the animated effects from Disney artists, while other clips provide a contrast to some truly bizarre editorial decisions for the final theatrical version. Whether done to appease censors or improve pacing, viewers will pick up how some scenes in the release version contain some glaring jump cuts - sentences or terminating dialogue were chopped out, and no efforts were made to smoothen edits with any cross-edits to other images.
The intro text that precedes the workprint extracts describe the popular theory that MGM's brass were so delighted by test screenings that they rushed the film to theatres without some fine-tuning, and pruning some overtly Freudian material.
The naughtiest bit has the ship's main crewman discussing Altaira's 'special gift' in being able to communicate with animals, like tigers. The dialogue clearly refers to her endangered virginity, and the scene closes with a strange lament towards the day when she'll get boffed for the first time. (On the other hand, Robby the Robot's self-pleasuring line remains untouched, and provides a major laugh for adults.)
Twentieth Century-Fox' rules for exhibiting CinemaScope films during the format's early years included the insistence on using stereophonic sound in the new Perspecta surround sound system; whether that applied to Forbidden Planet is murky, as prior home video releases were all in mono. (The first DVD release in 2000 was in straight mono, in spite of listing the audio mix as 2.0 stereo.)
For the HD transfer, the remix is an expansive impression of Dolby 5.1; dialogue is still present in the front and rear surrounds, but the audio is quite aggressive, with the sound effects and vital music score filling the room as specific sounds are panned and re-channeled to simulated discreet and bass-friendly surround sound.
Visually, the transfer is gorgeous, and it's a major upgrade from the harsh contrasts and dirt present in the first DVD. This is a mandatory addition to anyone's sci-fi collection, and should be played loud n' proud.
© 2006 & 2010 Mark R. Hasan