1956, US, Directed by Fred M Wilcox
Colour, Running Time: 94 minutes
DVD, Region 2, Warner, Video: Anamorphic 2.40:1, Audio: DD5.1
Drifting through space in a saucer-style starship a team of astronauts land on what was once a colonized planet, the purpose being, they believe, to rescue survivors. They discover the small population has been devastated by a plague and all that remains are Dr Morbius and his fetching daughter, Altaira, who seem to be living peacefully and self-sufficiently with their multifunctional robot, Robby. Not completely accommodating and without any desire to be ‘rescued’, Dr Morbius is eager to have them on their way but Commander Adams stubbornly decides to stay for a while so they can get down to investigating what happened to the plague victims and whether there was any malpractice involved on the part of Morbius. The scientist is enthusiastic about putting the commander’s mind at rest by showing him and some colleagues around the complex, something that was actually constructed by intellectually superior aliens millennia before. What really concerns the Adams is a device that Morbius demonstrates to them, something that taps into the potential of organic intelligence revealing a power that may be difficult or impossible for mere humans to control. These concerns that all is not right are proven true when their ship is attacked during the night by an unseen presence and they quickly realise that there is a malevolent force at work that none of them fully understand.
Possibly not quite as wonderful as its cult reputation might suggest, Forbidden Planet is nevertheless ahead of its time in some respects. The special effects are particularly noteworthy, holding up quite nicely even in today’s era of computer generated images. Landscapes and scenery are striking as well as epic and some of the compositing can be convincing even nowadays; for example, the shots of the monolithic alien structural interiors where several people are walking along a platform are brilliantly executed. The cinemascope visuals are something that fix themselves in the mind with attractive colour schemes and a lovely 2.40:1 aspect ratio, something that almost always suits future-bound science fiction. Another area where the film excels is in its innovative soundtrack. Not really music as such, this is a very surreal electronic score that roots the film firmly in its own unique universe, thereby successfully creating an otherworldly feel that’s still distinctive today. Hardly contemporary in their beliefs the musician’s union of the time complained about the style of the soundtrack and prevented the creators being referred to as composers, hence their credits are listed under ‘electronic tonalities’ - talk about political… Most of the starship crew are cardboard cut-outs really, consisting of far too many background people with non-existent personalities, though even the principle crew members (including pre-spoof Leslie Nielson as Adams) are stereotypes and hard to take seriously nowadays. A particularly funny characteristic is exhibited every time something remotely inexplicable happens when they all suddenly reach for their laser guns - they’re a very jumpy bunch. There’s also some strange morals at work here: Adams gives one of his crew a good ticking off for getting a bit too romantically entangled with Morbius’s youthful and naïve daughter and then proceeds to cop off with her himself! Perhaps the right to mate here is asserted by the acquisition of a position in authority. Probably a contributory factor to the film’s status of commendation is the origin of the ‘creature’ that threatens them, this being highly unusual and a concept that’s not been over-used throughout the years, exploring as it does the tangible manifestation of the id (derived from Freud’s theories). Forbidden Planet tends to err towards emphasis on script and dialogue through much of its running time but this illustrates to me the fact that the technical accomplishments were merely there to embellish a good story rather than taking centre stage as they so often do nowadays. While not as exciting as its reputation suggests it might be (this not being helped by the rather leisurely direction of Wilcox), it’s certainly something with plentiful strengths and a standout fifties science fiction movie.
Properly remastered for its anniversary re-release this looks slick on DVD, though it’s softer than modern day flicks this is understandable considering the age. Paying respect to the only way it should be seen, Warner have replicated the correct ratio giving us great CinemaScope images to gaze upon - a must for such a piece. A 5.1 track has been mixed but most of the sound is rooted to the front speakers, the mix simply acting to expand the mono soundstage without betraying the source too much. Extras are very generous with one complete movie - The Invisible Boy, connection here being drawn to the fact that it also featured Robby The Robot. Another Robby fiction piece is included in an episode of The Thin Man. As well as some deleted footage, there are several documentaries looking at science fiction from the fifties, Robby, and the main film itself rounding out a great 2-disc package. The movie was actually mastered in High Definition and stateside we saw a HD-DVD taken from the same source but giving us a jump in picture quality. While I like the film I don’t love it enough to shell out for a high definition version (at least not at the moment) so I opted for good old standard definition, which looks pretty nice even projected onto a large screen. Whether you get the HD-DVD, the super duper HD collector’s set, or just the 2 disc DVD, treatment like this can’t be complained about.