DVD - Image A- Sound B Extras B
BD - Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens
screenplay by Cyril Hume
directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox
THE INVISIBLE BOY (1957)
Image B- Sound C+
starring Richard Eyer, Philip Abbott, Diane Brewster, Harold J. Stone
screenplay by Cyril Hume, based on the story by Edmund Cooper
directed by Herman Hoffman
by Walter Chaw Outrageously influential and utterly unlike its contemporaries, Fred Wilcox's Forbidden Planet today suffers from prosaic pacing and long stretches where its groundbreaking special effects take centre-stage as the cast gapes in slack-jawed, dim-witted appreciation. I suppose it's not altogether antithetical to the themes of the picture, one that finds its heroes pontificating on their primitiveness in the face of an awesome (and extinct) alien culture--but this open love of its own coolness ultimately represents Forbidden Planet's broadest, most negative impact. The worst of our mainstream spectaculars, after all, are buried under reaction shots as the characters who should be the least mesmerized by their surroundings are impelled to be audience surrogates. What still works about Forbidden Planet is its high-mindedness: those moments where mad scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) declares that the knowledge gleaned from the new technologies he discovers by reverse-engineering a cache of alien artifacts will be jealously rationed by him alone. The dangerous idea that one entity would take on the moral and intellectual superiority to judge who should and should not be allowed to educate themselves was germane here in the middle of the Cold War and remains applicable to our current state of foreign affairs, where just the threat of knowledge acts simultaneously as a spur to aggression and as a deterrent for invasion. Considered by many to be the best of the '50s science-fiction cycle, Forbidden Planet, at once Luddite and in love with the potential for technological expansion, is at least unique for its unabashed indulgence in its subtext--though mining subtext tends to have the obvious effect of leaving the subtext barren.
A crew of earthmen, led by intrepid Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen--his character named after our (still) most progressive President), lands on distant Altair IV to investigate the disappearance of colonial ship Bellerophon (so named for the Greek hero who tamed Pegasus to kill the Chimera), only to learn that the lone survivors are gasbag Morbius and his comely daughter Alta (Anne Francis). (It's the wellspring for James Cameron's classic Aliens, which also begins with a rescue mission to a planet missing its colonists; other similarities include the discovery of a sole survivor, a girl child, and a planet infested with what in this case is literally the manifestation of a nightmare.) Steeped in the pop Freudianism that marked great swaths of Fifties culture, Forbidden Planet suggests that the bogey on this island Altair is the unexamined Id aspect of Freud's diagram of the unconscious. We can go as far as our brains will take us, and paradoxically only as far as our balls will let us. The Bellerophon story ends like most myths of antiquity end: with the hubris of the hero, inescapable, misleading him into the belief that it's possible to exceed the bestial in the pursuit of the celestial.
If this use of myth is more Jungian than Freudian, what is unmistakably Freudian is the picture's first hour, obsessed as it is with Adams's men trying, to various degrees of failure, to seduce/rape young Alta. (A sequence where amorous Lt. Farman (Warren Stevens) attempts to arouse her by kissing her forcefully is particularly loathsome.) When Alta finally chooses a male counterpart whose advances are, it's suggested, physically welcome (the Commander's, naturally), a pet tiger, previously tame, suddenly attacks--and in this way, the film ejects its denizens from Eden. Forbidden Planet structures itself, too, on Shakespeare's "The Tempest", in which a sorcerer is exiled to an enchanted island where he plots revenge, raises his daughter, and gains the counsel of spirit Ariel and beast Caliban. The spirit in the picture is instant cult hero Robby, the Robot; the beast is the Id creature, brought to life by a Disney animator on loan. The rest, the essence of "The Tempest"'s cautionary tale of absolute power and the cold comfort of vengeance, is folded into Shakespeare's remarkable anthropological cant: like "The Tempest", Forbidden Planet is a marriage of head and heart--the things that drive the mind and the things that corrupt the body. It recalls Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned in its pushing of the message--embedded in any tale of ambition--that it's impossible to disregard our humanity in the pursuit of technology--that to even attempt to do so is something we do at our great peril. At its heart, Forbidden Planet suffers a bit from its own ambition: in aspiring to be the final word on didactic genre proselytizing, it becomes more polemic than passion play. As it happens, its most interesting moments are mired in human frailty--in sex, death, betrayal, jealousy, and intoxication.
The main attraction in a lot of ways, Robby adheres to Asimov's laws of robotics (his inability to harm a human provides the picture with its primary plot twist), demonstrates Gort's fearsome physical power, and fast became every boy's dream of a best friend. Enough so that he inspired The Invisible Boy, a franchise non-starter that pairs him with a little boy to save the world, Iron Giant-style. The Invisible Boy is representative of the cynical cash-in mentality, prevalent in every moment along the way in cinema's brief, filthy-lucre-driven history. With Robby having cost upwards of a hundred grand to make (and having stolen the show handily in a respected space oater that didn't do quite as well as hoped), what better than to get that film's screenwriter (Cyril Hume) to knock off a pre-teen adventure starring Robby as Lassie. Insufferable kid Timmie (Richard Eyer) uncovers a Robby kit in his dad's garage and, with the help of a quick run through the smart ray courtesy evil supercomputer Univac (can Cameron's Terminator Skynet bogey also be traced back to this source?), gets it operational so that Robby can, in turn, be Univac's lapdog.
The ultimate, Invaders from Mars-like plan is to implant microchips in the world's leaders, thus enabling Univac to rule the planet from outer space--a nod to Sputnik anxiety. (Indeed, the only fun of the piece is in considering how its premise informs the era.) We hold down the fast forward button as, in lieu of real thought or budget, the picture spends great chunks of time just talking to hear itself speak. In declaring it ripe for the MST3K treatment, I'm really saying that if you don't like movies, you might have a good time going after this one for obviously being someone's afterthought and cash-grab aimed at our most gullible demographic. At 90 minutes, it plays like something twice that length. Ditto an episode of the "Thin Man" television series--itself spun off from the venerable movie franchise and starring Kennedy kin/Rat-Packer Peter Lawford as indefatigable high society gumshoe/lush Nick Charles--that shoehorns Robby into a screwball scenario in which our irrepressible sleuths are enlisted in some stupid mystery involving our irrepressible robot. Warning: Shark Jumping.
Aside from presenting Forbidden Planet in a sparkling, if curiously brown, 2.42:1 anamorphic widescreen remaster that preserves the production's CinemaScope grandeur (and in a DD 5.1 remix that respects the picture's stereo origins), the first disc of Warner's splashy 50th Anniversary DVD of the film sports about thirteen minutes of deleted scenes (un-restored and inconsequential) as well as 10 minutes of "lost footage" that essentially amounts to test footage. An "MGM Parade" reel (6 mins.), meantime, zeroes in on iconic Robbie and Morbius, while a series of trailers plus the abovementioned "Thin Man" episode round out the platter.
The second disc features, in addition to The Invisible Boy in a less pristine transfer (detail and contrast are exquisite, but the source print has seen better days), three short featurettes. The first, "Watch the Skies!" (55 mins.), is TCM's tribute to the sci-fi of the Fifties, wherein talking-heads like Spielberg and Lucas go on about how much these films, Forbidden Planet especially, influenced their own sagas. Spielberg's recollection of a particular lost Jack Arnold classic prompted me to do a bootleg search; why Arnold hasn't received a collection all his own is one of the great mysteries--and injustices--of the DVD archive era. "Amazing! Exploring the Far Reaches of Forbidden Planet" (24 mins.) interviews the likes of John Carpenter in addition to surviving cast members to reflect on how great is the eponymous film. In the best parts of the piece, Bebe Barron--one half of the revolutionary scoring team--explains how she and husband Louis literally invented whole cloth the basis for synthesized, electronic music for film. I liked, especially, Carpenter (himself responsible for a couple of iconic synth scores) opining enthusiastically about the innovative music. Then there's "Robby the Robot: Engineering a Sci-Fi Icon" (12 mins.), which does the fanboy thing for the robot. Maybe it's me and my jaded, asshole, post-modern man thing, but Robby never looked anything like a robot to me--just a short guy in a stubby suit. I'm not talking this viewing, though, I'm talking when I first saw Forbidden Planet at age eight. To each his own. Originally published: December 19, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers As part of an implicit sci-fi promotion, Warner brings Forbidden Planet to Blu-ray in an exquisite 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The film has a pastel (then "otherworldly") palette that can look lifeless and even sickly under the wrong conditions, but HiDef brings out a real photochemical vibrancy and subtlety to the colours, in addition to wringing lots of supple detail out of the monochromatic wardrobe choices. There's an elegant scrim of grain over the image that disappears during many optical effects, suggesting the studio noise-reduced those shots to avoid the opposite outcome of grain spiking to distraction. A telltale smeariness remains in these instances, however, that I found no less jarring. Still, I doubt Forbidden Planet will ever look or sound more refined than this on home video, with the film's discrete but largely hemispheric four-track mix impeccably converted to lossless audio in 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Perhaps the bass has been boosted a bit (the demonstration of the steel shutters packs something of a wallop), but it doesn't sound especially anachronistic, and the directionality of the music, dialogue, and effects are all seamless, if gimmicky in the CinemaScope fashion. Extras return in full from the 2006 DVD but none, alas, were upgraded to HD. Originally published: September 24, 2010.