Every classic movie fan has that one movie that they really favor; something from the classic age that will never be recaptured because “they don’t make them like that anymore.” As a science fiction fan, for me that film is Forbidden Planet, an outer space story of love and adventure loosely based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Forbidden Planet is a beautiful representation of a change in science fiction eras. Primarily low budget cinematic fares, sci-fi pictures had to have a decent story to maintain interest. In the days before the spectacle film, sci-fi stories were largely plot driven – something today’s filmmakers frequently forget. Forbidden Planet was a change of pace as the film was given “A” movie treatment (as opposed to the sci-fi “B” movies we usually see from the classic movie era). This means it was given a more respectable cast and a fair budget while still being driven by a fairly intelligent story.
The story is fairly simple. A military spaceship crew travels to the far planet of Altair IV to check on a colony sent there seventeen years before. When they arrive they discover the planet has only two inhabitants: the genius Dr. Edward Morbius and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Altaira. The two have managed to thrive on the planet despite the rest of the colonists being wiped out. As the ship’s commander investigates the fate of the planet’s settlers an invisible beast begins to terrorize his crew. Can the mystery of the settlers’ demise and Morbius’s survival be discovered before the ship suffers the same fate?
Like most science fiction stories of the day, the plot involves some form of social commentary. In this case that commentary is the concern over man’s manipulation of the unknown – a popular plot device. The message is kept well shrouded in the story however, keeping the film from being too preachy. Instead the film’s lagging moments come from extended sequences of character and plot development in the rising action As mentioned before, the story also borrows from Shakespeare’s Tempest, using the frame of a ship’s crew encountering a stranded genius who has managed to master the hidden secrets of his environment and his daughter who has never encountered regular humans before, especially those of the male persuasion.
The film contains a varied cast that includes the legendary Walter Pidgeon as Morbius and Anne Francis as his stunning daughter Altaira. Francis shows a classic beauty in this movie that is still absolutely breathtaking to this day. In retrospect, the strangest cast decision has to be Leslie Nielson as the dramatic lead, Commander John Adams. Nielson is actually quite good in the dramatic role although he definitely stands out considering the direction his career ended up taking.
There’s no arguing the influence Forbidden Planet has had on the sci-fi genre since its introduction. Many more familiar designs, such as the transporters in the original “Star Trek,” the look of the planet below the title station in “Babylon 5,” or much of “Lost in Space” came from this film. Additionally, the film was also responsible for introducing the world to a science fiction icon: Robby the Robot, a figure that would go on to have a more influential and dramatic career than Leslie Nielson.
Forbidden Planet is one of those movies that any respectable movie fan should experience at least once in their life. While it may run a little slow at times, the overall story is quite good and the influence of the movie is too far reaching to be ignored.
Forbidden Planet has been available on DVD for quite some time, although the existing release goes back far enough that the special features included “interactive menus” and scene access – the kind of bonus material studios listed back in the early days of the format when people actually thought those were bonuses. The new 50th Anniversary special edition brags two discs including quite a few bonus materials and is also available in a gift set with a replica of Robby the Robot.
You have to love a DVD release that includes a second movie as part of its bonus materials. In this case the second movie is The Invisible Boy, the second movie featuring Robby the Robot which was primarily made to help compensate for the costs of constructing Robby. The film, along with an episode of “The Thin Man” TV show, is an attempt to show Robby beyond his debut in Forbidden Planet. Oddly, both the show episode and The Invisible Boy vilify Robby to some degree, ignoring the idea of the Asimov-inspired rules that are featured so prominently in Forbidden Planet as part of Robby’s programming.
The Invisible Boy also plays on man’s exploration of the unknown and adds in a fear of the human race becoming dependent on computers – if only they knew what the future would hold. It’s kind of a hodgepodge of plot devices, from a supercomputer villain to scientifically created potions to create invisibility. The film easily could have been made without Robby and it’s apparent he was kind of stuck in without the story really justifying his addition. It’s definitely not the classic film Forbidden Planet has become, but its addition here is really neat because it is a movie I might not have otherwise seen.
Other bonus features are somewhat more standard. There are a couple of deleted scenes that were found in a preliminary edit of the film. Most of them only add a couple of seconds to the scenes where they take place, although one explains an odd jump cut toward the end of the film. There is also some test footage of the film’s visual effects included as “lost footage.” Three documentaries offer a retrospective look at the film and the science fiction genre. The first is a look at films of the 1950s through the eyes of today’s biggest sci-fi contributors like Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, and Ridley. The second is a look at Forbidden Planet from the people who were involved making the film. The final documentary looks specifically at Robby the robot and the lasting influence he has had on the genre, including other appearances he’s made along the way. There are also two segments from “MGM Parade,” hosted by Walter Pidgeon, where the actor steps out from narrating “Captains Courageous” to preview his upcoming film Forbidden Planet. I particularly like that last one which highlights how much film advertising and the studio system has changed over the years.
One of my favorite features on the disc is a gallery of classic sci-fi trailers. Trailers for Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy are included, but there are also trailers for other classic favorites such as The Thing From Another World and Them!. As someone who can sit for hours watching trailers in The Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Walt Disney World’s Disney-MGM Studios, this is a great thing to have included.
My only real complaint about this 50th Anniversary release is one of organization. The materials are listed on the back of the packaging but finding them is not as intuitive as you’d think. Disc one is clearly labeled as Forbidden Planet and disc two as The Invisible Boy but most of the substantial extras for the set are on disc two. If the disc had been marked as a “bonus” disc I’d be fine with that but since it’s specifically labeled as an individual movie that wasn’t where I expected to find most of the set’s documentaries. Still, it’s a minor complaint from what is otherwise an excellently assembled anniversary set.