Wednesday, September 8, 2010

FORBIDDEN PLANET Blu-Ray (MGM 1956) Warner Home Video

Simultaneously, Fred M. Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956) has been hailed as an innovative masterpiece and painfully ridiculed as the worst science fiction movie of all time. Viewed today, there is little to deny that MGM was at least attempting to legitimize a genre that until that point in movie history had been relegated to B-movie status with very few exceptions.

The hiring of Walt Disney animator Joshua Meador to animate the invisible beast illustrates the extent to which pedigree played an important factor for MGM in bringing this project to life. So too did the investment of $125,000 to create a believable robot become an expensive venture. Finally, the vast indoor sets by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Longeran are impressive to a point, if utterly stage bound in all their cyclorama and matte painted glory.

Yet, despite the studio's valiant art direction, its hiring of imminent screen personality Walter Pidgeon to star, and some fairly impressive special effects (at least for their time), the film remains a thinly cloaked attempt at resurrecting Shakespeare's The Tempest for modern audiences. The level at where this enterprise is entirely successful remains debateable.

By the mid-1950s, America at entered the atomic age, buttressed by fear of the atom bomb and a growing paranoia that would ultimately usher in The Cold War. These factors weighed heavily on most sci-fi plots during the first half of the decade; most notably in Robert Wise's masterful, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), framed as a cautionary tale about man's tampering with the laws of the universe to his own detriment. Regrettably, most sci-fi of the period remained low brow; structured around primitive narratives and shot on shoe string budgets. Forbidden Planet, however, was different.

A. Arnold Gillespie, Iriving G. Ries and Wesley C. Miller's Oscar nominated special effects were considered cutting edge, as was the film's unusual electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron. But perhaps the most outstanding achievement of the production - and certainly the one that the film is justly famous and fondly remembered today - is the creation of Robby the Robot.

Voiced with wry comic brilliance by Marvin Miller, and with his various vacuum tubes, cogs and neon electronics whirling, churning and glowing in the dark, Robby is the first mobile robotic giant built for a movie that looked as though he actually might work in real life. In fact, Robby most definitely influenced the design of 'Robot' from Irwin Allen's television classic Lost In Space, shot a decade later. Robby even went on to star in his own movie a year later - The Invisible Boy, and was the subject of a TV episode on MGM's popular Thin Man series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.

The screenplay to Forbidden Planet by Cyril Hume begins ambitiously enough in the 23rd century with a United Planets Cruiser catapulting through space en route to Altair IV, a large gleaming planet sixteen light years from earth. Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Neilsen) has been assigned to discover the fate of a human expedition sent to Altair 20 years earlier. Through radio transmission, Adams makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) - one of the original party. Hardly congenial, Morbius urges Adams and his crew to turn back without landing on the planet. Naturally, this ominous message makes the prospect of visiting Altair IV irresistible.

Morbius makes his guests welcome, although there is a hint of foreboding about his futuristic abode - particularly after Adams and his first officer, Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lieutenant Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) learn that all of the original expedition - save Morbius and his late wife - were torn limb from limb by some invisible force. To restrain this beast, Morbius destroyed his escape ship, the Bellerophon, and has since found peace and relative tranquility on his private island.

After being introduced to Robby the Robot, Adams and his men meet Altaira (Anne Francis); Morbius' intellectually savvy though worldly naive daughter. Jerry attempts to educate Altaira in the ways of all flesh - an enterprise thwarted by Adams who then assumes the reigns of Altaira's more earthly pursuits. Their relationship is standoffish at first and fraught with misunderstandings. Gradually, however, the two begin to fall in love.

Morbius attempts to provide Adams with the necessary supplies he needs to construct a transmitter that will contact earth with their findings proves fruitless when the same invisible creature that murdered his own party so many years before sneaks onto Adams ship late at night and destroys the broadcast device. Morbius next tells Adams about the Krell - a superior race of beings who built an underground utopia on Altair IV only to vanish as a civilization shortly thereafter - leaving behind no clue as to the cause of their sudden extinction.

Morbius takes Adams, Jerry and Doc on a tour of the Krell's fantastic subterranean world, charged by thermonuclear reactors in support of a series of laboratories. Next, Morbius shows Adams the 'plastic educator', an apparatus designed to unleash the intellectual powers of the mind. The educator killed the Captain of the Bellerophon instantly when he tried to use it. Undaunted, Morbius tapped the devise for his own use and was astounded when his own intellectual capacity was doubled as a result.

The next evening, despite having erected a force field around his ship, the invisible creature returns, killing Lt. Farman and several other crew members. At the same instance Morbius, who has fallen asleep in the Krell laboratory, hears Altaira screaming. Adams arrives at Morbius' house and confronts him about the monster while Ostrow sneaks away to the underground lab to use the plastic educator. The device fatally cripples Ostrow but not before he reveals to Adams that the underground thermonuclear reactors were constructed to materialize any object that the Krell could imagine. As such, it is Morbius now who has been commanding the monster that killed his fellow countrymen as well as Adam's crew.

Morbius scoffs at the notion, but when Altaira defies him by declaring her love for Adams the monster reappears and comes after them. Terrified, Morbius commands Robby to destroy the creature. However, recognizing the monster as an extension of Morbius' thoughts, Robby - who has been programmed to respect human life - cannot kill it.

Adams, Altaira and Morbius take refuge in the Krell laboratory, but the invincible creature dissolves the metal doors and enters behind them. Morbius renounces the creature and attempts to intervene. He is mortally wounded by the creature, who has destroyed its creator and by extension, itself. The dying Morbius gives his blessing to Adams and Altaira, then instructs Adams to detonate the planet thereby putting an end to the possibility that a future civilization will reactivate the monster through their own subconscious design. Adams, Altaira and Robby escape aboard Adam's ship and watch from a safe distance as Altair IV self destructs.

The original screenplay by Irving Block was entitled Fatal Planet and there is a good deal of fatalism in the narrative. Morbius is a tragic figure to be sure, only capable of finding peace in this vacuum of lonely perfection he has created for himself. Yet, there is also a tinge of the fatalist in Adams. As characterized by Leslie Nielsen, the Captain is a solitary commander who cannot bring himself to fraternize with his crew on anything more than a professional plain of discussion. Altaira is the link between her father and Adams; the intermediary whose love has been unable to sway Morbius from his self-imposed exile but gradually reawakens Adam's distant heart to the realm of less cerebral possibilities between men and women.

In the final analysis, Forbidden Planet is an interesting anomaly in the sci-fi genre. At once it marks the point and bridges the gap where big budget, high concept melodrama met with that kitschy world of things that go bump in the night. Forbidden Planet also foreshadows the future of science fiction on television in shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space; both directly - and occasionally heavily - borrowing from the film's key concepts and production design.

Warner Home Video's reimagining of Forbidden Planet on Blu-Ray leaves something to be desired. The 1080p transfer is not a true hi-def upgrade but merely a conversion of the remastered elements from the DVD release from 2007. As such, the image features improvements that are marginal at best. Owing to the higher bit rate, overall image sharpness is ever so slightly improved as is fine detail. The appalling Eastman Color film stock that the film was originally shot in shows its glaring shortcomings on this outing; but that is to be expected. The audio is remastered in TruHD and adequate for this presentation.

Extras are all direct imports from the 2 disc Deluxe DVD edition and include Robby the Robot's follow up film; The Invisible Boy (1957) - a bizarre sci-fi adventure that mixes playful homespun charm with ominous evil. There's also Robby's appearance on an episode of television's The Thin Man and a pair of documentaries; the first about science fiction in the 1950s, the second a 'making of' Forbidden Planet. None of these extras have been up-converted from their 720i original broadcast quality.

Warner Home Video - once the leader in bringing catalogue titles like this one to the forefront in outstanding looking transfers has dropped another ball with Forbidden Planet. This reviewer cannot stress enough the point that to give consumers video transfer quality that is not true hi def is tantamount to defrauding the public where Blu-Ray's stellar capacities are concerned. After all, what's the point?

Also, by compressing all the extensive extra features on the same disc as the feature, the quality of the film transfer is ultimately compromised. As film restoration expert Robert A. Harris has often pointed out the capacity of Blu-Ray - while far superior to DVD - is not "that good!" Given Warner's short shrift with the transfer, coupled by the fact that there are NO new extra features included herein, there's really NO GOOD REASON to repurchase this title on Blu-Ray - unless, of course, you don't already own it.

So, to the good people at Warner, this reviewer would suggest the following: take heed, stop and do things right the first time on Blu-Ray. We don't need multiple visitations on the same titles with modest upgrades each time. Just one 'be all/end all' effort that will stand the test of time. You are not winning any favours or browning points with collectors by simply making such titles available on Blu-ray just to say that they are available on Blu-ray!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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