I’m sure I’ll get flak for saying this, but it seems to me that in the first seventy years of motion picture history there were only three or four films that you could remotely describe as being serious classics in the science fiction genre, one that wasn’t a B-movie with bug-eyed horror monsters or super-sized animals. The very first was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which had a powerful social message coupled to a sense of scale and grandeur unlike anything seen in the genre before or indeed for a long time after; and another of them was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which Stanley Kubrick raised up science fiction and made it a respectable, intelligent and grown-up artform. If you want to include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) in there as well, then I wouldn’t argue – although despite its iconic flying saucer and sleek robot Gort, I personally feel it’s more a message movie than a science fiction film at heart.
In between there was Forbidden Planet. It’s the most light-hearted of the three or four classics and it has plenty of comedy to leven what is actually a deadly serious high-concept storyline: a spaceship from Earth arrives on the planet Altair to determine what happened to the original exploration team that came here 20 years ago. They find just one survivor, Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), along with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). But there’s also an impossibly sophisticated robot that Morbius claims he created himself. Why is Morbius lying? Why is he so hostile to his would-be rescuers, and what secret is he hiding inside his brilliant mind?
Forbidden Planet is easily the most ‘pulpish’ of the four films, with its gorgeous matte painting planetary vistas looking as though they’d popped off last week’s vivid cover of “Astounding Stories”; but it also shares with Metropolis and 2001 a rare sense of epic storytelling allied to craftsmanship at the top of its game, and of a respect for the genre and for the intelligence of the audience missing from the likes of the entirely enjoyable but still wholly B-movie It Came from Outer Space et al.
Forbidden Planet is still hugely influential, even 55 years on. It’s impossible to watch it and not see it as a pilot movie for Star Trek with its military crew of Earth spacemen exploring strange new worlds; indeed, Gene Roddenberry is even known to have said that he wanted to make a TV series out of the film, before he later went on to make his Wagon Train to the stars. Doctor Who picked up some tips as well: watch out for the mention of ‘reverse the polarity’; and the way that the designers of Dalek début story “The Dead Planet” picked up on the film’s very clever throwaway idea of using doorway shapes to imply the aliens’ form. And it’s hard not to look at the hologram representations of Altaira and Princess Leia in Star Wars and not see a direct influence, even before you start seeing how much See-Threepio owes to the character of the spectacularly-designed Robbie the Robot.
While there’s not a huge amount of ground-breaking going on in the FX department (it’s all done using well-established model, matte, stop-motion and animation techniques) it’s still the first time they’ve all been pulled together and done as well as they are here, with as much care and attention as the best craftsmen of the day could manage given such a relatively huge budget. And it’s all in super Metrocolour – a real genre first! But if it’s something truly dazzling and original you want, listen to the soundtrack: not a musical instrument to be heard, but instead one of the most weird, evocative and effective soundscapes you’ll experience in a movie thanks to the shockingly alien “electronic tonalities” created by Louis and Bebe Barron. Their work surely influenced that of Delia Darbyshire in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop when she painstakingly pieced together the notes for the Doctor Who title theme for the first time seven years later. These sounds are part-music, part-sound effect, and the atmosphere they create for sequences such as the march of the unstoppable, invisible Monster from the Id upon the heroes is brilliant and terrifying.
In order to sell some of this outlandishness to mainstream audiences, there’s some crowd-pleasing light entertainment in the film as well that can come over as rather juvenile to modern viewers: the way the senior officers fumble over their first sight of Altaira is like watching 12-year-old boys in the playground stammer over that most alien of species – a girl! – rather than supposedly top-of-the-line experienced military personnel; and the comic scene between the Cook (unusual to see Earl Holliman (a) so young, and (b) in a comedy part) and the Robot getting themselves drunk is played purely for laughs. But then, even the great John Ford had many such similar interludes in his best films, including The Searchers. Perhaps the hardest thing for modern audiences watching this film is that the hero of the story – the straight-talking, no-nonsense captain of the Earth ship – is played by Leslie Nielsen, in the days when he was a genuine leading dramatic actor. We know him best now from Airplane!, The Naked Gun and dozens of other comedies, and it’s hard to watch him in this without expecting him to make a gag or two hundred.
Meanwhile it’s the underlying intelligence of the plot that brings it all back together and keeps it on the right side of being a grown-up A-list movie; and that intelligence is derived from a master, by cheerfully plundering William Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the basic idea and structure underpinning it all and then combining it with some psychology theory from Sigmund Freud. No one could say that any of this was kid’s stuff! It all builds to a terrific and tense climax, beginning with a tantalising glimpse of the monster’s outline through to the final moments where it proceeds to burn its way through every obstacle in order to kill them. For the eagle-eyed among the audience, the significance of a row of lights coming on one-by-one in the background of shot within the Krell laboratory is by itself enough to chill the blood with the dawning realisation of what’s going on.
On the Blu-ray: there’s no doubt that this has been given an impressive restoration, and the picture is nicely sharp and clean for the most part. There are a few isolated incidents of a few frames having fading that’s too extensive to compensate for, and sometimes the optical processes used to create the FX lead to a briefly inferior picture. For the most part the picture is nice and deep with proper blacks, but some scenes can appear flat and lacking in contrast – presumably they were shot that way. Most surprisingly is that a film that you would expect to be lush and colourful is actually dialled right back. I’d say it’s so ‘realistic’ that it’s verging on dull, which is a shame, and I’m really not quite convinced they got the colour saturation settings right on the digitisation process. Maybe it really is just the way it was intended and it’s my own expectations that are skewed from memories of over-saturated TV showings down the years. Even so, I couldn’t help but be just a little bit disappointed, and overall I’m not sure there is really a huge gain in quality over the equivalent two-disc DVD edition of the film that’s also available. There is a full serving of extras to be had on both the Blu-ray and DVD releases, including two quality documentaries on the making of the film and of the state of science fiction in the 50s; further TV and film outings for Robbie the Robot (including the full-length feature film The Invisible Boy); deleted and lost scenes, and trailers (the condition of which shows just how good the latest restored transfer is by comparison, all quibbles aside.)
Basically, if you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet before then it’s absolutely mandatory that you do so – right now. And if you have seen the film before, chances are that this version was a must-buy back when it first came out a couple of years ago.