2. Forbidden Planet (1956) – Dir. Fred Wilcox

 

FPCoverForbidden Planet is the quintessential 1950s science fiction film; both a landmark of its era and a litmus test for the strength of the burgeoning genre in the cinema. It resplendently holds the iconography that we collectively imagine when we ruminate upon this era of American sf cinema: flying saucers, colourful alien worlds, robots and ray guns. It transposed the images of ‘pulp’ literature of the decade and defined a new visual language for the genre; laying the foundations for the 1960s growth of science fiction on film and television – namely lending many conventions and much of its aesthetic to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek television series that emerged a decade later.

But to view this text as merely an aesthetic curiosity and an entry into a populist movement of lightweight adventure texts is to do it a huge disservice and ignore the brilliance of its core themes and groundbreaking ideas which have been marginally reclaimed in recent years – the film more widely acknowledged now as an important science fiction text.

Forbidden Planet simultaneously borrowed from and transcended 50s ‘pulp’ SF
Forbidden Planet simultaneously borrowed from and transcended 50s ‘pulp’ SF

Firstly, Forbidden Planet takes its source material from good stock, far above any of its contemporaries – Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and contorts this into an entertaining, visually arresting and complex tapestry which introduced a swathe of new ideas to cinematic science fiction; Shakespeare’s weighty playtext providing amble sustenance with which to bolt hyperbolic aesthetics and new ideas. Using this base as strong currency, Forbidden Planet was able to draw from the darkest recesses of literary sf from the 50s (namely the likes of Philip K Dick, A E van Vogt, Fredrik Pohl and James Blish) and graft them onto the cinema screen in vivid ‘Eastman Color’. It showed cinematic audiences for the first time the depth to which the genre could penetrate the lowest and murkiest places in the human mind and acted as a precursor for some of the more celebrated ‘cerebral’ cinematic texts which would follow over next three decades.

Firstly though before discussing such values, the visual craft of the film must be recognised and discussed in more detail as the impact of the text’s ocular effects cannot be overstated when adjudging its influence. The mise-en-scene – the ‘look’ of the text – was hugely important in defining exactly what the future might look like to contemporary audiences and for audiences for generations to come. Forbidden Planet helped establish a popular conception of the ‘futuristic’ and the ‘alien’ which would allow later filmmakers and directors to develop, reshape or destroy as they

The visual effects in director Wilcox’s text are superior to their contemporaries – creating a haunting atmosphere and hitherto experienced level of credibility
The visual effects in director Wilcox’s text are superior to their contemporaries – creating a haunting atmosphere and hitherto experienced level of credibility

wished. Forbidden Planet played a huge part in providing audiences a defined ‘look’ of the future from which to base their understanding of such speculative worlds and its impact in this respect must not be undervalued. Again, this aesthetic draws heavily on the 1940s and 50s ‘pulp’ era of literary sf with its props and costumes articulating the fantastical descriptions of its literary counterparts. This relationship is misleading though and has often been misconstrued in its translation: that of the film therefore sharing thematic traits with the trashy pulp sf magazines of the era (although some great writers would emerge and achieve longevity from this format, much of the work during the pulp era is now regarded exactly as its name suggests). Although this is not the case there is an interesting Paradox in this relationship: Forbidden Planet’s linkage to the pulp era is vitally important to the film’s value and lingering charm. Forbidden Planet is much more than a linear ‘pulp’ text but happily uses its aesthetic conventions to anchor the viewer within a fictional world that they could familiarise as ‘unworldly’. Without this, the text runs dangerously close to being too different and too removed from convention for audiences; too radical for its subtlety to flourish. It uses its era as a aesthetic ’slingshot’ to propel it forward.

It would not be until the late 1970s with Star Wars and Alien where the genre would become brave enough to drastically challenge this visual status-quo of the ‘future world’ and explore fresh realms:  bizarre, grimy and ‘used’ universes that would redefine a cultural appreciation of what tomorrow should look like. Even Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable visual tour-de-force 2001: A Space Odyssey which is, rightly, still used as a barometer by which to gauge the visual prowess of science fiction texts, owes much to the ascetic, austere mise-en-scene that Forbidden Planet established.

King Kong was revolutionary in its visual spectacle and creation of depth within the frame, long before Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane and ‘deep focus’ photography
King Kong was revolutionary in its visual spectacle and creation of depth within the frame, long before Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane and ‘deep focus’ photography

At a purely visceral level, the scenery of Forbidden Planet is spectacular and awe-inspiring; the design of the ship’s interior and Morbius’ home are stunning and firmly affix a metallic, minimalistic tone for the text; full of garish colour and undeniable splendour. Likewise, the matte paintings of Altair IV’s terrain ooze depth and forge a sense of sparse, intransigent hostility which is mirrored in Morbius’ sensibilities towards his new visitors. The model shots of the spaceship are impressive also, moving with an authoritative smoothness a million miles removed from the popular perception of 1950s ‘b’ movies and their wobbly ‘saucers-on-strings’. The entire visual landscape of the text illustrates endeavour and attention which eclipses many of the sf texts of the era – the genre then still classed as somewhat adolescent and unworthy of such painstaking artistic care (more on this later). The subterranean scenes when Morbius leads Adams and his crew into the former dwelling of the Krell are utterly haunting and compelling, and were some of the first occasions that this scale and scope of sf had been realised visually on film so effectively. The combination of intricate matte painting and trick photography allow Wilcox to show the human figures dwarfed by huge valleys of machinery and metallic chasms which plunge endlessly to the depths of the planet. These sequences are some of the most memorable of the text and spectacularly reference a sophisticated and long-lost civilisation that the audience will never know. These scenes are a brilliant legacy of the text’s impact upon the genre and a landmark in special effects work – developing an inheritance from the likes of the Willis O’Brien created King Kong (1933) with regard to the use of visual effects to accomplish spectacular feats of size, depth and scale. Director Fred Wilcox’s contradictory accomplishment here was to instill a sense of maturity and stylistic credence upon his text whilst opening the door to a world that shattered any conventional notions of ‘realism’ – a genuine achievement in the ‘studio’ era of Hollywood film production and one usually tied to the ‘auteur’ alone or the early experimental works of Lang and Eisenstein who borrowed heavily from expressionism and ‘Modernist’ values (Lang’s Metropolis [1927] and Eisenstein’s  Battleship Potemkin [1925] famously exhibiting such skill). Every aspect of Forbidden Planet’s visual constituency exemplifies detailed and a concerted appreciation that a film text has the power to resonate meaning with every fragment of its frames. Diffident new hinterland for science fiction in the 1950s

These technical accomplishments form part of FP’s important legacy but its most enduring gift to cinema and to sf was, and indeed remains, in its thematic ideas and constructs which subtly expanded the scope of the filmic genre to places where it could begin to articulate new, controversial ideas and then push these boundaries outward further in later years.

To fully appreciate this and to illustrate FP’s impact it is worth briefly noting the means by which the vast canon of fledgling sf film texts during the 1950s were perceived. A genre in its infancy, the major Hollywood studios had still yet to grasp the financial potential of science fiction to deliver large-scale, high-budget films that could appeal to large audiences and return substantial profits (and sadly, when by the time they would, the advent of CG effects were nigh and this would lead to an overemphasise on visuals over stories during the late 90s and onward; more on this later). Perhaps more crucially, studios and film-makers had yet to understand the potential of the genre to offer thought-provoking and ‘serious’ cinema for mature audiences; a demographic firmly in the clutches of Hollywood’s ‘realist’ texts, Noir pictures and ‘the Western’. Instead, Science Fiction was considered cheap, disposable matinee- fodder that could be produced quickly and thriftily to satisfy casual and immature audiences eager for cheap thrills at the weekend: effects that were laughable, acting that was wooden and plotlines were those that had been written the afternoon before shooting (Tim Burton’s touching 1994 biopic of Ed Wood Jr – Ed Wood – critiques this period of sf and horror production amusingly).

Sf of the 50s was perceived as disposable entertainment and generally behaved accordingly
Sf of the 50s was perceived as disposable entertainment and generally behaved accordingly

To compound this misuse and misunderstanding, the genre during the 1950s and early 60s could arguably be viewed as owing more to horror than to anything approaching notions of ‘science’ and can be seen as emerging as an evolution of ‘shocker’ pictures from the 1930s and 40s. Shocks and terrors are very much within the language of many embryonic ‘science fiction’ films where monsters, malevolent aliens, mad scientists and twisted creatures invariably hunt human prey. Due to this, the genre was struggling to delineate and promote itself in the cinema. Literary science fiction was growing into maturity in the 50s with Tom Godwin’s seminal short-story ‘The Cold Equations’ (published in popular ‘pulp’ magazine Astounding Science Fiction under the guidance of one of the genre’s most important contributors, John W. Campbell), an acute example of the cynicism and rationalism that was pervading amongst writers. In Godwin’s story a shuttle pilot finds a stowaway girl aboard his vessel who will compromise the laws of physics due to here additional weight. The story arcs around a simple decision between sacrificing the uninvited to save the vessel. The stowaway eventually accepts the inevitability of her situation and elects to step into ship’s airlock, removing herself from the ‘equation’. This is a stark resolution that affirmed the unflinching direction in which ‘hard’ science fiction was moving; dealing with the coolness of logic, the empiricism of science and the dangerous unpredictability of human nature. Cinematic science fiction was still far behind in this respect and needed more texts which ventured into such realms.

The Japanese Gojira powerfully articulated post-atomic fears
The Japanese Gojira powerfully articulated post-atomic fears

After WW2 and the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ‘fear’ within horror narratives had swiftly shifted from late 19th century Darwinist ideas of atavism and primitive spectral fears to a new looming terror: the atomic age. Instead of generating infinite redresses of the brilliant 1930s Dracula and Frankenstein films – the classical ‘monster’ era of horror – studios turned toward the speculative propositions of terrible atomic mutation and destruction that seemingly endangered humanity. Science fiction now had new and penetrating fears to explore at the cinema but the best of this new era was accompanied by the very worst that the immature genre could offer. The seminal Gojira (‘Godzilla’ 1954 – Japan) led the way in this respect but was followed by many inferior and generic imitators in the U.S (Monster From the Ocean Floor, The Beast With A Million Eyes, Tarantula to name but three) who merely used the threat of atomic power as a curiosity with which to plunder for spills and thrills.

In tandem with this new scientific threat, political and social upheaval was gripping the U.S after the cessation of wartime hostilities. A new, ‘cold’ war was coming into view on the horizon with the U.S and the Soviet Union positioned against one another. The 1950s saw ‘McCarthyism’ erupt into the social stratosphere and with this an entire movement of film texts emerged that articulated the fear and paranoia of a nation ill at ease with itself or its neighbours. A swathe of film-texts began to acutely explore the threat of ‘communism’ and isolationism.

Nazi advancements in rocket technology – namely the terrible V2 rockets which bombarded Britain – had, despite their terror, offered the prospect of new frontiers for mankind to venture into in the post-war years. The rocket-fuelled space-race was about to explode into public awareness as the Soviet Union launched satellite Sputnik in 1957, precipitating mass hysteria about the prospect of space colonisation and space warfare and instigating the inauguration of the U.S space agency NASA in July 1958. With this momentous activity, propagating fearsome mutant beasts to explore menaces and fears was no longer the sole furrow of sf; writers and film-makers began looking toward the stars evermore for their terrors and what resulted was a new canon of film-texts: the alien invasion narrative. Space, of course, was no new venue for science fiction literature with the beginnings of the genre dealing with life outside of Earth’s limits, but the 1950s were the real beginnings of this particular trope’s existence on film. Although some early attempts gave the fledgling sub-genre some credence (the brilliant The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951] and Don Seigel’s powerful Invasion of The Body Snatchers the same year as FP) studios rapidly capitalised by issuing a plethora of weak and formulaic texts too copious to list here but leaving little legacy other than mediocrity. Typically in these texts, one of two basic structures would be followed with predictable banality: either aliens would visit the earth and wreak havoc and menace or, a band of men from earth (almost always men for this was the 50s) would visit another planet and find themselves in a spot of bother with its inhabitants. An opportunity was provided to either portray humanity as subject beings to onslaught or to displace humanity into uncertain realms where adventures could occur. The only prerequisite was that generally, things would turn out fine for the protagonists.

The visual and narrative sophistication of Forbidden Planet generates a sense of a complicated, existent and tangible universe
The visual and narrative sophistication of Forbidden Planet generates a sense of a complicated, existent and tangible universe

Immediately, Forbidden Planet would seem to conform very much to this latter model: crew land on planet, encounter some oddities, get in few scrapes and eventually resolve the problem. But Wilcox’s text offers much more than this and here is where its intelligence and superiority lies and where it differentiates itself from its 50s cohort. Firstly, there is solid synergy within the motives of our protagonists. Their cruiser (only known as C57-D) is travelling to Altair IV to discover the fate of an earlier mission from Earth and we are told by an opening narrator of the “conquest and colonisation of space” by humanity. Here already there is stronger motivation and logic to the narrative which would (like many aspects of the text) later become a staple of American SF in Star Trek; the audience is deposited into what appears to be the ‘middle’ of a narrative where there is a definite history and an arc of events that we have not been witness to. The reference to “conquest” intimates towards the existence of other civilisations and the defeating of these by humanity that we tantalisingly never encounter (also, it is important to recognise a pro-American tone to this comment for all of the humans we meet are distinctly American – tying to other propaganda SF texts of the 50s like Destination Moon [1951] where a group of American businesses are the first to lead a mission to the moon, pre-empting the 1960s Apollo Moon missions). Through this simple but important technique within the opening frames of the narrative, a large and complex universe is hinted at; this is evidently more complex and considered storytelling akin to the sprawling ‘space-opera’ literary sf yarns of Doc E. E Smith’s Lensman series and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian series from the early 20th Century. Forbidden Planet provides itself a higher level of credence by using these measured tactics to build a story from – staying clear of the hollow, disposable hyperbole of many of its brethren.

There is unique and captivating science fiction innovation present from the outset also, which separates the text from contemporaries and has contributed to its longevity in the 50-plus years since its release. There are a number of fascinating and unusual features to the mise-en-scene which suggest endeavour and care. The navigation system used onboard the ship is unusual and striking; a series of spheres representing planets fixed inside a moving set of hoops; whilst the chamber the crew enter when leaving lightspeed is a marvel to behold; set against the unusual electronic tonalities that accompany the text in the place of musical scoring – lending it a sinister and unsettling tone (and once more culturally ‘locking in’ a sense of what the future should sound like; Louis and Bebe Barron’s score recognised as the first entirely electronic film-score).  Film-making innovation and radical concepts such as these raise the intellectual standard of the text and delineate FP from the stock flashing lights, crude shiny sets and simplistic iconography of so many contemporaries.

As soon as the space cruiser arrives on Altair Wilcox calls upon another simple, yet in its sf era, ambitious technique: The sense of mystery and intrigue the director establishes is effectively accomplished and serves to lend the text much needed currency from which to build. The barren beauty of Altair’s landscape features the introduction of Robby the Robot emerging from the distance in a cloud of dust which instills a fear and uncertainty which only intensifies as the mystery of lost crew of the Bellephron is begun. This creation of aesthetic depth as the crew watch the distant vehicle approach their landing site is, again, unique in this era of filmic sf where such films were generally framed on linear soundstages against backdrops where characters appear amongst one another from short distances (used for obvious fiscal reasons and made infamous by Ed Wood Jr and his shaking walls and rocking gravestones in Plan Nine From Outer Space [1959]). They owe little to the ‘deep focus’ advances made in the 1940s by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane but FP breaks this sf mould somewhat by attempting to offer scope and density to the cinematic frame –allowing the audience to suspend disbelief and visualise the screen as something other than a Brechtian facade of stageplay. Like much of Forbidden Planet’s visual effects, this technique is not perfect – it never reaches the stylistic sophistication of many 1940s film noir efforts and their intricate, artistic shadows nor the simple elegance of John Ford’s texts but, given the condition of the genre, these were monumental leaps and attempts to push science fiction forward.

Robby the Robot serves a number of important functions; a loyal ‘matriarchal’ figure to Altaira but an ever-present, foreboding signifier of the Krell’s power
Robby the Robot serves a number of important functions; a loyal ‘matriarchal’ figure to Altaira but an ever-present, foreboding signifier of the Krell’s power

The Robot Robbie itself has become a visual icon of science fiction like so much else in FP but its textual purpose is much more important and interesting than the simple characterisation offered by later incarnations (it appeared in a ‘spin-off’ feature, The Invisible Boy, as well as making ‘guest’ appearances in television shows such as The Addams Family) and what nostalgia now suggests. Rather than being used solely as a set-piece gimmick representing ‘future technology’ Wilcox uses Robby as a device to exemplify aspects of Morbius’ character – its role holding a value not unlike an ‘Igor’ archetype to Morbius’ ‘mad scientist’ during the domestic scenes in the home – apparently assisting his creator and acting as subservient minion. Robby also acts a lingering and foreboding signifier of the Krell’s fearsome technological power through its immense strength and productive capabilities. The robot is powerful and omnipresent (traits which are exhibited through a number of small illustrations where the robot deactivates weapons and reproduces complex materials within its system) but yet its behaviour is one of helpfulness and meekness; occupying a role of surrogate ‘mother’ in the house to Altaira (notable in a great scene where Altaira hugs Robby – a fitting signifier of the era and America’s new post-war love of technology as consumerism accelerated rapidly) and unable to act in a way which would harm humans (a neat reference to Isaac Asimov’s works on robotics). The robot illustrates graphically the new power Morbius has acquired and that which he wields with almost god-like authority but somehow manages to be endearing to the viewer despite its crude appearance and almost negligible expressions; another significant accomplishment of the text which lends it a lingering charm.

The meetings between Morbius and Adams – the commander of the investigatory party – are well crafted and provide important tension with Walter Pidgeon’s portrayal of the linguist Dr Morbius giving the film real credence; he stealing every scene from a workmanlike but rigid Leslie Nielsen as his adversary. Pidgeon treads perfectly along the boundary between crass stock villain and duplicitous, Machiavellian foe; delivering his lines with pompous authority and dominating his scenes with calm confidence of a man who knows the power that he holds over his visitors (and an actor who is clearly relishing an opportunity to play a classical Shakespearean archetype in this fresh remoulding). Morbius’ character needs this ambiguity of motive and intent and the actor duly delivers. As an audience we need to be kept at arms length from Morbius’ affairs so that the mysteries of Altair IV can slowly be drip-fed to us before the climax of the narrative; Pidgeon is up to the task here also – conveying candour and transparency whilst offering enough menace to be a suspect in whatever may have transpired, balancing the need for theatrics with a requirement for tact. Wilcox constructs a series of these encounters between the visitors and Morbius which are punctuated by mysterious happenings back on the ship, again, adding weight and textual depth – subtlety that was scarcely present in such narratives of the era. After crewmembers are killed by an unknown foe, Adams returns to Morbius demanding the answers that he (and we) have been thoroughly denied thus far, and again after the ‘shoot-out’ encounter with the creature, he returns. Again and again information is stifled yet clues are mounting and suspicions rising: Who is Morbius? What happened to the rest of the party? Who are the Krell? Did he kill the others? Did Morbius? The audience’s minds swell with questions proffered by Adams’ crew but Wilcox’s skill is developing the plot so that intrigue builds steadily through a sequence of – what appear at first – to be isolated events. We may even begin to believe that the creature Morbius insists killed the rest of the landing party indeed exists as he claims it does, for why shouldn’t we with such a scarcity of competing evidence?

Walter Pidgeon provides a stable foundation for the narrative, bringing a touch of duplicity, charm and menace which hoodwinks and unsettles the audience
Walter Pidgeon provides a stable foundation for the narrative, bringing a touch of duplicity, charm and menace which hoodwinks and unsettles the audience

The narrative is greatly complicated by the presence of Altaira – Morbius’ daughter – who is an important component of the text’s framework borrowed from The Tempest and, quintessentially, she begins a love tryst with Adams. This love subplot in the narrative is at once absolutely essential but feels superfluous all-the-same; highlighting both limited acting and the fallacy in what was a cinematic prerequisite during the ‘studio’ era: the romantic sub-plot. Paradoxically, the narrative of FP requires this component so that we can witness the uncontrollable anger of Morbius’ ‘id’ but  nevertheless it holds a rather distasteful patriarchal quality that has dated poorly – the infatuation between the most powerful ‘Alfa’ male and the starlet just feeling inevitable and contrived upon its arrival without due motive or preamble. This is perhaps one great weakness of the text and is tied to the generally mediocre acting of the cast (Pidgeon excepted). There seems to be little emotional tension between Neilsen’s Adams and Anne Francis’ Altaira – their romantic collision is functional and inevitable without any genuine sense of passion or real urgency that is required to strengthen the plot arc. One feels that a little more chemistry and investment in this important aspect of the plot would have served to tighten the emotional screws and, resultantly, make Morbius’ actions and resolution even more catastrophic. Pidgeon at times seems to be fighting a lone cause in attempting to instil greater gravitas to the narrative; similar to how Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford would battle wilfully to lend Star Wars a sense of credibility twenty years later.

Altaira’s textual value is paramount however, despite these technical failings of Francis for it is her very existence that drives the plot and instigates Morbius’ devolution. Resultantly, this relationship is one of the most interesting aspects of text when viewing it retrospectively. Morbius, unable to accept the influence of an outside party interfering in his regulated, autocratic and reclusive world, and furthermore unwilling to see Altaira fall into the hands of Adams, unleashes the furious power of his subconscious thoughts and desires, cultivated in the powerful machinery of the long-dead Krell.

The denouement – where Morbius is killed trying to stop his own cerebral creation – is wonderfully paradoxical and an incisive exploration of the complexities of the human mind as well as primordial morality. With every vengeful thought, Morbius is driving the monster onward and can provide (by means of the fantastical Krell technology) as much power as it needs to destroy the trapped Adams and Altaira. As he consciously vies to stop his own creation his subconscious drives it forward evermore equanimity. The text suggests that the innate nature of brutality is deeply encoded into the mind and despite the outward artifices of good will and righteousness – exemplified by Morbius’ protestations and ‘outward’ good intentions – the primordial rage within him spurs the beast onward with unappeasable force; relentless and unstoppable. This is intelligent science fiction at its finest and the text stands testament to the new wave of psychological thought emerging in the mid 20th century as deeper complexities of the human mind began to be more fully appreciated and investigated. The will to act righteously in Morbius is actively contradicted by hidden and suppressed feelings which each and every human being harbours within them – science fiction merely provides a context and a situation where these conditions can be placed in extremes and examined. Forbidden Planet begs questions of ‘intended’ outcomes and ‘actual’ outcomes: to what extent is the human being in control of their actions? What are the limitations of good intentions upon our actions? What urges, regardless of our intentions, compel us to commit the extraordinary and the horrific?

The ending of the text though, begs many more questions – myriad and disturbing questions pertaining to its meaning, that are thought-provoking and ‘open’ to conjecture. There are two possible readings to the ending of the narrative that immediately seem accessible given events; once more emphasising the longstanding value of this text – it departing from any notion of ‘closed’ textual resolution and linear reading.

Firstly, Morbius can be seen as displaying jealousy towards Adams and his relationship with Altaira and this is what precipitates the creation (or indeed return if we accept that it was Morbius’ subconscious creation that killed the rest of the Bellephron crew) of the ‘id’ monster – this being the most conventional reading of the text. This more linear reading though itself is fraught with ambiguity and is problematic for it strongly implies an incestuous relationship or desire by Morbius for his daughter. The narrative plays this down as a generally inferred ‘fatherly’ defence of his daughter but it is easy to see his reaction as outright and uncontrollable fury of a scorned lover and certainly more than a sentiment of platonic love alone. Such an angle suggesting repressed sexual desires would never have breached mid 50s censorship (for such material is still one of the final taboos of twenty-first century culture) and for this reason the former is often posited as a favourable stance but the darkness of this potential ending adds significant weight to narrative. Adams’ crew arrive on the planet and are informed that the terrible creature killed the rest of the landing party and with this information during the finale, the audience begins to wonder whether Morbius released the monster from his subconscious for the same reasons; namely to protect his unrequited affections for his daughter. This is a disturbing usurpation of the domestic model of American family values; the devoutness and purity of bloodlines transgressed by uncontrollable and unmanageable desires that lurk deeper than can be actively quelled or dismissed. Morbuis’ indication earlier in the text to Adams that he personally buried all of the killed members of the party – before pointing to the graveyard from the window of his house – now becomes a chilling foreshadowing of these sentiments as his guilt and remorse at his killings have precipitated that gruesome and macabre endeavour. Guilt and remorse for actions that he neither understands, can rationalise or acknowledge, such is their foundation – fused deep within his own mind.

Morbius' relationship with his daughter is multifaceted and disturbing
Morbius’ relationship with his daughter is multifaceted and disturbing

A second interpretation of the ending is that Altaira is actually a product of Morbius’ meddlings in Krell technology and that he has fallen in love with her – her position as his ‘daughter’ used only to protect this secret and provide a smokescreen for Adams and his crew upon their arrival. We know that Robby the Robot is a significant advancement in robotic technology—indicated by the crew’s bewilderment at its capabilities—and Morbius mentions to Adams that he, as well as other artefacts that he unveils, represent only a fraction of the technological potential of the Krell (“My first practical result [of experimenting with the Krell technology] was my robot…which you gentlemen appear to find so remarkable. Child’s play.”). Perhaps then, it can be postulated that Altair represents an advanced experiment in robotics which Morbius has built for himself, only to now apparently lose control of to his visitors. To support such a notion, Altaira’s extreme naivety seems to transcend her reclusive and isolated existence on the planet which the text seems to casually suggest is its cause; she seems to distinctly lack basic characteristics of human awareness, perception and innate emotions. For example, she appears to be far too gullible when members of Adams’ crew introduce her to the strange phenomenon of ‘kissing’ (surely she would understand the concept even if only familiar with plutonic kisses of affection from her parents or through her education) and her lack of sagacity regarding the nature of her social faux-par – public displays of kissing – when highlighted by Adams breaches the bounds of mere callowness and calls into question her authenticity as human. It also appears odd that Morbius and her were spared by the ‘id’ monster when it killed the rest of their party; we can accept Morbius as he is the source of the creature but Altair’s presence seems harder to justify and requires more than the flimsy excuse that Morbius offers earlier in the text (that they resisted conflict) – given the apparent total obliteration of every other individual who arrived on Altair IV.  Interestingly, a 1968 episode of Star Trek – ‘A Requiem For Methuselah’ – used a very similar plot as this: Kirk et al arrive on a planet where an omnipotent being has created beautiful human-like android for himself as an eternal companion. She, like Altaira, is oblivious to human conventions and feelings but (predictably) falls in love with Kirk. Unable to restore equilibrium between her feelings for her ‘father’ and her new terrifying emotions for Kirk, she dies suddenly, her programming simply unable to cope with or process such emotion. This is a highly underrated instalment of the series and the ending is fittingly poignant and underplayed by the usually excessive Shatner – the episode ranking alongside others such as ‘The City at the Edge of Forever’ and ‘The Menagerie’ as handling emotional climaxes with tenderness and affection. The similarities between these two texts would perhaps appear to offer some credence for this latter theory – given that we learn that Altair has also spent her entire life in isolation with her father – and during the final sequence, as Altair in Forbidden Planet watches from the orbiting ship as the planet is destroyed to protect its secrets, the viewer is provided greater emotional resonance from Altair’s tears. Not only is she weeping for her lost ‘father’, she is lamenting her existence as the sole being of an extinct race.

Whichever of these two perspectives is chosen by the viewer as a means of resolution, one moment, when viewed retrospectively, takes on chilling significance. When Morbius leads Adams and the doctor through to the hidden Krell laboratory, he illustrates the power of their technology through a device which visualises cognitive output of the user. When wired to the device, Morbius’ mind projects a moving image of Altaira. The following dialogue takes place:

Adams: That’s Altaira

Morbius: Simply a three-dimensional image, commander

‘Doc’ Ostrow: But it’s alive!

Morbius: Because my daughter is alive in my brain from microsecond to microsecond…while I manipulate.

This short exchange, when reflected upon, underpins the crucial sentiment between father and daughter, be this a an unnatural relationship or an artificial one. Morbius’ assertion that Altaira is ‘alive’ continuously is a poignant expression of feeling but could also solidify a deep-seated obsession. The pause in his speech before his statement of manipulation is brilliantly polysemic— connoting either emotional control or even actual physical control by a creator over their creation.

The very fact that there exist two potential legitimate readings for FP’s ending is noteworthy in a sf narrative of this era. The blend of mystery, suspense and action (including some excellent animation by Walt Disney’s Joshua Meador to create the ‘id’ monster during a shootout sequence) combine to fashion a thoughtful and highly stylised text that has lost little of its power in over fifty years. The greatest shift in sf film culture that Forbidden Planet achieved was its assertion that ‘monsters’ did not lurk only in atomic matter or as results of mad scientists’ whims. The ‘id’ creature is a product of Morbius’ own inner thoughts; his rage and passion are amplified to a point where they manifest themselves physically as an unstoppable and brutal force. Chillingly, the implication is that each and every one of us holds the same potential within our subconscious; the same proclivity towards selfishness, hubris and rage. Forbidden Planet helped launch intelligent science fiction upon cinema and graphically examined the weakness of the human being; its rationale and logic fraught with peril and frailty; its emotions dangerous and unpredictable. Forbidden Planet reminds us that it is our own delusions, conceit and ambition that are to be feared. An undeniably important and memorable film text.

 

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