On March 15, 1956, American audiences first had the opportunity to watch what would become one of the era’s greatest sci-fi films. Forbidden Planet, an MGM production directed by Fred M. Wilcox, was an ambitious space travel yarn with visual and audio special effects that were groundbreaking at the time. 60 years later, it’s still worth watching.
Forbidden Planet‘s plot follows the crew of the spaceship C-57D, captained by John J. Adams (a young and surprisingly serious Leslie Nielsen). The ship arrives at distant Altair IV, site of a human colony project some twenty years earlier. Upon arrival, they find only two survivors: the colony’s philologist, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), and Altaira (Anne Francis), the daughter born to his wife after their arrival.
Morbius warns the C-57D away, but Captain Adams follows his orders and lands the ship. Dismayed at Adams’s inquisitiveness and the attentions the all-male crew are paying to Altaira, Morbius nonetheless reluctantly reveals his secret: some force killed off the rest of the colonists upon his arrival, sparing only him and Altaira. But Morbius is content with studying the technology of the planet’s long-extinct former inhabitants, an advanced non-humanoid species called the Krell. Soon, however, an invisible and inexplicable force begins killing off Adams’ crew just like the earlier colonists.
In the end, the truth is revealed: Morbius’ psychic connection to Krell technology has created a monster born of his own dark subconscious desires, one he inflicts on all who threaten his erstwhile two-person utopia. Dismayed at his own complicity, Morbius sets the Krell technology to self-destruct and sends Altaira with the surviving C-57D crew to escape the resulting blast.Advances in visual effects, ironically, may make Forbidden Planet’s “high-tech” look seem quaint. But the film’s warnings about the consequences of elevating innovation over humanity are anything but dated.
Forbidden Planet was thrilling for its day, and while we may expect better special effects and more sustained action sequences in today’s sci-fi fare, the film still holds up pretty well. Indeed, on several levels, it was downright innovative by mid-20th century standards. More than that, however, Forbidden Planet delivered a solemn, countercultural warning about humanity’s interactions with technology, a warning that’s no less relevant to 21st century audiences.
As a film of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet rode a great tidal wave of American sci-fi. During this decade, the genre truly began to flourish in both written and cinematic form. While pulp sci-fi stories remained popular in the early 1950s, the American News Company’s dismantling robbed them of cheap distribution means and hastened a transition that had already begun toward a new market for novel-length works. These longer pieces could be more explicitly literary and invest more time in developing characters and significant themes. Writers like Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Walter M. Miller, Jr. emerged onto the scene at this point.
Similarly, right around 1950, moviegoers might have spotted a dramatic increase in the number of sci-fi films produced. (The 1940s, and even the 1930s, had been largely dominated by the horror genre.) Any number of factors may have led to this increase, such as the escalation of post-war technological development, coupled with Cold War fears and a commensurate American patriotism. Most sci-fi entertainment of this period constellates around such influences: alien invaders stand in for foreign invaders, while robots and monsters are often hyperboles of very real fears of technological escalation. A mad scientist may appear here or there, but generally scientists are the heroes, or occasionally government employees (often with secretarial love interests).
Such a description may sound formulaic, but many movies from the decade worked quite brilliantly within the formula. This was the era that gave us The Thing (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Them (1954), Godzilla (1954), This Island Earth (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and countless others. For aficionados of movie sci-fi, few decades have been more fertile or influential.
Still, Forbidden Planet was in many ways unprecedented. While the pulps and their novelistic descendants reveled in interplanetary voyages, most sci-fi cinema kept the action on Earth, or at most, emphasized a journey to a (usually desolate) world in our solar system. The action was near-future and usually highly nationalized. Screenwriters were often intelligent and literate, yet unlike the decade’s novels, even many of the better cinematic efforts toned down the overt intellectual references, leaving raw entertainment preeminent.
Forbidden Planet is entertaining, but it’s also deliberately thought-provoking and subversive of its contemporaries. Though its cast is still white and male, it anticipates Star Trek’s Federation with suggestions that the (unusually distant) Earth of this (unusually distant) future might not be so obviously nationalistic. The artifacts of Krell culture demonstrate a rich and strange civilization, so advanced that Morbius practically worships them — a far cry from the monstrous and aggressive extraterrestrials common to 1950s sci-fi. Critics also universally recognize that its overall structure is patterned on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and allusions to the play not only abound but form an essential part of Forbidden Planet’s DNA.
While a 400-year-old text like The Tempest may seem remote from the concerns of a 1950s sci-fi narrative, the relationship between the two is strangely appropriate. Shakespeare penned his classic play — probably his last full production — just prior to his retirement in the early 1610s. The story’s action is dominated by Prospero, who uses his mystical texts to govern his island’s natural and supernatural forces. But as historians of philosophy have long recognized, the demarcations between what we’d call “science” and “magic” were anything but certain in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Shakespeare’s own life ran parallel to that of Francis Bacon, whose theories would eventually set the stage for our own scientific method.)
Pragmatically speaking, science worked — it actually helped explain realities and create efficacious technologies in a way that medieval and Renaissance alchemy failed to accomplish. Yet both magic and applied science had the common end of attempting to manipulate the world’s forces, conforming them to human desires rather than accepting our place within them. It is exactly this parallel that C. S. Lewis warns of in The Abolition of Man’s closing book, claiming, “It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood at an inauspicious hour” (78).
In The Tempest, then, Prospero’s books are technically magic but the knowledge (scientia in Latin) that he gains from them performs the same environmental manipulation that any modern technology might. Similarly, Morbius (Forbidden Planet’s Prospero figure) uses his “books” (Krell technology) to manipulate his environment. He builds a perfectly willing servant in Robbie the Robot — his Ariel, if you will — and creates a little bubble of paradise for himself and Altaira in the midst of an otherwise desolate landscape.
Morbius is casually condescending toward Adams and his crew while idolizing the Krell. He assures the other men that they’re unprepared to handle the antique race’s advanced technology and that only he is competent to translate, comprehend, and utilize their machines. But Morbius’s devotion to the Krell is unhealthy, even unnatural. The exquisite matte paintings and set designs of the extinct beings’ subterranean power centers are as geometrical and antiseptic as they are breathtaking. The effect of artificiality is emphasized by Bebe and Louis Barron’s haunting musical score, which was entirely electronically composed.
No amount of technological façade, however, can long constrain the characters’ very human desires. Morbius is admittedly concerned about his nubile daughter’s first encounter with young men who have been away from Earth for a year. And when Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) wastes no time in flirting with her, Morbius’s concerns seem justified. Altaira ultimately chooses Captain Adams, whose name suggests both biblical resonances (the Adam to Altaira’s Eve) and distinctively American leadership (paralleling two American presidents). The colorful Altaira brings out some individual personality in him as their sexual tension grows, but it also leads to the manifestation of the planet’s most monstrous — yet also most human — force.
Morbius laments that the “mighty and noble” Krell “perished in a single night.” His own worshipful descriptions of “this all but divine race” inadvertently paint them as a perfect example of Lewis’s concerns about overweening transhumanistic hubris. Their devices all seem “functionally designed”; the only art we experience from them is their music, which is the same form of electronically-generated noise as the Barrons’ soundtrack. Indeed, though Morbius has their entire scientific knowledge on a single computer screen, he can’t find a single image of a living Krell, indicating a lack of any representational art and perhaps a concomitant lack of self-reflection. Morbius’s own glowing description of their species, meant to be reverential, carries curiously chilling undertones in the light of later discoveries:
Ethically, as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind, for in unlocking the mysteries of nature, they had conquered even their baser selves. And when in the course of eons they had abolished sickness and insanity and crime and all injustice, they turned, still with high benevolence, outward toward space.
Morbius discloses that the “supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history” was intended to “free them once and for all from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.” Yet it is precisely this pursuit of godlike power that destroys the Krell, for Morbius is dead wrong: they had not “conquered their baser selves.” Rather, their sudden access to magic-like applied science simply unlocked their baser selves, giving them the ultimate in self-destructive power.
It is this same power that Morbius unlocks in himself when he begins employing Krell technology. Forbidden Planet employs the language of Freudian psychology, so that the creature constructed from Morbius’s own subconscious is identified as a “monster from the id.” But long before Freud, Christian thinkers had identified the need for acknowledging and seeking to subdue our passions, our “baser selves” — the “flesh,” as Paul so often terms them. But this process remains incomplete this side of the eschaton, and so we are enjoined to cultivate a healthy humility about our own abilities in the face of a mighty God and our own original sin.
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis warns that humans who seek to transcend their humanity, who search out power and progress for their own sake apart from moral concerns, will ultimately only enshrine the very base desires they are hoping to cast off. That is what apparently happened to the Krell and then to Morbius. As an acolyte of these prehistoric magicians, Morbius follows their lead in thinking himself intellectually and ethically above primitive human concerns; the result is a horrific reversal in which technology simply reveals just how little he has escaped from his destructive impulses.
Like Prospero, then, Morbius must surrender his “books,” destroying the existing Krell machines (though unlike Prospero, he must die himself to do so). In the process, he gives up Altaira to Captain Adams, even as Shakespeare’s magician allows Miranda to be joined to Ferdinand. Returning to Earth, Adams and Altaira carry with them, we hope, a humbling recognition that nature — particularly human nature — cannot be so easily conquered.
This lesson was an important one to remember while Nazis were proclaiming themselves an evolved master race when Lewis first presented and published The Abolition of Man; it was a timely lesson in the 1950s, when post-war optimism sometimes translated into raw scientific progressivism; and it remains a relevant concern in this new century, as technological development threatens to outpace our ability to consider its implications and make ethical judgments.
Advances in visual effects, ironically, may make Forbidden Planet’s “high-tech” look seem quaint. But the film’s warnings about the consequences of elevating innovation over humanity are anything but dated. Our “baser selves” are monstrous indeed, but without the grace of Christ, they aren’t going anywhere. We can travel the stars, but however distantly we may travel, our own flesh will follow us.