BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – Forbidden Planet (1956)
When I was first admiring the constellation of the BFI’s Days Of Fear & Wonder SF season a few highlights immediately streaked across the atmosphere, demanding my artificial attention. Apart from the numerous special panel events and Q&A’s the chance to take down another Kubrick was eagerly pursued, and then we had the individual movie screenings themselves which required some careful planning around my pre-existing schedule. If there was one period I was anxious to patrol it was Science Fiction’s so-called golden age of the 1950’s, that irradiated era of the fear of the bomb, with associated species threatening terrors grotesquely gorging the silver screen, as it wasn’t just the Japanese who had some distinct anxieties about the era. Alongside these behemoths the first flushes of sub-orbital travel to distant worlds and civilisations began to flower, a plucky sense of Eisenhower post-war optimism that could bring a little old-fashioned American imperialism to the inferior indigenous people, aligning with one of the other great genres of the studio system – the Western. One of the key missions of the period is Forbidden Planet, a major influence on the likes of Star Trek in both small and cinema screen incarnations, alongside such diverse pictures as Galaxy Quest, Planet Of The Vampires, Pitch Black and maybe even a little of the non-corrosive DNA of Aliens. Screenwriters Irving Block, Allen Adler and Cyril Hume were inspired by Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest and its treatment of starry-eyed travellers washed up on dangerous shores, and the film has been admired for its advanced genetic coding of psychosis and psychology in the orbits of genre cinema,
In the sleek future of the 23rd century mankind has conquered the stars, but not his darkest, deepest impulses. A gallant bunch of quasi-military explorer types is traversing the galaxy in their circular spinning silverlode, commanded by the stalwart Captain John Adams (Leslie Nielsen in a rare non-humorous performance) the crew are assigned to visit the nearby planet C-57D, communications having being lost with the intrepid colonists some years before. Touching down on the abundantly imagined planet (and if you squint you can see the early flowerings of Avatar) the team make contact with the imperious Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pigeon), a hostile and suspicious sort whom alongside his curious daughter Altaria (Anne Francis) are the only survivors of the nascent colony due to a rampaging and murderous secret phenomenon which has been dormant for years. Many cycles ago the colonists had unearthed the immensely advanced technology of an ancient alien species known as the Krell, and in the process unleashed an invisible force which wrecked carnage throughout the encampment, and even with his enhanced alien intellect not even Morbius’s technological marvel Robbie The Robot can defend them from the dormant evil that is surfacing from again from the depths of the id, a physical manifestation of some secret, sequestered desires…..
Over the decades Forbidden Planet has been torpedoed with a photon spread of readings and analysis, even its title suggesting territory secretive and illicit, our sensors detecting just how canny those screenwriters were back in those days in smuggling contraband within the drifting capsules of genre. It’s quite clear from the plot strands that the monstrous invisible creature (fantastically rendered by animation guru Joshua Meador) is a manifestation of the Doctor’s deeply buried id, which only arises when his now adult daughter takes a sexual shine to this new breed of mysterious creatures known as ‘men’. The film is not implicit in these charges as the dialogue hand waves away the ignition of the beast as ‘man’s savage instincts’, but remember that until now the only other creature in Altaria’s life has been her father (the rest of the competitive colonists massacred including her mother) while some of the associated scenes see her frolicking and flirting with the crewmen in this alien displacement of a fallen, serpent strewn Eden. After a period of long solitude the fathers unconscious urges once again wreck a terrible trail of destruction, although maybe I think it was Freud who said ‘sometimes a Gamma Generation Class model X571-11 powerful phallic penetrating spaceship is just a cigar’. In serene planetary alignment the films 1950’s sexual politics are quite frankly hilariously dated, in this interstellar Norman Rockwell take on domesticity Altaria is obsessed with the production of elegant gowns and the seduction of a mate, a subservient coupling which chimes with most female expectations of the period across all genres and texts. It is these dimensions which lacerate the film’s submerged psyche, the Elektra complex writ large upon the stars. If you’d prefer you could probably move into deeper territory and elect Robbie The Robot as the asexual stabilising super-ego in the films psychosexual infrastructure, the intellectual force of reason of progress in conflict with the beasts instinctual desires.
It’s difficult to cast one’s mind back to the period but one computes that psychoanalysis and psychiatry were a supernova across popular and high culture in America at the time, from the deeper realistic performances of the method and the unreliable narrator in the great American novel, while in cinema film noir and Hitchcock had already been wrestling with our internal machinations and monologues, so it seemed only natural to see the fascination bleed through into other genres and movements. As more recent example you could argue that reality TV and the immediacy of verite in aesthetics has flushed into found footage horror pictures and the jerky scrappy aesthetics of the modern action movie, despite the fact that such ‘realistic’ material is as we know as controlled and manufactured as any costume drama or lavish literary adaptation. Ahem, well, we some to have gone off trajectory so to get us back on track I’ll assert that Forbidden Planet is an entertaining oddity with some fine craftsmanship, the famous production designer Cedric Gibbons (MGM’s star technician and the designer of the original Academy Award trivia fans) set the visual template for space movies to come, until a certain young Bronx born alchemist instilled a new sense of realism and science into craft, costume and creature design a decade later. However you read it the film is a master class in period production design and surprisingly effective SFX which has not dated nearly as badly as many of its B-Movie peers, it still sparkled on this occasionally grimy 1980’s BFI sponsored struck print, and unlike most of the 1950’s movie fleet it stands up to scrutiny both allegorical and aesthetic. I haven’t even got started on what a phenomenon Robbie The Robot was at the time as he ambled on for another decade of TV and big screen adventures, but that, as they say, is a story for another day…..