The Monster In Your Head
Forbidden Planet Diagnoses the Movies
Part 1: Melies | 2: Sex Slaves | 3: Marienbad | 4. The Krell | 5. Citizenfour
By Dan DeWeese
The moment is perfect, because its content—Want to see what I can do with this technology? Here’s a hot chick—perfectly depicts the overriding obsession of not only science fiction films, but narrative film in general. To limit immediate examples to the realm of sci-fi, though, when mad scientist Rotwang decides to build a robot in Metropolis, he intends to build it in the image of a girlfriend he lost in his youth. Then he gets a better idea: he abducts the young woman being romantically pursued by the male lead, straps her to a table, and uses her face and body as the source of the robot’s physiognomy. In Island of Lost Souls, Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau is obsessed with seeing if he can get the “Panther Woman”—whom he keeps in a caged room—to mate with the dashing young man who has involuntarily ended up on the island. Frankenstein, already a landmark in literature, translates well to the screen because the monster makes a clear, goal-oriented demand: make a woman for me. He threatens violence if his demand isn’t satisfied.
It’s hardly news that the Hollywood engine runs on gender stereotypes and sexism. The standard version is of course to feature perfectly-coiffed young ladies who swoon into the arms of the men saving them. What distinguishes these early science-fiction films—what perhaps pushes them beyond rote reproductions of genre conventions into what we’re calling “speculative film”—is that rather than avoiding the perversity, they instead use the possibilities of the genre to make the perversity the story. In the 1930s it would have been difficult to make a standard drama about a man who keeps a woman in a cage and tries to get her to have sex with a stranger. Make the man H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau, though, and make the woman a “panther woman,” and the story is suddenly filmable, because the genre-veneer serves as a misdirect: the film’s surface suggests the film is not about what it is actually very much about.
To look past the surface details of these early science-fiction films is to be confronted, again and again, with particularly naked examples of the creepy and violent perversity of the male characters, who are always, it seems, trying to construct a woman whose sexuality they can control. Forbidden Planet sees those films’ perversity and raises the degree of creepiness: the woman Morbius imagines when he has the Krell’s image machinery to his temples is his own daughter. It would be nice to report that Forbidden Planet handles female sexuality in some new, more enlightened way. It doesn’t. What it does instead is something that was, at least in the Hollywood of the 1950s, surprising and entirely—probably unintentionally—subversive: it marries the sexual obsessions of science fiction with high art.
orbidden Planet is the first movie to depict the inside of an interstellar spacecraft, it features teleportation “beaming” before Star Trek, and its score inaugurates the electronic blips and oscillating whirs that are the roots of the Pink Floydian psychedelic rock and Brian Enovian art electronica that would rise to popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One could argue that Frankenstein was already a sci-fi movie married to (literary) art, or that Metropolis, because of its epic-serious intentions and art-deco set design, qualifies as art. Forbidden Planet, though, is a much more aggressive experiment: it’s an adaptation of the holiest of holies in the pantheon of western literature, William Shakespeare.
That Forbidden Planet is The Tempest blasted into outer space is well known. What the film doesn’t get credit for, though, is starting the post-WWII sci-fi-as-modernist-art-film trend that reached its twin-peak apotheosis a dozen years later when 2001: A Space Odyssey was followed by Tarkovsky’s Solaris. In a previous column I looked at the connection between Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel and Alain Resnais & Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad, but though Morel was published in 1940 and therefore pre-dates Forbidden Planet, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet don’t make Marienbad until 1961. By crossing sci-fi with the Bard in 1956, Forbidden Planet is ahead of the curve in making a surprising claim for what was seen as a pulp/B-movie genre: this stuff is serious.
Forbidden Planet is, therefore, the science fiction movie trapped between eras. It implies seriousness by adapting Shakespeare and then subjecting him to psychoanalysis, but it lifts mostly the elements that continue the dismal, misogynistic tradition of trying to control female sexuality...but then acknowledges that sexuality is the issue here. The film’s set design marks it as a thoroughly 1950s affair, while its soundtrack is busy giving birth to the instruments that will make the music of the future. It features a vacuum-tube Jeeves entirely devoid of charisma, but also introduces the Krell, perhaps the uncanniest of alien species in sci-fi, since all we know of them are their odd doorways and massive tunnels with spooky power.
It’s the creatures who made those doorways and that power that are the most important innovation of Forbidden Planet, though, because their outer-space existence and backstory undermines the de facto Christianity that had served as a useful resolution in sci-fi to that point. In Metropolis, the reason one shouldn’t make a robot woman was uncritically assumed to be that making an ambulatory creature is playing God, and the creature is therefore an abomination. The same trope—scientists profane God by overreaching—is used in Frankenstein and in Island of Lost Souls. Why was the robot Maria in Metropolis “evil”? It’s not explained, probably because to a homogeneous audience of Christians, a creature not created by God can just be assumed to be evil. Robot Maria is “bad” because no sooner is she created than she not only enflames, but seems herself to possess, sexual desire. An angry mob ends up burning her at the stake. The Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls provokes desire in the male lead and is shortly murdered by a beast man. These women, created specifically to enflame sexual desire in men, are then punished for it. The virgin/whore hypocrisy rolls on.
Post World War II, though, that universe starts to wobble. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) the space alien is no murderous Martian a la War of the Worlds, but a polished British gentleman. He was deliberately scripted as Christ-like, however, so that the heretical suggestion that there are other beings out there, smarter than us and with aluminum robots, is—one would normally say rationalized, but perhaps the term here is irrationalized?—via the suggestion that these beings are our better angels. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the “pod people” who infiltrate the earth were a) plants, and b) understood to be an allegory for godless communists. These films wobble the humans-are-special story of Genesis by suggesting there are others out there, but carefully, in each case, incorporate the extraterrestrial elements into what remains a Christian worldview.
he Krell, though, are a step too far—they cannot be reframed to make them fit a Biblical Christian narrative. Forbidden Planet has us understand that the Krell were non-human intelligent creatures living far from Earth; it shows us their habitable planet and explains they lived there for thousands of centuries; it suggests they were superior to us. Likewise, the invisible monster roaming the wastes of Morbius’ planet and murdering everyone isn’t an abomination created by science—it’s Morbius’s id. This is not the Christian universe, because it’s actually a Shakespearean island serving as a case study in Freudian analysis. It’s unlikely that a writer in a studio bungalow suggested it would be a good idea to radically destabilize Christianity’s hold on American spiritual life, far more likely that he was simply entertained by the idea of a superintelligent frog society who left behind spooky abandoned subterranean power grids. Thus American society was shaken.
Society didn’t feel it, though. Forbidden Planet never draws attention to the fact that it isn’t taking place in a Christian frame of reference. Likewise, the questions post-WWII American society was faced with were increasingly questions upon which The Bible was mute. Do the events of World War II prove we are a barbaric species who will ultimately destroy ourselves? Should we travel to other planets? What should we think if we find out there are, or were, living creatures on those planets? Is neurotic sexual control of our daughters not only unnecessary, but damaging? Is the solution to our problems not religion, but psychoanalysis? Commander Adams (a young Leslie Nielsen), the film’s male lead, suggests the answer to the last, at least, is yes:
The problem is not just that the post-WWII films don’t know how to answer the questions they’ve asked, but more importantly, that lack of answers registers in the films as an inability to find workable resolutions to the plots. Left grasping for an ending to a story with conflicts we don’t know how to resolve, the films resort to a clanking insertion of God-clichés, as if writing in the answers that were correct on last year’s exams will perhaps work again. Previous films find ways to make the God-said-no resolution fit, but because Forbidden Planet has invented the Krell and is using psychoanalysis rather than morality as its instrument of investigation, the movie’s late, odd invocation of God plays as a total non sequitur. When Commander Adams and Morbius’ daughter, Alta, watch the planet Altair IV blow up with Morbius left behind on it at the end of the film, they express only the most trite, 1950s-era mimicry of grief, which mostly consists of her hiding her face in his shoulder. Adams says, “Alta, about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy, and your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.”
Huh? What does that last sentence have to do with anything? It makes no sense in the moment, and neither does it make sense in the greater story—it’s ninety minutes too late to somehow make Forbidden Planet into a parable. The line may have worked in Metropolis or Island of Lost Souls, but on a planet in deep space that still possessed glimmers of the glories of the Krell, it’s nonsense. The clanks and clunks in Forbidden Planet are the clanks of the old patterns no longer working, the clunks of the pre-modern Christian ideology baffled to find itself not right or wrong in the story, but somehow irrelevant. Everything spooky and lovely and elegant about the movie—the massive catacombs of the Krell, the machine-music score, the matte paintings that inspired a hundred prog-rock album covers—is pointed toward the future. The Catholic church doesn’t commence the Second Vatican Council until 1962. America doesn’t come apart at the (fringed or tie-dyed) seams until the Summer of Love in 1967. Forbidden Planet was there first—already in 1956, when Commander Adams mentions God at the end, it doesn’t work. The more culturally-apt observation is made by Morbius at the film’s climax, as the monster that is his enraged id burns through steel doors, intent on destroying everyone: “Guilty! Guilty!” he cries. “My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it.”
Dan DeWeese is the author of a story collection, Disorder, and a novel, You Don’t Love This Man. His essay about speculative cities appeared in a recent issue of Oregon Humanities.