Tempest in the B-Plot

WikiCommonsActor Anne Francis passed away this past Sunday, January 2, 2011. Her death occurred barely a month after the death of her Forbidden Planet costar Leslie Nielsen, who died on November 28 of last year. The temporal proximity of their deaths occasioned our viewing of their shared screen appearance this week.

This viewing was a first for Anna, and one of many over the years for Doug. With a Guest Blog by a visual artist on Monday, the look, feel, and sound of this movie jumped out at us. We began thinking about Forbidden Planet as an intersection between art and science, and perhaps the precursor for the science fiction we’ve watched all our lives.

The plot of Forbidden Planet, while loosely based on The Tempest, is a fairly straightforward science fiction trope: crew lands on unfamiliar planet, encounters human survivors, encounters unanticipated aliens/monsters with which survivors have learned to co-exist, is slowly decimated by monsters, and escapes. The planet—and all its technological advancement—must be destroyed. This is a plot that pervades the science fiction cannon, one that can be seen in films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien as well as various episodes of Star Trek. In the words of William Shakespeare in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.”

In fact, in numerous ways, Forbidden Planet smacks of Star Trek, about which we’ve written before. As we learned in the DVD’s special features, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, talked about this earlier film in terms that position it as a sort of series pilot for him. We immediately saw the connection between Forbidden Planet and Star Trek (especially the original series and The Next Generation) in the crew uniforms, communicators, and phaser-like weapons; in the interior of the space ship; in the apparatus that creates three-dimensional holodeck-type likenesses; and in the contraption that looks like the transporter room but is used, in Forbidden Planet, for holding crew members during deceleration. When a threat to the ship emerges, the crew, like Doug and his childhood friend, creates a force field, something with which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy were quite familiar too. While these notions are fiction, many of them are based in science—or at least science-sounding terminology, like a “quantum mechanic” who might tinker with gadgets.

Nuclear energy was a new possibility in the world of 1956, the year Forbidden Planet was released. The 7800-level underground system, which the alien Krell built, is powered by 9200 thermonuclear reactors. On October 17, just a few months after the film hit theaters, Great Britain turned on the first commercial nuclear power plant.

The notion of the id—that subconscious part of us that embodies our basic human drives—was introduced by Sigmund Freud a few decades before Forbidden Planet demonstrated an id come to life. Dr. Morbius and his 19-year-old daughter Altaira have inhabited the planet without trouble for years, ever since a monster killed the rest of his crew. The invisible monster returns to begin killing off the new human visitors. This monster is an extension of Morbius’s interior self—his id—which he tries to renounce.

The film also seems to have influenced Star Wars, for if Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot were separated into two entities, they would be the equivalent of C-3PO and R2-D2. Robby the Robot is part human helpmate, part data cruncher, and a sort of unselfconscious companion. Just two months ago, we saw Robonaut 2 at Kennedy Space Center. Robonat 2 is the version of Robby the Robot, complete with head, arms, and deft hands, that will launch on the next space shuttle mission.

Of course, Forbidden Planet also suggests some of science’s biggest questions now. Is there other life out there in the universe? If so, what kind of intelligence might these other creatures have? What exactly is intelligence, and how might it be measured? How does the brain create emotion? What, if we get right down to it, is the mind?

Also, for that matter, what is music? The soundtrack for Forbidden Planet is the first all-electronically produced soundtrack. In fact, because Louis and Bebe Barron were not musicians and used no traditional musical instruments for the score, they could not be nominated for an Academy Award. In an amazing composition, the Barrons used electric circuits to produce a soundtrack that is both sound effects and narrative score. For a film that demonstrates the subconscious interior, it’s no wonder the score becomes crucial to the story, to creating suspense, and to conveying the monster itself. A 2009 article in Scientific American Mind points out that music is emotional communication, rather than based on meaning, and that individuals experience the same piece of music in surprisingly similar ways.

As we expected, Forbidden Planet is campy, too. The indoor sets are surprisingly well done, and the exteriors must have been impressive fifty years ago. The flora and fauna remind us of Star Trek sets, in which boulders seem made of polystyrene and depth of field is not completely convincing. Instead of alien life forms, a tiger and a deer populate the backyard of Dr. Morbius’s house. And there’s some campy humor too. The cook gets stinking drunk on the sixty gallons of hooch Robby the Robot concocts. Robby the Robot is late to respond to Altaira’s call because he was giving himself an oil job. When a visitor convinces Altaira to try kissing, she wonders whether that’s all there is.

Altaira eventually falls in love, of course. Commander Adams announces to Morbius, “She’s joined herself to me, body and soul!” What more dangerous thing can a boy say to a girl’s father! The movie ends with Anne Francis safely in Leslie Nielsen’s arms. We grew up with Police Squad! and Airplane! But as we watched this last scene in Forbidden Planet, we  tried to let ourselves believe in this younger, heroic Leslie Nielsen: “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.”

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