Friday, October 4, 2013

Forbidden Planet

I didn't plan it this way, but it's rather fitting that I follow my review of The Howling with my writeup of Forbidden Planet (1956). One is a werewolf picture and the other is a sci-fi trip to an alien planet, but underneath their dissimilar surfaces, the two movie share a common theme: the untamable evil that lurks within man.

In the future, humanity has scientifically advanced to point of being able to colonize the outer space. Captain John J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) is the commander of a cruiser dispatched to the distant planet Altair IV to discover what happened to an expedition sent there twenty years prior. On Altair IV, Adams and his crew encounter Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who warns the men to stay away lest their lives be put in danger. Morbius explains an unknown planetary force wiped out all the other colonists, except for himself and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who has never met anyone from earth. The father and daughter are served by Robby the Robot, a highly advanced artificial intelligence unlike any the earth men have ever encountered. Before long, the unknown force returns and begins targeting the crew, forcing Adams to confront Morbius about the truth of Altair IV and the long-extinct civilization that once lived there: the Krell, who mysteriously died out just as they were about to achieve their greatest scientific breakthrough.

As I said in my Howling review, the werewolf typically represents the savage id, the uncontrolled savage that exists within the heart of men. As the elder Gypsy warned in The Wolf Man, "Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf." Likewise, in Forbidden Planet, the unknown planetary force, we learn, is not an alien creature, but instead, it is a physical manifestation of Morbious' own subconscious, the uncivilized part of him that still indulges in anger and violence, the part of himself he had long forgotten about, buried by countless millennia of evolution and years of learning. Even Morbius, the genius intellect and scientist, cannot contain the "monsters of id."

Morbius is a tragic figure, a man with the best intentions whose hubris provides his downfall. He taps into the seemingly limitless Krell technology to enhance his own genius, but in the process, he allows the monster within an outlet, putting others, including the ones he love,s at risk. The title Forbidden Planet proves to be a loaded name, reminiscent of the Forbidden Fruit. Like Adam and Eve, Morbius seeks knowledge beyond his grasp, and it destroys him.

Considering Forbidden Planet involves a tragedy, it's only fitting that one of the greatest writers of tragedy is invoked: Shakespeare. Specifically, the movie parallels The Tempest. That play told the story of a sorcerer, Prospero, who had been exiled to an island with his beautiful, naive daughter Miranda, served by the fairy Ariel, and beset by the monster Caliban. In the movie, Morbius utilizes technology so advanced at times its appears magical (Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."), raises a daughter to think Earth is wicked, is served by a highly advanced robot, and is plagued by a monster. Similarly, both Prospero and Morbius are responsible for the actions of their monsters; Prospero usurped control of the island from Caliban, leaving him vengeful, and Morbius's subconscious feeds and drives the alien presence.

We never see the monster in Forbidden Planet. We see footsteps (made by a large, clawed hoof) appear spontaneously in the ground, and when it attacks the crew's laser perimeter, only it's outline is visible, but it suggests enough to make it an imposing beast.

It's tempting to say the special effects and production design of the movie are dated. After all, the film is nearly 60 years, but if you can get into the right frame of mind and appreciate the film on its own terms, they still serve the purpose. The effects aren't remotely realistic or even plausible (like the flying saucer design), but they do their part in creating an alien landscape and world; if nothing else, it's an effective otherworldly atmosphere, and for their time, the effects really were creating some unforgettable images.

Not so forgivable is the rather dull characterization. Morbius is the really the only interesting human character. Robby the Robot is a delightful presence, performing all sorts of tasks and conveying a personality, but Adams  and his crew are boring, and it doesn't help they all dress alike  and look alike. Plus, the way Adams and one of his officers vie for Altaira is juvenile and frankly sexist. Also, Altaira really doesn't act like someone who has never encountered other humans before.

So yeah, much of the execution of Forbidden Planet is painfully dated, but the underlying concept and theme are so strong, it remains required viewing for genre fans. Man can conquer the stars and push the limits of his knowledge, but he cannot tame the evil in his heart.

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