The Cardboard Science series intends to be a catalog of the science fiction of the past, today. Science errors will be mocked. 20th century mores will be challenged. Glories will be recorded. Films will be, as usual, reviewed.
The standard by which all space opera is judged, and I doubt I could love it more even if Anne Francis were wearing fewer clothes than she already is.
Directed by Fred Wilcox
Written by Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler (based on The Tempest by William Shakespeare)
With Leslie Nielsen (Commander Adams), Walter Pidgeon (Dr. Morbius), Anne Francis (Altaira), Warren Stevens ("Doc" Ostrow), Jack Kelly (Lt. Farman), Earl Holliman (Cooky), and Robby the Robot (himself) (huh?)
Spoiler alert: severe
Content warning: I do cuss a lot in this one, but the main thing to warn you about is that it's excruciatingly long. Cardboard Science was conceived as something I could do on the fly, because I'd be mostly discussing B-movies that were barely made at all, and I'm sure that's how it will be as the usual case. But if we must begin with Forbidden Planet, and I'm afraid we must, the effort must be taken quite seriously. On the plus side, there are a lot of juvenile jokes, and I split it up into parts so you can quit reading and never return to it.
I. "Monsters, John! Monsters from the id!"
But before we even start, let's face a fact: despite the cerebral gloss of such seminal works as Forbidden Planet, the genre of science fiction is celebrated foremost, then as now, not for its cold, hard brains nor for its political advocacy, nor even for its wild concepts, but for spectacle. And spectacle is no mean thing; it is the primary reason movies exist at all, and we shall see it here.
However, some nerds would have it that they love SF, on film and on the page and more than for any other reason, because of its limitless capacity for allegory—for telling human truths in parable, and for rendering radical ideas into palatably fantastic forms that can slip through the defenses of the intellect and into, if you'll permit me, the subconscious mind, where they turn and they turn, until eventually society turns along with them.
They also love it for the math. But we'll get there.
I happen to be strongly aligned with those nerds, but even in agreeing with them I can't reasonably hold that sci-fi's well-attested allegorical goals have been routinely served through anything resembling thematic subtlety.
As the flagship of 1950s science fiction, you'll find practically everything else your heart may desire in Forbidden Planet, but you will never, ever find that. Whether your knowledge of the genre is cursory or comprehensive, you know that subtlety is in shorter supply in sci-fi than actual science. Egregious bluntness is the thruline of the whole genre, from before Metropolis to after Avatar.
But surely you remember the episode of Star Trek that solved the problem of race in America for all time, with its nuanced and multifaceted tale of a species of aliens, white on one side, black on the other? They destroyed each other to the very last man because of the different sides upon which each those two shades manifested—though Kirk and company, aliens to them, could scarcely tell the difference at all. Oh, I know it's hard to parse, but please try: do you get it? Do you?
Well, the reason I bring it up is because Forbidden Planet is the "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" of fucking.
So let that rest in your id for a while.
In the 23rd century, humans have united in an all-species government, conquered the light barrier, and begun their expansion across galactic space. Keeping order in this far-flung society is the organization represented by Commander John Adams and his gallant crew of white men, and for this reason they have been tasked with investigating the disappearance of the exploratory vessel Bellerophon, lost twenty years before. Keeping order on board the ship is a large store of saltpeter, which must have run out before they land on the fourth planet of the star Altair—having ignored the warnings of the Bellerophon's sole survivor, Dr. Morbius—because almost the very minute they meet the good doctor's comely daughter Altaira, they immediately begin to circle for the bukkake session. And Alta's into it.
Distressed by the concept of sexual intercourse of any kind, Adams declares that there shall be no blowbang, much to Morbius' relief. Soon, though, Adams falls for Alta's virginal innocence, innate recognition of the power of her vagina, and sweet gams; and she does likewise, for his arbitrary authority, whiny slut-shaming, and chin. But before they can make a cum omelette and the resulting new life that will surely only repeat their depressing patterns, an invisible, indestructible creature makes its presence known. Traditionally attributed to Morbius' subconscious and powered by the wishing machine left behind by the extinct, aboriginal Krell race, this monster from the id tries to murder everybody, and halfway succeeds.
(There is also a robot, who is very amusing, was very expensive, remains absolutely iconic, and in retrospect has almost no bearing on the plot at all—not surprisingly, since gender has no meaning to the machine, which may sort of be the point, as with no gonads nor social conditioning to confuse "his" circuits, Robby deduced the source of the monster from the id long before anyone else. But have we?)
Even permitting me my foul-mouthed allowances, you can see what I'm talking about when I say that Forbidden Planet is almost never not about fucking. Even the Krell machines that spelled their species' doom are salaciously described in terms of lubricated shafts by the repressed, possibly-incestuous, definitely-possessive Dr. Morbius.
But Planet manages to multitask. For one, the secondary takeaway of this fable is that there may come a time when man's [sic] technological reach will exceed his ethical grasp and—oh shit! Duck and cover everybody!
For two, God damn, is this a movie.
II. "Quiet please! I am analyzing!"
Despite Planet's consciously reductionist attitude that human existence is purely a vehicle for sex and the aggression related to sexual control, it was not ultimately intended by its creators as a mere occasion for date rape, as many of its kin were. Which isn't to say that it has nothing of the B-movie in its own DNA; a glance at any frame is enough to prove paternity in this case.
Its final form could not have been predicted from its humble origins. Allen Adler and Irving Block, the latter—not coincidentally—the owner of an optical effects house, originally had far more modest aspirations. The duo first conceived the idea (possibly in the back of a car, but the histories are silent) as just another SF film in a market burgeoning with them, to be churned out by whatever methods were cheapest while still getting the basic point across.
Even if that had been how it shook out, it's certainly feasible we'd still remember Planet—Fatal Planet then—quite fondly. Adler and Block realized, however, with a hubris to match their characters but better-justified, that they had something special. Special enough, they reckoned, that it could merit a real budget, real actors, a real development cycle—and the real studio treatment. And, the realest studio there was—at least, until we woke up one day and found out it had been in a state of slow-motion collapse since the last ticket was sold for Ben-Hur—agreed with them.
MGM didn't write a blank check at first. It was budgeted at a million dollars, far less than insulting for the genre, but neither a truly ludicrous sum in the context of the studio and the times. In fact, it wasn't even an entirely reasonable sum: an earlier Technicolor marvel, War of the Worlds '53, had cost fully twice as much as Planet's original parameters. Even when all was said and done, and Arthur Lonergen had—in the grand tradition of machiavellian art directors—built half of the sets with all of the money, forcing MGM to double their investment, Paramount's alien invasion movie still cost a bit more.
But it remained one of the most expensive SF films made to that point, and in any event MGM had determined to make their first foray into the SF wilds as much of a proper movie as possible. That means a lot of things, but in 1956 it still meant a delightfully artificial approach to its dialogue and scenario—reconstructed from Adler and Block's Fatal Planet by Cyril Hume, the credited screenwriter—that I'd rather call artfulness instead. Each line is crafted with self-consciousness and delivered with loving care, not to mention a verve that makes it appropriate to end every transcription with an exclamation point, not unlike the dialogue in a Silver Age comic book, except significantly cleverer.
It becomes difficult to imagine why the style ever fell out of fashion in the first place, and one begins to appreciate anew the verbal contortions of folks like Joss Whedon. Though our latterday motormouths may prefer a greater measure of understatement on one hand and explicit pussy jokes on the other, there's something to be said for jamming a combination of sarcasm and farce into the spaces between all the expository declamation, and doing it so tightly that no light can shine through the script at all. For one thing, it helps a hundred minute movie, pretty long for its genre in its day, feel like it passes in no time at all. (An extraordinary achievement for a film that was, essentially, released as a rough cut.)
Take Morbius, who instead of dully demanding to know why Adams and Doc have stolen into his private study to snoop, simply informs them with a low roar that the household silver is in the pantry! and the jewelry is on the dresser!, deploying a joke that was ancient when Walter Pidgeon was young but is the exact right stock line for the situation and precisely what a witty person would be likely to say when caught off guard. And, you know, even the exposition—maybe especially the exposition—is endlessly quotable in its own estimable right.
The dialogue is also a dorky codification of that most uniquely SFnal of SF tropes: technobabble is spewed constantly, with Hume getting harder and wetter over his numerical figures than even 1956's straight male and secret lesbian population must have been when confronted with a figure in that kind of miniskirt for the first time.
We should be thankful my recently-patented gaydar was not, like the Krell machine, invented too soon.
Each and every character—from the most brilliant men of science to the lowly ship's cook—view their universe as an endless, interlocking series of numbers. "2000 centuries!" "20 miles, 20 miles." "60 gallons?!" "4,000,000,000 electron volts!" "5, 10, and 15 carats, and on hand." Looking at the bank of decimal series gauges on the alien machines that his officially-recorded IQ of 187 (though trebled in the meantime) still fails to understand, Dr. Morbius exults, "10 times 10 times 10 times 10!... The number 10, raised almost literally to the power of ∞!"
Even the Goddamned spaceship is a number: are you not inspired by the adventures of the crew of the star cruiser C-57D?
It's the geek's geek's movie, that teaches you about evolution, when Doc claims that the mysterious creature thats puts them under attack is biologically implausible. It's a movie where an android with gyroscopic stabilizers in his transparent head keeps ever-steady on his feet while referencing the Three Laws of Robotics and making amusingly lame quips, and we never quite know if it's on purpose. It's a movie that draws its entire plot from Freudian psychology and really, really wants you to look it up later at your local library. In Forbidden Planet, "quantum mechanic" is an actual job—and it's a movie where such an awful play on words was still new enough to be kind of funny.
This is all the stuff of greatness. But most important for Planet's enduring reputation—even more important than its timeless story of 20th century sexual morality—is its audiovisual feast, one rarely equaled and in many respects almost one-of-kind.
III. "One cannot behold the face of the gorgon and live!"
Indeed, Planet is in all respects the essential example of Raygun Gothic done straight.
Prepare your minds for a new scale of aesthetic values, gentlemen!
Robby seems quaint now—partly because of his ludicrous functionality, though in fairness he was constructed from alien super-science—but as a suitmation prop he still impresses and not just by dint of his $125,000 pricetag. He may have a lumbering gait when locomoting under his own power, but Robby also has a supercar that only he can drive, and you don't. The kids too young for Anne Francis loved this guy—and it's not hard to see the appeal. Designed by Robert Kinoshita (no relation), operated by Frankie Darrow and voiced by Marvin Miller—uncredited thanks to a misplaced desire to be cute—even seventy years later, he remains a towering symbol of the Golden Age of filmed SF.
Equally impossible to ignore is the production design: it was inspired by God, in lieu of another tedious religious text. The sets are sublime—huge and expensive, sleek and angular, prefiguring Ken Adam's James Bond movies in all the right ways. And I'm just talking about the sets here: Morbius' house, the command deck of the C-57D, and the simply amazing (or "amazing!") cyclorama (I learned a new word!) for the landing site. This last was a 360 degree painted backdrop of heretofore unseen depth and hyper-realism, complemented by a full-sized recreation of the part of the ship seen in medium shots, and seamlessly blended with special effects in some of film's better (but not best) matte work.
The only set that seems kind of off in the slightest is the Krell laboratory. Nothing in it is individually badly made (except, maybe, the brain gauge, which looks like one of the spirometers from The Right Stuff, only made for a blue whale—but this lame prop also lets Morbius make fun of his stupider visitors, so it's easy to grant it a pass). And the diamond-shaped doorways that suggest a broad, perhaps even centipede-like physicality to the unseen Krell are indeed perfect. However, it's also cluttered, with all the stuff Morbius needs to explain the premise to Adams and Doc packed into one storage closet. The Krell lab is effectively the only capitulation to budget in the entire film.
However—and it is an enormous however—the spectacular miniature and matting work used to depict the enormous and mystifying boiler room of the ancient and powerful Krell is not just beautiful in a 1950s SF sense, it's almost actually convincing. The best shot in the entire film is also perhaps its most complex. A rolling camera with a special lens captures effortlessly the endless reaches of the giant model that was thirty feet tall and ten feet wide—all while animated special effects render the massive electrical discharges of the klystron relays in difficult, changing perspective, and humans are composited in primarily to demonstrate how insignificant they are in comparison to the technology that even the gods that created it could not command.
I'm sorry, I really don't know this keeps getting in here.
Since we've segued fully into special effects, let us speak briefly on Joe Alves and Joshua Meador's animation. The daunting complexity of some of the animation—most notably the sequence where the id monster becomes visible when crashing through the crew's electric force field—required expertise and creativity, and Meador was loaned from Disney to provide it, and it is the standout out-of-camera sequence of the film. But let's give Alves credit too. He might've animated the very finger of YHWH later in '56, but Planet is surely his most heavenly work. The scene where Adams must slay a tiger (this makes sense in context) is a wonderfully done example of disintegration; and if Alves' ray guns fire charges that are a hundred times slower than bullets, certainly we cannot deny that he provided the visual language that laser battles have been speaking for six decades, and will probably still be using for another fucking millennium at least. (It must be said, perhaps not all of Planet's influences are necessarily good ones, even when they're in-themselves gorgeous.)
The op art loveliness of the "face of the gorgon" inside the Krell reactor surely can't be denied either; and the synchronized blinking lights in the matte paintings are hypnotic and speak well of the attention to every square inch of each frame. Yet the detail that impresses me the most is the animation of sunlight reflecting off the water of a pond in the background, an unnecessary touch of verisimilitude, production value, and beauty that says everything about Forbidden Planet in one tiny gesture.
And still we haven't talked about the most exciting effects Planet offers. Planet has something that almost no other movie has, and no other movie to my knowledge has come close to its weird achievement. By process of elimination, you have concluded that I mean Bebe and Louis Barron's contribution: their "electronic tonalities." (Don't call it a score! The guild will be angered. You might have to pay these avant-garde bohemians with their crazy sound machines royalties, and they'll just buy zoot suits and heroin with it.)
IV. "That recording was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago!"
Forbidden Planet is, famously, the first film with an all-electronic score. You can go back as far as 1940 to Rebecca (of all things) and hear primitive electronic sounds, albeit integrated into orchestral music so tightly that you probably won't notice they're even there. And of course, the theremin had been a thing for years, since Spellbound at least, and 1951 saw it injected deep into SF with Bernard Hermann's soundscape for The Day the Earth Stood Still. The theremin, there and elsewhere, was still complemented with conventional instrumentation like cellos, violins, etc., albeit electrically amplified. And those instruments are completely audible, even when the theremin's eerie notes dominate the aural space—as they tended, and were intended, to do.
Planet didn't use "instruments" such as were understood; instead, the Barrons—who didn't have a Hitchcock connection of which I am aware—custom-built circuits that produced strange noises. They then amplified and edited these noises into something that we might as well call music, for it is uncannily mesmerizing in the same way that good music can be, though it is like nothing heard before in cinema and like little heard since. In fact, it almost wasn't heard at all.
MGM's Dore Schafy, who hired the couple (and fired Planet's original composer, David Rose), now started to get cold feet. The other suits were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of a weird art experiment being conducted with two million bucks' worth of their money. They test-screened a rough cut. And audiences in 1956, despite a morality inferior to our own, must have been more artistically open-minded than we, because they went nuts. This is how Planet came to be snatched from director Fred Wilcox and editor Ferris Webster's hands before they were finished, and released immediately in an (apparently) unready state that is indistinguishible—except in one really glaring moment—from a polished piece of cinema.
Pictured: Forbidden Planet's most egregious special effects failure. It's so terrible I've seen people interpret this moment as Alta—the character—pretending to bathe nude, in order to seduce Adams. Since this expects you to ignore her freewheeling personality, as well as the part where she doesn't know he'll be calling in the first place, and the part where tricking him makes no sense at all... well, I'm going to go with "excruciatingly bad cutting."
All this would be worthy of note in itself, but the sound of Planet is not just an important first, it's close to unique, not only for its inherent strangeness, but for how the Barrons elected to deploy it (and it was the Barrons, Wilcox having little input in this matter). The diagetic and non-diagetic sounds of Altair 4 bleed together so completely that is impossible to tell where the score ends and effects begin. They become unified, joined fully when Morbius himself plays a recording of Krell music, a piece that could only be fully distinguished—from the score that is supposed to happen on our side of the screen, and from the effects that populate the other—by the very alien minds that were meant to have created it. The Barrons do something kind of revolutionary here, that only our training to separate non-diagetic sound from the unfolding fiction could permit: they break the fourth wall from the audience's side, and drag us right into the picture with them.
Obviously, the feat of blending the real and unreal sounds of cinema is performed, on occasion, by zany comedies—but always in service of a joke that is calculated to break suspension of disbelief from within the film. The Barrons' mind-melting experiment in completing the circuit between a fiction and its audience is, perhaps, entirely unique, at least in commercial cinema. Their work here is like when Rope turned 80 minutes of screentime into the hours of an afternoon with nothing more than clever set design, Hitchcock gambling that you would never notice within the confines of his illusion of one long, uninterrupted take. The effect of each technique is the cinematic equivalent an impossible object. These electronic tonalities are nothing less than surrealism made into sound.
If its formal aspects are what guarantee Forbidden Planet its top-shelf pedigree, what continues to draw us to it, time and again, is just as we began—its story. The denouement of its cruel twist ending is unforgettable. But is the joke on Morbius—or has it always been on us?
V. "We're all part monsters in our subconscious!"
The Krell machine turns thoughts into solid matter: this much we know for certain. But the necessary question this poses has never, to my knowledge, been raised. In a fiction where the whims of the mind become the fabric of that fiction's reality, can we really know anything else?
It is conventional to accept Adams and Doc's conclusion as read: the monster is the manifestation of Morbius' subconscious impulse to keep the brutish others from ravishing his daughter. The deepest I've seen the commentary get is that perhaps it's Morbius who subconsciously wishes to do the ravishing. But we can get weirder.
Certainly, no word Morbius utters can be trusted. He says his wife died of natural causes—when the rest died by violence, violence he subconsciously wrought when they wished to drag him from the peace he'd found on Altair 4. He says Alta is his daughter, putatively born of a biological union between man and woman—but we witness him create her likeness by thought alone. We never see even photographic evidence of a wife's existence, and the United Planets' records are silent on the matter. We can imagine a great many possibilities in this vein, each more disturbing than even latent incestual feelings.
Or we can continue to believe that Morbius, even Morbius' subconscious mind, could never exercise such power over the Krell machine. Does that mean that no one could? Are we to credit Morbius' just-so story of the Krell transplanting random animals to Altair 4, or the truly preposterous notion that Alta's virginal purity tames a tiger as it might a unicorn? One thing we can say, with as much confidence as anything, is that Morbius does not lock the door to the Krell lab and the brain-booster doesn't have a password.
And we quite plainly hear Alta describe her dream vision of the attack on the crew. Did everyone else just miss this line? We can imagine even more possibilities now. Planet doesn't paint a pretty portrait of male sexuality, and there's no reason to suspect it has any higher opinion of its converse. If you dwell on Alta's dream, it suggests subconscious knowledge, which suggests communication with the machine, and the conclusion that becomes disturbingly convincing is that the id that terrorizes Adams' crew is hers. Possessed of a sexual frustration as inwardly warped as any man's, she subjects her would-be suitors to a murderous physical gauntlet and fells her own father for standing between her and the one she's chosen. The irony is that, unlike Morbius—who in his last moments believed he understood—Altaira will never know.
"What man can remember his dreams?"
While the film's Freudian obsession with Morbius is signaled with the utmost sound and fury—even the cut that first implicates Morbius isn't quiet, and it's just a piece of montage—I hesitate to suggest this was intentional. But that line: could Cyril Hume have written that, and meant us to suspect nothing? The damnable thing is that we can now never ask.
Or, lastly, we can consider the final, and most remote, but most terrifying possibility: that the Krell machine is not so bounded by space as we assume. That it can operate over planetary distances. That the ids which control the monster—and create all that we survey—are those of Adams, and his crew. Their combined will, dominated by their commander, conjures an elaborate fantasy in which they are tempted by their heart's desire and—ultimately—they are torn apart by the jealousies and strivings and hatreds of each other. And what this would say about human nature is darker than anything even I'd like to countenance, for in the end, doesn't Adams get what he wants? Planet, already prepared to expose the hellish psychological engines it perceives beneath our everyday reality, becomes an even more profound horror.
Welcome to the depths of our depravity.
This speculation is just that, the idle speculation of a nerd with not enough math to do. But for me the compulsion to wonder is what elevates Forbidden Planet far beyond its contemporaries. It has an ambiguity to make 2001 seem prosaic and Inception clumsy. Powered by the music of the Krell and driven by perverse lusts, it penetrates the skull and seeds there stranger ideas than you may have ever desired.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- Our sky is blue due to the effect of Rayleigh scattering, a property of higher frequency photons striking electrons more often, and thus being scattered to your eyes more often, than photons of lower frequencies, as they pass through any (near-)transparent gas like O2, N2, or argon. This holds, obviously, no matter what planet that gas is on. So if you ever find yourself on a planet where the sky is green, you should think twice about taking a stroll.
- Altair itself is the wrong color, red rather than white. It's also a type A subgiant, less than a billion years old, all of which makes the existence of the Krell, or any advanced life, extremely improbable. You'd think Doc would mention this, what with all his big ideas about evolutionary plausibility.
- The "4 billion electron volts" of firepower, which the crew of the C-57D can't imagine wouldn't affect the id monster, represents so much energy that it could almost lift a mosquito bodily into the air. (Of course, if the 4GeV figure refers to the momentum of each individual particle in the beams, use in an atmosphere would generate so much gamma radiation that everyone at the landing site/on the continent may very well get cancer/get turned into a Hiroshima shadow person.)
- Straight-up lifting a scene from This Island Earth the previous year (which made more sense, looked cooler, and may have been less aurally jarring, in the Barrons' one serious misstep), the crew of the C-57D has to enter a weird intertial damping field to survive a deceleration... from beyond lightspeed, i.e., an impossible non-velocity. I'm perfectly willing to spot you your FTL drive, but this makes my brain hurt.
- The prospect of an autonomous robot using a mechanical difference engine for a brain is questionable. It's not ruled out in principle, but if Robby had a square kilometer instead of a square meter, it still wouldn't be terribly plausible. Maybe those little clattering keys were just Dr. Morbius' idea of retro flair. It looks great.
- Why would looking at the reflection of a nuclear reactor be significantly less dangerous than looking at the nuclear reactor? "Don't stare at the sun, young man! Stare at this mirror instead!"
- I already noted that it's the film's single failure of design, but, seriously, why is the Krell kindergarten—with its learning machines for stupid Krell children—in the very same room as the command center for the Krell wishing-machine? That seems dangerous or, at the least, inefficient.
- Less a scientific mistake than a surrender to popular comprehension, the notion that the Krell have a base ten numbering system is a pretty spurious coincidence.
- The entire text of the film, literally almost every last word and frame of it. In fairness, it is more than adequately criticized by the subtext.
- You're the spaceman now, dawg!
- The prospect of godlike power, which—of course—we do not deserve.
- Robby the Replicator. That's kind of... wow.
- Robby is one of film's first good robots, and can't even kill anybody, thanks to his dumb programming. This is explicitly demonstrated to render him useless in many respects. When we make robots, we need some kind of middle-ground on the killing rule.
- I don't know if Robby was the very first robot to be felled by a logical paradox in film—Isaac Asimov certainly did it beforehand in print—but after Forbidden Planet, you couldn't whisper "one by zero" without a flak jacket to survive the shrapnel. Without exaggeration, it happens in like every tenth episode of Star Trek.
- On the whole, SF is already roughly 80% male sexual fantasies rendered by word or picture, and only 20% the stuff we claim it's about, but I've got to say it (my therapist said it was okay): gams. Gams such as God has never seen.
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