| Michael Popham |
MGM’s Forbidden Planet is glittering midcentury eye candy, a 1950s pulp magazine cover come to life. It’s amazingly entertaining stuff, but modern viewers are going to find a darker and more sex-obsessed film than they might have been expecting. Like all sci-fi films, it tells us much more about the era in which it was made than it does about the future it tries to imagine. Released in 1956, when the United States was at the zenith of its political and cultural power, the movie wears this optimism on its (military) sleeve.
Forbidden Planet begins with narration that at first gives some hope that the sexual politics of the film might be a bit more advanced than expected in light of the U.S.’s revived 1950’s conservatism:
“In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 AD they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyperdrive through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so at last mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.”
Yet from the film’s first scene, any hope that “men and women” will have anything resembling an equal role in this future of “conquest and colonization” are dashed; the spaceship C-57-D is the outer-space equivalent of a mid-century U.S. Naval cruiser, right down to the ranks of the crew (Commander, Chief, Bosun – there’s even a cook called “Cookie”) and the all-white, all-male and apparently all-American space travelers are a projection of the U.S.’s post-war confidence and ambition. The men grouse about their circumstances, like sailors in a World War II movie (“Another one of them new worlds,” one of them complains. “No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothin’”). These scenes are clearly meant to assure us that while flying saucers may replace battleships and rayguns may replace revolvers, the cultural and moral norms of the Mad Men era cannot be improved upon.
Among the norms championed is a deep respect for military authority, and a distrust of intellectuals. The reclusive Dr. Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, represents the latter camp. Sporting a goatee and a haughty demeanor, Morbius doesn’t welcome the arrival of the men from Earth. He lords his intellectual superiority over Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen)— a man of average intelligence and better off for it. As it turns out, Morbius has good reason for his standoffish behavior: he is guarding two secrets.
The first secret is the fallen Krell civilization that he has been studying for the last two decades, the ancient machines of which have allowed Morbius to harness the darkest, most Freudian ambitions that lay within him. His other secret – closely linked to the first — is his beautiful young daughter Altaira (Anne Francis).
The fact that he has kept Altaira away from human company her entire life deeply troubles Adams and the members of his crew, who believe she must be given a chance to take her place in human society. At the same time, Altaira’s isolation has clearly made her more attractive to the men of the C-57-D— her sexual innocence is absolute.
Few movies have fetishized sexual purity the way that Forbidden Planet does. It isn’t just Altaira’s virginity that is prized by the men from the ship: her mind is squeaky-clean as well, unsullied by worldly thoughts and temptations, because no one has ever introduced them to her.
Even the most innocent of women back on Earth, after all, would at least have heard of the Wild Thing, but Altaira hasn’t. Her complete lack of knowledge of sexual matters propels her into an absurd level of Edenic innocence. She commands the animals that wander near her father’s house: deer, tigers and other wild beasts approach her without fear or aggression. In a deleted scene, Doc Ostrow compares her power over wild animals to the myth of the unicorn, a creature that can only be tamed by a virgin. But when she declares her love for Commander Adams, the animals turn on her. She is almost killed by a tiger, and Adams must destroy it. She wonders aloud why the tiger, which has been a friend and companion for years, would turn against her. “Don’t you know?” Adams says pityingly.
But of course she can’t know; she is still too naïve to figure it out. In any case, Adams has resolved to do the thinking for both of them. All that was required of her was to choose Adams as her soul mate— even though he is, quite literally, the first man she’s ever laid eyes on besides her father. A more circumspect film might question this decision; might have allowed one of the characters to at least encourage her to wait until she has seen more of what the universe has to offer.
There is, however, already another rival for Altaira’s affections: Morbius himself. The monster that Morbius accidentally unleashes— the same one that laid waste to the Krell civilization ages ago— springs from his own subconscious: a monster constructed from his secret lusts and desires. And so it is that when Morbius demonstrates a Krell device for rendering a three-dimensional image from his mind, the image he chooses is Altaira, standing attentively in a short skirt. Altaira is at the center of his private universe; the object of his most forbidden desires.
Adams states that the “Id Monster” — the beast that Morbius subconsciously controls— is attacking Altaira because she has defied his will. But the monster’s true motivation is evidently sexual jealousy— she has chosen another man over him, and in his rage and frustration he will tap the planet’s nearly limitless reserves of power to get through the Krell barrier to destroy her.
This is pretty dark stuff for American sci-fi of the 1950s, which tended to play to the kids in the audience. The kids got what they paid for, of course: there are soldiers, spaceships, robots and all manner of futuristic gimcrackery. But it’s the twisted Freudian elements that underpin the narrative, and no amount of Technicolor effects work can completely hide them. The movie ends on a happy note, with the balance of nature presumably restored, but we are still left wondering about the new life that Altaira has chosen for herself— presuming, of course, that the choices were ever really hers to make.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Caitlyn Dibble
Forbidden Planet begins at the Trylon tonight, Sunday June 2, at 7:15 PM and continues on Monday and Tuesday night, playing at 7 & 9 PM. Visit the website to purchase tickets or for more information.