Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To dream some impossible tree sloth: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)


For a lot of the new kids, 1950s science fiction is stilted, and dull, and perhaps those words could describe FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) if you were expecting constant laser tag and monster attacks, but a hundred viewings later and PLANET, for all its 50's patriarchal solemnity, still kicks ass. It just gets better, and its subtextual critique of its own patriarchal solemnity grows clearer. Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the film is uninhibitedly Freudian in a way few science fiction films of the time dared to be. The name itself holds all sorts of clues:

Forbidden! Planet!

And who is doing the forbidding? Merely one of the driest and most patronizing of all patriarchy's authoritative voices, Walter Pigeon as the elusive Dr. Morbius. In elaborate dialogue that runs counter to most natural speaking patterns, Morbius lectures paternally, patiently, Disney-like, at nearly everyone he meets and "cannot be responsible for the well-being" of Commander Leslie Nielsen (POLICE SQUAD!) and his party if they insist on landing at the doctor's private, remote, and most forbidden planet.

Inquiring after a colony set up by the Bolero Fund years before, he's come out to see how the settlers are faring.  It's rare to have a movie start out in deep space, odder still to have earthlings piloting a flying saucer instead of the usual phallic rocket. Odder even still that a 1950s film bears a cold suspicion that private organizations will be colonizing and privatizing outer space, shades of Haliburton! Shades of ALIEN... and more ALIEN shades to come!

For Morbius, it seems, has found a groovy stash of ancient alien technology and doesn't want to share, like the Area 51 crashed saucer-hiders, like an acid dealer during a bad trip who decides "you aint ready" for this shit. "But Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, he's ready," notes Commander Nielsen, sarcastically.


Morbius, blind to his own amok tenure'd prof-style egotism, agrees that yes, he is ready: he took the Krell "brain boost" and survived the shock, but was then in a coma for "a day and a night." Having survived, he's in charge (in his boosted mind) and notes, "such portions of the Krell science that I deem suitable and safe, I shall dispense to earth."

Language like "portions" and "dispensing" perks up the ears of any dozing pharmaceutical enthusiast. How many grams in a portion and when will you please dispense it and should I wait an hour after eating and drink plenty of orange juice? The Krell "brain booster" seems not too far from, say, an upstate ayahuasca weekend (the death in this latter case being of the ego, far more draining and terrifying than real physical death). 

Still, both the captain and his own doctor want to try it: "One of us must take that brain boost!" they tell each other. But it's the measurability-fetish that indicates this intelligence-enhancement is all left-brained denial, the butterfly pinned to the wall by science and expected to still be ephemeral. We know this because when the doc sneaks off and takes it the best he can come up with by way of explanation is "you oughta see my new mind, it's up there in lights." Is he speaking in the vernacular for the sake of his captain, or is this Bowery Boys-ish metonym the height of his new Krell-heightened eloquence?


Either way for the doctor at least the brain boost is shown to be a liberator from the curse of intellectual showing-off which makes Morbius's loyalty to his dry Wonderful World of Disney-style of speech be still struggling with patriarchally antiquated egotistical insecurity. Morbius may have "beheld the face of the gorgon and lived," but he's still a squaresville "philologist." Strictly nowhere, man. No grasp of the cosmic joke. That boost was wasted on him!

And yet, there is also in Morbius something of the Lacanian non du pere, with its implied understanding of the dualistic nature of prohibition and enjoyment. For in the end, Morbius is all talk when it comes to prohibition. He verbally forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go visit the spaceship and flirt with all the crew, but no one listens. Morbius listens. He listens to his daughter swoon about these wondrous creatures called officers. He listens attentively and withholds his opinion, hardly the actions of a typical 50s dad. And yet, almost to put on a show, his questioning and addressing her in the men's presence  becomes patronizing:  "Then my little girl never feels lonely or confined?" It's almost like he's posing as the 'anal father' when he's actually the wise sage and is just testing our hero's wooing mettle... like Sarastro in The Magic Flute! Or, of course, the more obvious Prospero.

Coyly innocent, yet hilariously knowing, Anne Francis leavens Morbius' dullness with her lovely legs and sexual openness. If you've seen her in the Honey West TV shows (and you should) you know her voice dropped a smoker's octave not to long after this film was made, and she could make that other broad with the surname West look bashful, so it's great to see her here kind of knowingly sending up the role of an innocent 1950s virgin as she teases the nervous, sexually frustrated and rather prudish Leslie Nielsen with her nudity in an outdoor swimming scene, or asks him "Why don't you kiss me like everybody else does?"

Yet another key element in FORBIDDEN's hard to immediately appreciate weirdness is the soundtrack: the electronic tonalities of Louis and Bebe Barron are awesome, but totally unmusical. These tones are so random and abstract -- no orchestral swells or suspenseful string -- that when the invisible id monster approaches the tonalities merely swell up slowly and strangely, and merge with the sound of laser engines; when the danger sign is off and Robby and Alta are frolicking the music burbles like a fountain through a flanger.

This atonal bizzaro blend of tonalities both enhances and diffuses all tension as there's no  cliche-entrained expectations; there's no chintz or corn or bassoons or "paranoid" pizzicatos. The result is liberation,  a slowing down of expectations, allowing for an incredibly lyrical, relaxed quality in the home viewing experience. Crazy modern art sculptures and modular furniture enhance the experience of being over somewhere for drinks and gradually sliding from creeped out to enchanted as the whiskey takes effect. The movie is Acidemic in the way it illuminates the fundamental problem of western thinking in science and academia: the complete "blind side" to one's own inner demon, how all positions on issues are usually really only vain attempts to hide one's own warped desire from oneself. Our blind spots are synonymous with our inability to own up to them; the eye fills in gaps in sight and the brain covers its weak spots with camouflage and patriarchal bullying. Arguing with Morbius then becomes like trying to convince a Marxist professor... of anything. 

Adding to the spa-like fun is the leisurely goodwill and Bette Davis-ish sauce of Robby the Robot -- as he is voiced by a man who sounds just like, and is, one of the guys who do the voices for Rocky and Bullwinkle -- but is not Paul Frees! His deep manly voice is both familiar, reassuring and completely cool. And yet the drunken cook comic relief has to ask of the robot - "Is it a male or a female" and we're supposed to infer that this cook is horny enough to give it a whirl. In the end--even better--the cook and Robby become drinking buddies, with Robby jovially making our visiting astro-lush a whole mountain of "Rocket Bourbon" pints.  Robby also makes dresses for Alta. When she asks for a long dress to please the prudish captain, he replies "Thick and heavy?" as if he's a wizened old Shakespearean housemaid teasing his beloved charge. Both Ariel and Caliban in one Michelin-esque frame, Robbie is the ultimate in fifth business. 

There's another coded gay character in Oscar Madison (ala his momma's boy in THE LONG HOT SUMMER!) as the brown-nosing chief spark-plugger-inner. The camera makes a point of showing his complete lack of interest in Anne Francis' devastating hemline, instead eagerly but low-voicedly informing the captain that "I borrowed some solanite from your gyro stabilizers." Spock, who cares? There's a chick here! He doesn't even try to fake it the way, say, Sal in MAD MEN used to!


Last bit of weird 'impossible tree sloth' quality I need to mention is the film's odd pedigree: MGM is known for delivering heavy bourgeois morality, but here the studio seems to have tapped into some alternate universe of cool, sexually liberated science fiction. FORBIDDEN PLANET appears suddenly out of nowhere, as if it traveled back in time from 1967, with lovely Star Trek-pastel sets of red leaf plants, alien handwriting and long triangular doors; laser beams that make no sound and shoot little dashes of light that seem ridiculously, comically/ineffectually phallic as they dissolve tigers into wavy Disney lines. It's the driest anti-authoritarian parable we got, and maybe still the sexiest as well. I'll leave you with these kinky words from Morbius: "Young man my daughter is planning a very foolish action and she'll be terribly punished for it." O words, where are thy talons?

7 comments:

  1. Erich,

    Another darn good essay!

    I rented FP just a couple of weeks ago: it’s still a marvel to behold, although this time I was driven somewhat nuts by how much of Morbius’ scenes are info-dump and exposition, especially since he is describing stuff an audience would love to see (the vaporization of the Bellerophon/Bolero Fund; the last days of the Krell, etc.).

    But on the other hand, the exposition works as a tension generator: we’re sitting here, starting to fume because we paid good money to see sci-fi madness, and there’s these guys TALKING in a space-age widower pad—-and then, wham! The mighty, mighty Krell machinery: Wow.

    Some other thoughts from my recent viewing:
    When the Monster from the Id is visible in the laser beams/force field, it sure looked like an angry, drunk version of the MGM lion (a possible dig from animator Joshua Meador, on loan from Uncle Walt?).

    What if
    Altaira is a robot! If Morbius was smart enough to make an impossibly sophisticated piece of machinery like Robby, I see no reason why he couldn’t make a more human-like android next:
    Robby was companion #1, Altaira is #2-—which is why there’s possessiveness but no incestuous sexual tension from Morbius. “No, Leslie Neilson, that’s MY lovedoll!”

    And finally, if I were space captain Leslie Neilson, I’d ask Robby if he could build another version of himself, or even design a Robby the Robot assembly line. If the answer was yes, I’d fly the saucer into neutral territory and start my own robot company. (And if Altaira was a robot, too, well…. Heh, heh, heh….)

    Here's a question: Where do you think Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain fits in the Acidemic pantheon? Personally, I think it's a very trippy flick, the microscopic photography combining with the cold logic and supertech to create a schizoid feeling: disease among the machinery...

    Back to the day job!

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  2. Thanks Ivan, I haven't seen Andromeda Strain in decades so will have to revisit that one. As for your Altara the Robot idea, did you see the deleted scenes on the new 2-DVD edition? There's some deleted dialogue amongst the doc and Leslie about why she's able to be friends with tigers and it involves unicorns and how they would lie down to (virginal/pure) "maidens" but attack anyone else. Now take the whole director's cut extras involving the dream of the unicorn in Bladerunner and you have an interconnected are androids automatic virgins when they dream of electric unicorn deleted scene sheep thing going on!

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  3. Turn me on dead man, we reach!

    I think Zowie Bowie's Moon is a quasi-sequel to Blade Runner; the replicants gaining self-awareness, and then heading back to Earth to confront Lloyd the Bartender.

    New 2-DVD edition?
    Dang, I gotta get out of the bunker more often!

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  4. A fantastic essay for a magisterial movie. Congratulation

    ReplyDelete
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  6. "Inquiring after a colony set up by 'The Bolero Fund,'"

    Wrong. The colonists traveled to Altair 4 on a space ship called the Bellerophon.

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  7. teddy crescendo27 September, 2012

    I worked out that i`d watched Forbidden Planet over 1000 times before i finally got tired of it. Just to put things into perspective, i cant watch most modern movies even once because they`re becoming so boring and repetitive. Films with that elusive re-watchability factor are very few and far between, Forbidden Planet is certainly one of the greatest in that catorgory.

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