Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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, for all its 50's patriarchal solemnity, PLANET still kicks ass. It just gets better every time, every year: its subtextual critique of its own patriarchal solemnity grows clearer, its solemnity undermined by its underplayed deadpan cheek. 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, like the dull film shown before entering some Disney attraction. He emphatically maintains that he "cannot be responsible for the well-being" of Commander Leslie Nielsen (POLICE SQUAD!) and his party if they insist on landing at his most forbidden planet.

Inquiring after a colony set up by the 'Bolerofon Expedition' years before, Nielsen and his crew have 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 hoarded by MAJ-12, like an acid dealer during a bad trip who decides "you aint ready" for this shit." With his artificially expanded intellect, Morbius, he's ready," notes Commander Nielsen, sarcastically.

Lucifer Sam / Zion cat! 

Blind to his own amok tenure'd prof-style egotism, Morbius 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 - just as exhilarating and terrifying as any 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 size comparison obsessiveness of it that indicates this intelligence-enhancement is all cock-centric left-brained denial, the butterfly pinned to the wall by science and expected to still be ephemeral. We know this because when the ship's doc sneaks off and takes it while Leslie and lovely Nordic hybrid alien Anne Francis are making out and arguing over whether to drag Morbius off by force. Now a super--dying--genius, the best the doc can come up with by way of description 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 an example of his new Krell-heightened eloquence? The boos seems contagious for soon Leslie too is talking down to Morbius like an interplanetary shrink, "your unconscious mind, the inner savage, was made strong enough!" 

The brain boost for the doc (his mind is "bigger than his (Morbius's) now") shows up Morbius's loyalty to his dry Wonderful World of Disney-style of speech as a sign he's still struggling with patriarchally antiquated egotistical insecurity. I.e. Morbius "ain't" as enlightened as he thinks. The ship's doc is free of trying to sound intellectual; he's gained confidence enough to sound stupid. Morbius may have "beheld the face of the gorgon and lived," but he's still a squaresville "philologist" who never lets you forget it. No grasp of the cosmic joke. That boost was wasted on him--he's still hung up on measuring IQ power, which all we know has turned out to be an unreliable, race-and-class-based logocentric yardstick.

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, a kind of male version of Mrs. Hemoglobin in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK: he forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go near the spaceship and flirt with all the crew, but neither listens. (After all we're not very near, " Alta says when visiting their ship, and earlier "you said not to join you for lunch, you said nothing about coming for coffee.") On the other hand, Morbius listens to her. He listens to his daughter swoon about these wondrous creatures called officers. He listens attentively and withholds his opinion, even as his daughter rants against the captain's prudery, 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 stern forbidding father (masking incestuous subconscious intent - as in the arm he puts around her waist when waving goodbye after the first visit) 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 in Shakespeare's Tempest.

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) then you she could make that other broad with the surname West look bashful, so it's great to see her here kind of knowingly send up the role of an innocent 1950s MGM virgin as she teases the nervous, sexually frustrated and rather prudish Leslie Nielsen with her symbolic 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 offer no familiar orchestral swells or suspenseful string sections to guide our emotional responses. When the invisible id monster approaches, the tonalities merely swell up slowly and strangely to evoke moans and our monster footprints, or to merge with the sound of laser fire. When the danger sign is off, and Robby and Alta are frolicking, the music burbles like a fountain through a flanger, merging with monkey chatter and fractured Hawaiian guitar twangs. This atonal bizarro blend of 'tonalities' both enhances and diffuses all tension, as there's no  cliche-entrained expectations. The result is perhaps tranquilizing at first, even boring, but-- once our first viewing is over and we know what to expect--the slowing down of expectations allows for an incredibly lyrical, relaxed quality in successive viewings. Crazy modern art sculptures and modular furniture conjure the familiar feeling of being over at a cool great uncle's bungalow for drinks and gradually sliding from creeped out by all the 50s metal wall sculpture (on our first visit as children) to enchanted as the whiskey takes effect (as adults).

Acidemic in the way it illuminates the fundamental problem of western thinking in both mainstream science and analytic academia, PLANET reveals the complete "blind side" to one's own inner demon in the Freudian composite of the mind, how all dry and respectable positions on issues are usually really only vain attempts to hide our warped desires from ourselves ("what's wrong with theory?" Alta asks before Leslie finally breaks down and plays his first game of what Uncle Bill in the very similar Neve Give a Sucker an Even break called Squigilum (funny too that a tiger growls during their kiss here, mirroring the great dane barking and ape howling in Fields' 1941 film) 

These recurring motifs illuminate the blind spots that always run 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, yet the drunken cook has to ask "Is it a male or a female" and we're supposed to infer that this cook is horny enough--and deaf, dumb and blind enough-- to turn a blind ear as well as eye.

"Smooth, too!" 

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 (he's "the most understanding soul" the cook's ever met).  Robby also makes dresses for Alta. When she asks for a new dress Robbie all but rolls his eyes, "Again?" She says it must be a long dress to please the prudish captain, Robbie asks "Thick and heavy?" as if he's a wizened old Shakespearean housemaid dryly teasing his beloved charge about fair Romeo. Both Ariel and Caliban in one Michelin-esque frame, Robbie is the ultimate in Shakespearian fifth business. 

There's another coded gay character in Oscar Madison (ala his momma's boy in THE LONG HOT SUMMER three years later) 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, while his puppy-like eagerness to impress the captain, informing the captain that "I borrowed some solanite from our 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 as well as fine Freed musicals, but here the studio seems to have tapped into some alternate universe of cool, sexually liberated science fiction, like the subject allows for some of that repressed desire to leak out in a way the churches won't notice (though the 'lord sure makes some beautiful worlds,' and 'after all we are not God' lines seem inserted to win their favor). In the midst of the early 50s landscape of giant bugs and military investigations (with the one woman in the cast always a professional working scientific expert, desexed in her status as 'one of the new women' unless she gets a bathing scene) 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 (and offer no 'kick' - i.e. they dribble). Altogether, it's the driest anti-authoritarian / openly Freudian sci-fi parable we've got, and maybe still the sexiest, despite all the paternal lectures and tours. 

I'll leave you with these kinky words from 'philologist' 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?


  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!

  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!

  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!

  4. A fantastic essay for a magisterial movie. Congratulation

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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.

  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.

  8. "The camera makes a point of showing his complete lack of interest in Anne Francis' devastating hemline,"

    When Leslie Nielson first visits Morbius' home, he pulls out a little gadget on a tether from his belt which is a microphone and video camera, asks Richard Anderson (who's back at the ship) to do a "comm check." When he points the camera at Altaira, Anderson let's out with a wolf whistle.


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