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:
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!|
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 size comparison obsessiveness of it 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 ship's doc sneaks off and takes it while Leslie and Walter are aguing, the best he 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?
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 verbally forbids the captain to land his craft, forbids his hot daughter to go visit 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) 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 nudity in an outdoor swimming scene, or asks him "Why don't you kiss me like everybody else does?"
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.
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, instead on 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). 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?