Drawing upon the visual language of pulp science fiction and comic books of its time, Forbidden Planet spins a fairy tale, a cautionary tale, a love story, a parable of good versus evil, and a mystery thriller in the narrative container, widely noted, of Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest.
Historically, Forbidden Planet bridges the gap between the mainstream science fantasy films of the 1930s (Frankenstein) and the 1970s (Star Wars). In the glut of 1950s science fiction B movies, most with subtexts about Communist, homosexual, or atomic mutant monsters, Forbidden Planet stands as the Technicolor, major studio jewel in the crown of the handful of intelligent, dissenting polemical counterpoints of the decade.
The Belerephon expedition, led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielson, during his early days as a dramatic lead), travels to Altair IV (the “forbidden” planet) to determine what has happened to a colonizing party which has disappeared. Remarkably, there is one survivor, the self-declared philologist Dr. Morbius (played by a darkly arrogant Walter Pidgeon), who warns the crew away from landing. Morbius, it turns out, is hiding more than meets the eye—his naive virgin daughter Altaira (a perky, petulant Anne Francis), the dazzling wizardry of exponentially advanced technology (including Robby, the first cuddly robot in film history), artifacts of a lost civilization (the Krell), and a horrible secret, which comes back from the dead to wreck havoc on the inhabitants of the planet’s surface.
In the Shakespearean vein, several subplots and sub-themes are embedded within this adventure tale. A desert planet on its surface (mimicking Them-themed desert sci-fi flicks), Altair IV proves to be a single (mechanical) organism (Mary Shelley meets the Gaia principle). The magic of the fairy tale appears in the guise of space-age technology, and comes in cowboy hat black (evil) and white (good) versions. Robby embodies good science/magic (who, like his counterpart, the sprite Ariel, must serve his human master) as the good servant (reinforced by the Asimovian robot imperative to cause no harm to any human), while the evil force (a disembodied Freudian id) rises from the self-destructive human unconscious (in this case, Morbius’s rage against “alien” challengers to his will). Unlike the benevolent father Prospero, who has secretly created obstacles for the suitor Ferdinand to earn the right to the hand of his daughter Miranda, Morbius’s paternalistic instincts are incestuous and murderous; Commander Adams wins the hand of Altaira and saves his crew in spite of the monster from the id, Morbius’ subconscious.
This cautionary tale hovers precariously in the gray flannel zone. On the one hand, Forbidden Planet joins the ranks of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) in polemicizing against the message that our collective paranoid post-war anxiety over the bogeyman (“alien invaders from outer space”) justifies xenophobic genocidal rage and the McCarthy-era witchhunts against Communists, homosexuals, and flying saucers.
On the other hand, it upholds the official civilian mores of post-World War II America—soldiers who fight and win the good war will prevail and win the heart of the girl next-door, intellectuals (Dr. Morbius is curiously both a research scientist and a scholar of foreign languages and cultures) are the evil source of all our problems, and good magic (the American military-industrial complex kind) will beat out evil magic (the Soviet Russian kind, as well as the domestic scholar’s academic freedom).
We should neither hate nor marvel at the Krell, but pity them in their intellectual, narcissistic self-ignorance, and lack of boundless American optimism.