Perhaps the most outstanding element of William Shakespeare’s writing are the themes he implies and the symbols he uses. In fact, in matters of plot and characterization (with the possible exception of Julius Caesar) Shakespeare’s plays were rather dreadful. They were often anti-climactic and too long, or the beginning was longer than the ending. So why then are people so drawn to his work? Because of the symbolism and the themes of his stories which study every kind of human emotion and explore all of our strength and weaknesses. It is for this very reason that his plays are also so adaptable into other forms: the Scottish play featuring voodoo curses and the like, Julius Caesar with Nazis, The Taming of the Shrew in the Old West. Despite obvious plot flaws, Shakespeare’s work has been adapted into so many other forms because of its strong human themes both tragic and comedic. Now that we have considered Shakespeare’s heavy reliance on theme, now let us consider another form of story telling that relies just as heavily on symbolism and mood: science fiction. Science fiction (as we’ve seen time and time again with summer blockbusters of gargantuan scale) is a genre that is accident prone, but when done right it is perhaps one of the most psychologically satisfying experiences one can submit themselves to. All good science fiction relies heavily on symbols and themes and almost always explores human nature and our relationship with the world around us (in the case of science fiction this “world” is usually our use of technology). Both of the above genres, Shakespeare literature and science fiction, are great on their own, but when forged into one the effect can be deeply moving and breathtaking.
After the dawning of the atomic age, Hollywood started pumping out “atomic” thrillers one right after the other. Most of them were small budget B movies that simply existed as popcorn entertainment. Movies like T.H.E.M. and The Thing and The Creature From the Black Lagoon were not of any substantial material other than to frighten its audience. By the time Forbidden Planet rolled around, really only two science fiction movies of value (my opinion of course) had come to realization, these being Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In short, sci-fi was not a well-respected genre in Hollywood or anywhere else. But that was all about to change. The heads of the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer studio (the biggest and most successful studio in Hollywood at the time) decided to try to create the ultimate sci-fi picture that would win box office numbers, critical acclaim, and become a landmark in the history of science fiction filmmaking. The result of their idea was the 1956 sci-fi masterpiece, Forbidden Planet. The studio knew that they needed a truly great story to make this work, and therefore turned to William Shakespeare and his play The Tempest. Indeed the similarities between Forbidden Planet and The Tempest are obvious, and we’ll get into this soon.
In the early twenty-third century, Captain J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew of military space explorers are deployed on a mission to the distant planet Altaira IV to rescue the members of a previous group of scientists who landed there some twenty years before. Upon arrival they discover the planet almost completely abandoned except for the mysterious Dr. Morbius (played wonderfully by Walter Pigeon) who seems to be the only survivor of the former scientific expedition. Dr. Morbius tells them that all of his shipmates were mysteriously murdered by some unseen force that still haunts him, and that he’s devoted the past nineteen years to discovering the secrets of the planet. At first Adams takes this all at face value and only interests himself in Dr. Morbius’s personal servant Robby the Robot and especially his young daughter Alta (Anne Francis). But soon Adams find himself caught in a trap of bizarre discoveries that force him to delve deeper into the secrets of the planet and Dr. Morbius himself.
Almost from the beginning of the film, parallels between The Tempest and Forbidden Planet are obvious. The set-up is essentially the same: in The Tempest an exiled magician called Prospero and his daughter Miranda live on a small secluded island along with each other and their servants until a group of explorers stumbles upon their island. In The Tempest, Prospero uses magic to subdue the vicious natural world in which he lives, and in Forbidden Planet technology is seen as a sort of magic, and it is technology with which Dr. Morbius harnesses his environment. What the writers of Forbidden Planet did was to take Shakespeare’s themes and symbols and create a story around them. Both tales are parables about the dangers of unlimited power and the dark side of magical (or technological) advancements. The main difference between the two (besides one set in medieval Europe and the other on an alien planet) is their respective endings. The Tempest is a comedy which triumphs the magician and his uses of it in order to control the world, and it ends happily. Forbidden Planet sees the magician (Dr. Morbius) as a tragic character who though appearing to be under control, ultimately destroys himself in the process of devising new “tricks”. It is a parable, a fable if you will, about the malignant consequences of unlimited power, which Morbius certainly has developed. Essentially, the sad tale of Dr. Morbius is a “Let God be God” story.
What the filmmakers achieved with Forbidden Planet was not only a deeply moving and thought provoking social commentary concerning the dangers of technology, but was also a cinematic and visual masterpiece packed with stunning, awe-inspiring trick shots and stunning vistas made from matte paintings. The visuals projected up on that screen are simply breathtaking. The technology used to create these effects wasn’t anything new per se, but it had never been applied with such skill. There’s a particularly interesting scene in which Dr. Morbius gives Captain Adams a tour of the underground technological network of Altaira IV that was built thousand of years ago by an ancient yet superior race known as the Krell. At one point Dr. Morbius stops on a long bridge spanning an enormous shaft filled with oscillators and enormous elevators and the most wondrous and magnificent technology imaginable. Leslie Nielsen looks up and the expanse of the shaft above him is immense, then he looks down and the shaft continues into another eternity below him. It’s a fabulous shot, one that has rarely been replicated. All of the technology in Forbidden Planet is stunning, not only because it represents something we’ve never seen or imagined, but also because it seems so real. It looks as if it just might actually work. There are no inexplicable scientific revelations needed to justify the machines in Forbidden Planet because everything we see looks as if it could work providing we had the same technology. This is especially true in the case of the scene stealing robot, Robby, who was built especially for the film and has become a motion picture icon. Not only is Robby great fun to look at, but his mechanism entertains our brains by forcing us to try to work out a hypothesis of how this robot works.
As this epic space opera thunders along, it becomes more and more eerie, evoking a strange sense of dread among the audience. It is not hard to understand why the movie became such an iconic film. The landscape of Altaira IV looks familiar yet alien, the technology beyond our imagination yet seated in reality. What the filmmakers created was a totally new and immersive experience that was both thought provoking and exciting. While Leslie Nielsen investigates Dr. Morbius, it becomes evident that the mysterious force that murdered the previous crew has returned. This force takes the shape of an invisible monster that while not necessarily scary, feels like some sinister corner of a forgotten nightmare. And all of these elements, the suspense, the action, the visuals, the deep story, build up to one dramatic and rather Biblical climax where all is revealed. I was stunned by the ending the first time I saw the film, and intrigued the second time. At the climax of the movie is a rather interesting Freudian concept that I shall not reveal for the sake of being mysterious. We thought when we went to see this picture that it was to be about technology and innovations and science, but by the end of Forbidden Planet we realize that this movie, and all other sci-fi masterpieces like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Empire Strikes Back and so on are all really about the science fact or fiction of the mind and our own human frailties. Of course these frailties often are the binding force that lets us humans unite and conquer the enemy.
In some ways I think Forbidden Planet is somewhat of the ultimate science fiction film. That’s not to say that I think it’s the best or even my favorite. But it’s the best sci-fi film that is purely science fiction. All the other greats of sci-fi (and especially the ones mentioned above) have elements of other genres: fantasy, mystery, action / adventure. Forbidden Planet is a science fiction epic of magnificent proportions. It’s such an addictive movie in that it makes you want to see it over and over again, mostly because it combines more somber elements of human psychological study and amazing visual spectacles. Masquerading as a piece of sci-fi entertainment is a deep and thought provoking character analysis of mankind. For those who grasp its message it is perhaps a fable about pride and knowledge and the dangers thereof. This is a basic Shakespearian theme and one that shapes the whole plot of Forbidden Planet. Often when Hollywood tries to picturize Shakespeare, it’s just a cabal of bizarre lines and anachronistic settings. What Forbidden Planet did was to take the very intriguing and deep themes and allegory in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and created a film about that. They didn’t simply adapt the play into a science fiction setting. They tossed out the dialogue and the names of the characters, and yet Shakespeare’s immortality is felt all throughout the film. Now not everyone likes Forbidden Planet, I understand that. But show me one person who wasn’t effected in some way by it, or whose psyche is not provoked by the powerful message of the movie and I’ll eat my hat. Forbidden Planet is a film that will not leave your mind and haunts you like the strange force of Altaira IV, and for that it is a Film Fundamental.
Cast: Wlater Pigeon, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Robby the Robot. Directed by Frank M. Wilcox.
Released in 1956. Not MPAA Rating.