Go ahead and think of a science fiction stereotype. Take a minute. I’ll wait. Any one you’d care to name comes up in Forbidden Planet. Flying saucers? Check. Robot servant bound by Asimov’s Three Laws? Check. Blasters that are entirely worthless? Check. Relics of a massively advanced alien races whose technology dwarfs our own? Check. We could go on.
For audiences of Forbidden Planet though, all this was fairly new. It was the first movie to be set entirely on another planet and to feature a human crew traveling in a spaceship of their own construction. It is also one of the first films to feature an electronic musical score (referred to as electronic tonalities since the composers were not members of the Musician’s Union and were as such not allowed to make music for the film) and a robot that serves as a character with personality quirks (1).
Though it may look cliché-ridden, Forbidden Planet plays with nationalistic expansionism and the danger of man and science beyond of the watchful gaze of government regulation. In 1956, the world began gearing up for exploration and the inevitable follow up of exploration: colonization. The Space Race was just beginning: both the USSR and the US were only just beginning to modify rockets that would eventually take unmanned satellites into orbit (2). Collier‘s Weekly began publishing articles written by members of the American Space Program about the feasibility of travel and settlement of the Moon, Mars, and further into space (3).
However, none of the Collier’s Weekly articles question the right to space colonization. It seems assumed that space will be conquered, and rightly so. Hopefully, the articles suggest, by the wise and capable leadership of the United States. It is no coincidence that none of the space crew in Forbidden Planet sport foreign accents. In an article entitled “Who Owns the Universe,” Oscar Schacter, then Deputy Director of the Legal Department of the United Nations, writes that “the serious question, like so many others today, concerns national governments and their respective rights and powers.” He asks in regards to space colonies, “what rules will govern them?” The role of government is important, but its appearance. The question in Forbidden Planet is of rights-the rights of the government to possess and inspect colonies on other planets, at their leisure, and with no regard to the passage of time. Government regulation and presence play a large part in the film, helping to create the friction between the government figurehead Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and scholarly reclusive Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon).
Adams’ mission to Altair IV is to inspect a research party twenty years after it has left Earth and to report on its condition. Adams’ first contact with the planet is a rebuke; whoever is on the planet makes vague threats about the safety of the ship’s crew. However, Adams represents the government and lands anyway. There is no hesitation: the hierarchy is too established for any other course of action.
Upon arrival, Adams and some other senior officers are chauffeured via Robby the robot to the home of goateed space-linguist, Dr. Morbius. Over lunch, Morbius explains what has become of the research base; namely, the colonists had decided to leave the planet and were violently killed by an unknown planetary agent and their ship was destroyed. Despite the (according to him) immanent danger, Morbius himself seems to live a care-free existence on the planet. Adams decides to stay until he can make contact with Earth for future instructions. Morbius reluctantly accepts this decision, volunteering the services of Robby in an effort to speed up the crew’s departure.
There are, of course, complications. A vital piece of the communication machinery is sabotaged and the presence of Morbius’ daughter (Anne Francis) distracts the men, causing tension between Adams and Morbius. Their relationship is not improved when Adams discovers the scope of Morbius’ research into Krell technology and when members of the space crew start to be murdered by the planetary force.
However misfortune manifests itself in the movie, the villain of the movie remains clear. The events are instigated by pursuit of knowledge without the beneficial watchdog of government. The senior officers from the government are able to discover the root of the monster in a matter of days, something that the secluded intellectual had not been able to fathom in his twenty years spent facing the problem. Not only that, but it is only with the help of government intervention that the villain is subdued.
Is the government really the salvation of Morbius and Altair IV, or the instigation of their demise? Viewers are left to come to their own conclusions. Greg Grewell writes in “Colonizing the Universe” that “Postmodern science fiction films tend less to imagine the future than to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present“ (4). Rather than pass judgment, Forbidden Planet offers up an example, and leaves the decision to the audience.
Though Forbidden Planet would win an Academy Award for its impressive special effects work, the movie barely managed to break even on its $1.9 million budget (1). Despite its poor box office take, Forbidden Planet made a major impression on the science fiction that followed. The flying saucer prop and Robby the robot would resurface on The Twilight Zone, Lost In Space, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry would reference the film in his series several times.(1)
Forbidden Planet has its place among the best science fiction movies. This place is due to its influence rather than its initial reception, though. It serves as a blueprint for what to expect in science fiction: what works and what doesn’t. Forbidden Planet isn’t as kitschy as it looks in hindsight. It was an experiment in acceptability. And a damn enjoyable one at that.
Who Owns the Universe? By Oscar Schacter (3)
Colonizing the Uniververse: Science Fictions Then, Now, and in the (Imagined) Future by Greg Grewell