And we’re back. My break from Shakespeare (or Breakspeare, if you will) turned out to be quite short indeed. I’m bouncing back today with something that’s hardly Shakespearean, though.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Plot: Brilliant Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) lives on an isolated, nearly lifeless planet with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) and his handy-dandy robot Robby. His life of solitude and private research into the achievements of a dead race of aliens are interrupted when a relief expedition arrives from earth, led by the dashing and principled Captain Adams (a young and dour Leslie Nielson). It’s not long, however, before Morbius’ warnings to the crew manifest in the form of a terrible, invisible killer monster. An investigation into the nature of Morbius’ research and impossible scientific accomplishments may yield disturbing truths about, you guessed it, the nature of humanity itself.
Much of that will probably sound like nothing Shakespeare ever wrote, but some of it sounds just a little bit like The Tempest. Reclusive genius living on an isolated landmass with his daughter, a helper capable of anything, and a monster. You know, there’s a wee bit of The Tempest in there. Of course, there’s a fine line between similarity and adaptation. Well, not that fine a line; it’s actually a wide and oppressive no man’s land, but people are happy to cross it all the time, completely unaware of the differences between the two sides. That’s why some poor misguided souls consider The Lion King an adaptation of Hamlet: because they don’t understand The Lion King, Hamlet, or the word “adaptation.” Now that I’ve vented a bit about that, let’s consider Forbidden Planet. This sci-fi adventure is not an adaptation of The Tempest, but it does draw heavily upon that source material. As a film, much of Forbidden Planet meanders and devotes far too much time to exposition and concept-exploring, but it is greatly improved upon comparison to The Tempest.
Though it appropriates some character and plot elements from Shakespeare’s play, Forbidden Planet is primarily preoccupied with criticism of The Tempest. If anything, the film is an adaptation of the contemporary thoughts and theories surrounding the Bard’s final romance, and especially the psychoanalytic approaches being applied to Prospero at the time. Sixty-year-old spoiler alert: the monster that tyrannizes the crew is a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Caliban, but in the film is revealed to be a manifestation of Morbius’ own disgust of human greed, and fear of losing his daughter. Whereas in The Tempest Prospero’s manipulation and cunning produce a happy resolution for all the protagonists, Morbius faces his revelation with shame and self-deprecation, eventually bringing about his own ruin, mainly because the writers treat his character as a somewhat quintessential 1950s Movie Scientist.
That brings me to the next intriguing thing that Forbidden Planet manages: the conversation between science and magic. Prospero is a wizard; Morbius is a scientist; despite these distinctions, however, their feats are comparably fantastical. For all the clinical explanation and doctorial language Morbius employs, his “science” is still impossible to comprehend, even to the other characters in the film. Prospero commands spirits, summons storms, and even influences people psychically, but no one questions how because he is a wizard, and his workings are beyond the realm of understanding. Morbius is a scientist, so everything he does should be at least somewhat explanatory. This proposes some interesting connections between science and magic. At a time when nuclear annihilation was a prevalent fear amongst the American populace, Forbidden Planet meditates on the dangers of human progress, and the innate impulse towards destruction that no amount of goodwill and self-restraint can fully conquer. The film operates as a consideration of contemporary dangers presented through the lens of futuristic sci-fi, drawing upon a centuries-old literary tradition. So that’s kind of neat.
When you read very deeply into it, Forbidden Planet is a monumental analysis of the way in which the meaning and feel of Shakespeare’s plays change and develop to apply to whatever trends and concerns are most ubiquitous to a certain society at a certain time. If you don’t read very deeply into it, it’s a fairly amusing, sometimes boring, conceptually intriguing, technologically impressive film. This one’s up to the viewer, frankly. Some movies do all the work for you, but I felt like I really had to think about Forbidden Planet in order to appreciate it fully. That’s all well and good, but nothing about the film itself specifically encouraged me to think about it so hard. I did because I had to write at least eight hundred words about it, and I still have twenty-nine left. Take that to mean whatever you want it to. That robot’s pretty weird-lookin’, huh? Shakespeare. Tempest. Wizard. What? Caliban. Forbidden Planet. And now I’m ending on eight hundred exactly.