Science fiction reflects our hopes and fears for the future and, at its best, it offers an elixir of inspiration. On viewing the 1956 film Forbidden Planet on its 60th anniversary, you can see in its intelligent story, special effects, design, sounds, and message why this classic that has stood the test of time.
Science fiction films in the 1950s often offered giant bugs, mutant monsters, and cheesy effects. Some featured visits to Earth by space aliens that were malicious (War of the Worlds), indifferent (It Came from Outer Space), or serious in their warnings that the Earth must abandon its warlike ways or be destroyed (The Day the Earth Stood Still).
Unlike those films or the many dystopian sagas that followed, Forbidden Planet is set in a peaceful 23nd century, during which “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.”
The story is roughly modeled on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which centers on a ship that is wrecked on an isolated island inhabited by the wizard Prospero and his beautiful daughter Miranda. Forbidden Planet opens on a spaceship, United Planets Cruiser C-57D commanded by Captain J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen). It has been on a year-long voyage to discover the fate of settlers who had traveled two decades before to the isolated planet Altair 4. They have not been heard from since.
The ship lands. Adams and his officers meet Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon as a sci-fi Prospero) in his house that seems designed by an interstellar Frank Lloyd Wright. (I wanted that house!) Morbius explains that all the other settlers save his wife were killed within a year of their arrival by some invisible planetary force (Caliban?) that tore them limb from limb. Mrs. Morbius died of natural causes but not before giving birth to Altaira (Anne Francis as a mini-shirted Miranda), now a beautiful young woman.
Adams must jerry-rig a system to communicate with far-off Earth for orders concerning this unexpected situation. But soon he finds equipment sabotaged. Has the planetary force returned?
Morbius then reveals the mystery he has tried to solve for 20 years. The planet was inhabited by the Krell, a race that was a million years ahead of humans. But on the eve of some crowning technological achievement, one the Krell hoped would free them “from any dependence on physical instrumentality,” this all-but-divine race vanished in a single night, 2,000 centuries before Morbius arrived.
At this point the set design and plot combine to make the film truly a futurist’s feast. Morbius shows Adams and the ship’s doctor a surviving Krell lab. (I wanted one of those too!) He demonstrates a “plastic educator,” a teaching device by which Krell children could create objects with their minds.
Morbius then tells Adams and the doctor, “Prepare your minds for a new scale of physical scientific values” and shows them a Krell machine that powers the lab and had powered the planet. It is 20 miles on a side with 7,800 levels with an 8,000 cubic mile interior. Units sunk 50 miles into the planet generate the power of 9,200 thermal nuclear reactors in tandem. A vision of this scale, especially in a ‘50s film, is indeed mindboggling.
As Adams and Morbius argue about returning to Earth, a crew member is killed by a mysterious planetary force.
Events build to a climax with the smart and resourceful Adams discovering the tragic source of the attacks on his crew and of the Krell’s destruction. The plot twist is ingenious and decades later a stable of imitators has copied it.
Science fiction since Frankenstein has warned of the dangers of technology and human hubris. Forbidden Planet offers a warning but, we might say with Shakespeare that “the fault lies not in our stars [or our tech!] but in ourselves.”
The Krell tragedy was not rooted in that race’s intentional malice nor was Morbius a malicious individual. But we sentient beings must remember that there are many elements to our nature. Forbidden Planet does not repudiate the technology that was so much an inspiring part of the film. Indeed, Adams tells Altaira that “In about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy.”
Forbidden Planet famously inspired Gene Roddenberry when he created Star Trek with a starship commanded by a smart and resourceful captain. And Forbidden Planet’s vision of a race of self-made superbeings commanding almost limitless power not doubt inspires many transhumanists today. But however you judge Forbidden Planet’s impact on the culture, if you enjoy science fiction, enjoy this classic on Bluray, pay-per-view streaming, or in a repertory theater again soon!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.