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Forbidden Planet: Futurism at its Best

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

The Original Lost in Space Series by Irwin Allen got me interested in a Robot named Robby whom I saw in one of the episodes. I had seen that robot before, in a book that Reader's Digest sent me called "How Things Work."

It was beautiful - had tactile buttons on its torso, radial lights in its transparent head, and two legs for bipedal motion. So after I googled it and found the movie "Forbidden Planet" online and watched it - it did not disappoint.

It was about a planet that was Type I on the Kardeshev Scale where the species of the planet could harness all the power that the planet could offer. I immediately thought of the nuclear reactor in Total Recall (1990), but these generators were so much more efficient, advanced, and powerful.

The Plot of Forbidden Planet

The Forbidden Planet Spaceship

In the 23rd century, people from Earth travel in a faster-than-light ship to a planet called Altair IV to investigate a previous expedition ship that cut contact after some time. Against the warning of Dr. Morbius Commander (played to perfection by Walter Pidgeon with all the gravitas of a neutron star. ) the starship C-57D lands on Altaira IV.

Warren Stevens, Leslie Neilson and Walter Pidgeon

When the crew arrives to investigate what's left of the expedition they are met with a scientist who is apprehensive of their efforts and an invisible foe who is invincible on all accounts.

One has to wonder if Marvel drew inspiration from this movie to name Earth as planet C-53. There is Leslie Neilson playing a dramatic role as Commander Adams, Warren Stevens as Lt. Ostrow, and Anne Francis plays Altaira Morbius, the daughter of Dr. Morbius.

In a really short span of time, the crew of C-57 D faces the mortal danger that their advanced technology can't seem to make sense of. Things become clearer when Dr. Morbius explains the native race of Altair IV called the Krells and their path to limitless power.

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Why is Forbidden Planet a landmark movie?

There are a few reasons why this movie is such a hit with everyone in the sci-fi fanbase and is also considered a cinematic achievement. Among the several firsts that Forbidden Planet pioneered here are a few:

a. It was the first sci-fi movie to show humans using a spaceship that travels faster than light.

b. A more significant one for me was Robby the Robot which depicted an advanced bipedal robot (Not counting Metropolis (1927) of course). There are also unique personality traits that Robby exhibits which you don't see in most other movies during that time.

c. Coming to musical innovation, the entire musical score was created electronically by Louis and Bebe Barron. The score uses atonal clusters to give the audience an unsettling feeling and to depict an alien environment. The background score might remind you of the score in the Netflix series Stranger Things.

The Cast of Forbidden Planet

A large reason why this science fiction movie is significant is because of its cast, and not just because of its acting prowess. Leslie Neilson gives us one of his best dramatic performances just before he takes up the comedy and slapstick genre.

There is also Warren Stevens who gave a memorable performance in the Star Trek TOS episode "A Rose By Any Other Name" a few years after this movie.

Warren Stevens with William Shatner in Star Trek TOS

Special props to the star of the movie - Robby the Robot probably has the biggest number of cameos across TV and movie formats. You can see Robby in episodes of The Twilight Zone, Irwin Allen's Lost in Space, and The Time Tunnel. Robby's list of movie and series credits goes on much longer of course, but I have listed the cameos I myself have seen on screen.

Anne Francis does a fantastic job of playing the naive daughter of the intellectual giant Dr. Morbius. When confronted by Commander Adams about her revealing attire, post her kiss with Lt. Ostrow, I hear my favorite dialogue in the whole movie.

Altaira asks Robby to fabricate a dress for her and tries to describe the parameters of the dress, to which Robby asks if her dress needs to be radiation-proof in earnest. Altaira says " just eye-proof" will do!

Robby The Robot talking to Altaira Morbius

While it is amusing to observe a complex conversation between a human in a bind and an advanced robot, Robby understands the requirement and fabricates the appropriate attire. Such intelligence is still lacking in our crude LLMs (Large Language Models) even today, with IBM Watson, Open AI, and Google Bard.

Technological Relevance

For the time, Forbidden Planet was considered to be a great movie in terms of the technological marvels it referenced. One of them is unlimited energy drawn from the core of the planet, this was the expectation post the industrial age and the assembly line.

Futurists always predicted the abundance of energy would power technology beyond our imagination. Hence the flying cars, spaceships that defied the laws of physics, and skyways that would make travel truly three-dimensional.

Alef Flying Car Prototype

This did not happen. Flying cars while being available as prototypes, are nowhere close to being used, let alone commercially produced. Underground roadways such as Elon Musk's wet dream - The HyperLoop remains tied up in red tape and EVs still face the problem of charging infrastructure.

On the other hand, information is available to anyone who desires it. The simple use of the internet and IoT ensures that people can collaborate, create, and share insights in real time with negligible costs.

The Krell's Fatal Oversight of Psychology

The Krell of Altair IV when building the machine of limitless power directed by their minds, didn't take into account these different parts of their personality. Maybe they never had a Freud or Jung in their timeline, maybe intellect blinded them to the fact that mental health was a factor in societal development.

When Dr. Morbius's expedition team arrives at the planet they discover it to be deserted and without any civilization to utilize the immense technological wealth that remained. That was the first hint that the technology left behind by the Krell was not all there.

What's amazing about this movie is how it addresses the immense complexity of the subconscious mind and the lack of a harness to tap it. Sigmund Freud, widely regarded as the father of psychoanalysis theorized a person's nature consists of three components - the Ego, the Id, and the Superego.

Sigmund Freud's Iceberg

While the Id is part of the subconscious that is all impulses and desires, the Superego is the self-critical aspect of the personality that helps you stay on course morally, aligned with societal expectations. The Ego is the mediator between the two, trying to strike a balance that satisfies both the conditions set by the superego and the needs of the Id.

In case you are wondering how the Krell could miss such a massive aspect of a humanoid life-form, there are real-life parallels to substantiate the same. Technological gaps or vacuums have existed throughout the history of human civilization.

1. The Pyramids of Giza: these monuments to ancient technology are hard to replicate today even with bleeding-edge technology today. The ancient Egyptians knew how to cut massive slabs of rock weighing several hundreds of kilometers from where they were to the construction sites.

Pyramids of Giza

But they still seemed to use crude forms of surgery and contraception. These gaps in technology can't be explained adequately.

2. Aztec and Mayan Civilizations: In the Amazon, civilizations built structures with enhanced strength and advanced acoustics that dwarfed the pyramids of Giza in sheer scale. They had reflective ponds to observe the stars and knew our place in the solar system

Aztec Pyramid

They even created a new type of fertile soil to help cultivate crops for agriculture. Once again their medical science did not match up with their civil engineering skills, and people obviously didn't have any anesthesia or advanced surgical tools.

Should You Watch It? Yes!

Forbidden Planet did a lot of things for the first time - it portrayed faster-than-light travel, it used electronically synthesized music, and tinkered with concepts of moral relativism. It has stoicism, suspense, technological horror, and a fulfilling plot with huge potential for a sequel.

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