Retro Nostalgia: Forbidden Planet (1956) and Romancing the Science

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I have never seen Forbidden Planet.  It’s one of those films that SF enthusiasts say you have to see, but I have never made the time to do so.  Until now…

As a first time viewer of a now-50+-year-old movie, I find it necessary to offer a number of concessions:  1) I cannot expect the visuals to meet contemporary standards of “realism” (limited budgets + limited technology); 2) I cannot expect characters to develop in ways that are anything but consistent with a 1950s cultural milieu; and 3) I must accept pseudoscience.  That’s more or less how I came into the film.  After all, if you watch Forbidden Planet, you’ll become aware of the limitations of the cinematic medium during the 50s, the rampant, almost “rapey” sexism that was all too common during the “glory days,” and the laughable nonsense that passed for “science” then (and still passes for “science” today).

And yet, for such a campy film, Forbidden Planet does something that only the best SF films do:  eloquently visualizes and explores the science of a future world, even if, upon further inspection, much of that science is impossible, unexplained, or downright false (it was the 50s, after all).  The
opening scenes, for example, imagine a future in which FTL is possible, but not in the fanciful and convenient way of Star Wars, which wouldn’t appear for another 20 years.  Rather, the crew reminds us of two important things:  traveling to other stars takes an extraordinary amount of time and deceleration is not a “cakewalk.”  Navigators must set the deceleration process on a “timer” and climb into the anti-gravity pods to wait the process out.  Nothing is every quite explained.  How do the pods work?  Why do they turn strange colors and “disappear”?  We just don’t know.

The film is littered with these moments, from explanations about the alien technology to incredible closeups of the navigation systems of the reconnaissance ship, etc.  Moments like these serve to rationalize the irrational things to come — in the case of Forbidden Planet, we are meant to accept that one’s “id” is capable of manifesting as an unstoppable, invisible monster (provided one’s mind has been manipulated by alien technologies).  They are also what one might call “scientific excess,” the necessity of which is readily apparent:  what I’ve already suggested (so we can rationalize the irrational) and to establish the science fiction frame (this is not our world; it is a future world).

This is not unusual in science fiction film.  I cannot speak for the wide range of SF film leading up to the release of Forbidden Planet in 1956, since that period is hardly my forte.  However, many classic SF films have gone to almost masturbatory levels to establish scene/setting through scientific excess.  2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968) provided us with two extraordinary sequences inside massive, moving sets, the object of which was to mimic for the audience how artificial gravity (and stasis pods, for that matter) might work on a visual level.  The scenes are beautiful, if not a tad dated, and perform exactly the same function as the opening minutes of Forbidden Planet (we’re meant to accept the unexplained monoliths and the Starchild).  Alien (1979) and parts of Aliens (1986) are similarly focused on the technological mechanics of the future.  The former contains no dialogue until nearly 6 minutes into the film, instead focusing on a) the computational abilities of the Nostromo (which haven’t aged well), and b) the long process of waking from stasis.  Aliens reverses this imagery by showing the decrepit condition of the Nostromo‘s escape shuttle, which salvage crews must cut into before they can extricate the sole survivor of the previous film — a person nobody was expecting to find anyway.  Rather than focusing on how technology has “advanced,” the sequence focuses on how the very technology that made the previous film possible has remained static in time, providing the necessary jolt of reality that Ripley will need to reach the next stage as a hero.  The result?  We’re drawn into the world so we can more easily take that leap of faith when the seemingly impossible alien(s) show up.

Contemporary SF films no longer do this.  There are exceptions, of course, but almost all SF films these days focus on setting, vague definitions of character, or imagery.  While technology exists in these films, it is often backdrop, not scene-starter.  The characters interact with the new world, but they are disconnected from it — disengaged, if you will.  Even the latest Star Trek film tossed aside the pseudoscientific jargon that made the franchise the subject of many linguistic jokes; Abrams opted for a flashier, more “agile” narrative in what I can only assume was an attempt to breathe (or bleed) new life into the franchise.

I’m not sure why this trend apparently died off.  Budgetary reasons?  Were audiences disinterested in the extraordinary details many SF writers/directors put into their work because of pacing concerns?  Your guess is probably as good as mine (unless you’re an SF film scholar and have answers).  One thing is for certain:  it’s a fascinating and illuminating SF trend.  Perhaps we’ll get something like it again one day…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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