FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological, metaphysical, psychological*
In the few years I’ve been reviewing films on this blog, I’ve praised various films for assorted qualities. The only quality for which I provide a rating, though, is that of “mythicity,” which refers to the complexity of a story’s symbolic discourse. At present the highest rating I’ve given is that of “good.” However, there are a tiny number of films that I rate as “superior” in their mythicity, and one of them is 1956’s FORBIDDEN PLANET.
It’s difficult to say why PLANET mined the material of myth so richly. The two men who supplied the screen who supplied the original story, the screenwriter of record, and the director all have various other works on their resumes, many of which are of a metaphenomenal nature. But none of them show the high level of mythicity I find in this classic SF work. It may be that the mythic materials invoked in PLANET-- William Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, the Judeo-Christian story of Eden—moved the collaborators to a higher level of inspiration than, one sees in say, Fred Wilcox’s adaptation of THE SECRET GARDEN or Cyril Hume’s Tarzan movies. Then again, there have many films that reinterpreted Bible stories and Shakespeare, and many of them are at best ordinary, as with Paul Mazursky’s naturalistic take on the same Shakespeare play in 1982’s TEMPEST. Another factor may have been that the filmmakers had some sense of doing something special with both the SF-genre and with the genre of the Freudian psychodrama, both of which had been around for several years but had never been explicitly combined.
For this review I’ve avoided re-reading the Bard’s play. All of the analogues to Prospero, Ariel, Miranda and Caliban are valuable, but PLANET effectively remakes their archetypal shapes through the film’s own 1950s cultural lens. I’ll also pass lightly over the aspect of explicit Freudianism, because I believe PLANET transcends that doctrine as well. The trope of forbidden father-daughter relations—also of strong significance in TEMPEST—remains somewhat covert, probably because the filmmakers crafted a film with mainstream appeal: robots and ray-guns for the kids, and deeper symbolic meaning for any educated adult looking for it. There’s no question that there are fascinating psychological, cosmological and sociological aspects to PLANET, but its strongest function is that of the metaphysical.
If anything, I would say that the Biblical Eden myth dwells at the core of PLANET, though the script also interpolates familiar Greek myths, aligning the Judeo-Christian concept of sinful excess with the Hellenic idea of hubris. The most obvious Eden-reference to appear in PLANET’s opening scenes appears in the name of protagonist John J. Adams, commander of the military starship C-57-P. However, there may a discourse of deeper consequence in the opening narration, where the audience is told that once humans obtained the secret of hyperdrive, “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” Clearly Earth itself is not represented as any kind of Eden—indeed, the character of Morbius regards his birth-planet with disdain and loathing. Yet the dissemination of humanity into space strongly resembles the manner in which the Biblical descendants of Adam and Eve become fruitful and multiply in order to take possession of a post-Edenic world, relying no longer on God’s gifts but prospering only by the sweat of their brows. It’s even interesting that the prologue speaks not of the more often-used “outer space,” but of “deep space.” This proves appropriate, for the project of PLANET is less about “going out,” but rather “going deep,” as in “deep into the chasms of the unconscious mind.”
The first thing we know about the crew of the C-57-P is that they’re all male, and all horny, because they’ve been in space for over a year. In the opening only the comic relief character “Cookie” openly speaks of frustrated sexual desires, though. Even though the prologue mentions “men and women” conquering space, this is a military vessel, and it exists to keep order, a thing apparently possible only with a gender-exclusive crew of “space-sailors.” Biblically speaking, this detachment is closer to a tribe of warriors looking for wives, though when the sailors encounter a “second Eden,” only Commander Adam will win an “Eve” to take with him
. The C-57-P seeks to discover the fate of a small expedition of scientists who attempted to colonize the uninhabited planet of Altair-4; scientists who have not made contact with Earth’s command center for 19 years—i.e., just enough time for Altair-4’s true daughter to grow to a “legal” age. None of these military men comment on the mythological name given the scientists’ ship, “the Bellerophon,” but this comprises the first of two important Greek references. Bellerophon is best known as the hero who tames the winged horse Pegasus, but his stellar career ends in a big fall when he tries to use his flying mount to conquer Olympus, only to be hurled to Earth by the angry gods.
Adams’ subordinate Lt. Farman is surprised that he can’t see from orbit any signs of civilization on the planet: he seems to expect that even a small contingent of humans will be able to transform the barren world in under 30 years. Ultimately the crewmen receive a radio transmission from one of the Bellerophon’s survivors, philologist Edward Morbius. Given that this doctor has a name reminiscent of a Latin word for death, one may not be surprised to learn that Altair-4 isn’t only a “outer space Eden.” It’s also a land of the dead, for though it’s not haunted by ghosts as such, the world is still dominated by the legacy of a dead race.
When the ship lands, the crew meets the emissary of Morbius: the winsomely named Robby the Robot. Curiously, the frustrated Cookie can’t tell if the robot is male or female. Moments later, as Robby plays chaffeur to Adams, Farman and ship’s doctor Ostrow, Farman remarks that the robot’s solicitiude makes it seem “just like a mother.”
There’s no other mother at Morbius’ place of residence: just the philologist and his budding young daughter Altaira, named after the “forbidden planet” itself. According to Morbius, Altaira’s mother—a female member of the lost expedition—perished of natural causes long ago, and was, along with Morbius, the only member of the party who truly loved this alien world. As for the other expedition-members, they all perished in what sounds like a Dionysian revel, having been “torn limb from limb” by a unseen “planetary force.” Morbius claims no knowledge of the force’s nature; only that it has never since menaced himself or his daughter. As noted earlier, Morbius is happy to live alone with his daughter, needing no further contact with Earth, and he bristles at any suggestion that the Earth-soldiers might “relieve” him of his solitude. In the terms of colonial-era fiction that preceded this period, one might say that Morbius is a colonial who has “gone native.”
Altaira shows no misanthropy or lust for alien ways: she’s immediately curious about the space-travelers, and finds them all “beautiful.” Much to the displeasure of Commander Adams, Lt. Farman begins putting the moves on the innocent girl. This Eve also maintains her own paradise-garden in the rear of the residence, and the audience sees three animals therein—two deer and a tiger—with the implication that there are more roaming free. Altaira is friendly with all the beasts, though Morbius notes that the tiger is still a deadly beast, and only becomes tame in the presence of the “beauty.” Later, Morbius will explain that the creatures’ ancestors were brought to Altair-4 by the long vanished aliens, who visited Earth centuries ago. However, the crewmen never show much surprise at seeing Earth-animals on an alien world.
Despite her roving eye, Altaira will soon prove that she is a “good girl” as well as a woman fit for future motherhood. Farman later gets her alone and demonstrates on her the Earth custom of osculation. He fails to spark her engines in any way, though to be sure, he may have sabotaged himself by trying to warn her away from Adams. Farman tells Altaira that Adams is a horrible ladykiller, but it’s possible, given that Altaira has her own “id,” that this intrigues her instead of repelling her.
Adams, however, never displays any ladykiller tendencies, certainly not with Altaira. Speaking in his official capacity, he barks at her for her scanty dresses and complains about what could happen as a result of his crew’s isolation from women for a year. Actually, most of the crew is remarkably well behaved, outside of a few wolf-whistles; they’ve done a good job of sublimating their basic instincts in the name of a higher cause. It’s Adams who may not be sure about his own control, and his possessiveness toward her mirrors the possessiveness that will later appear in Morbius’ attitude. Altaira’s initial reaction to the dressing-down is resentment. However, she intuits that his possessiveness connotes real love and commitment, and she accedes to his demands by dressing less provocatively, so as to please him. Farman somewhat resents being edged out, but later the two men make peace. Still, it’s interesting that Farman perishes in an attack by the “planetary force.” Perhaps he dies for having trifled with the mother-goddess, with the property claimed by his commander.
The mysterious “force” revives as soon as Morbius is apprised that Adams must assemble a space-radio in order to request further orders from his superiors. Morbius personally lends the sailors all the aid they could want, but the unknown force breaks in and sabotages the radio transmitter. Though as yet no one suspects that the force is obeying Morbius’ covert desires, Adams presses the scientist for more information. Finally Morbius breaks down—perhaps showing a desire to boast a little about his accomplishments—and takes Adams and Ostrow on a tour of the “deep” subterranean legacy of the long-dead Krell race.. Morbius relates that thousands of years the Krell desceneds to a near “divine” status. Possibly they became something like gods, as it’s said that they would no longer be dependent on “instrumentalites;” i.e., the tools appropriate to mere mortals. But, says Morbius, the Krell all perished in one single night, and their “sky-piercing” towers fell to dust, much as one sees in non-canonical versions of the Fall of the Tower of Babel.
Further, the only reason Morbius has been able to interpret this legacy is because he survived an encounter with a Krell mechanism called a “brain booster.” This is PLANET’s version of the Edenic “Tree of Knowledge,” but here it’s not Adam and Eve who eat of its fruit, but the Serpent, recast as the father of Eve. In a second fascinating use of Greek myth, Morbius also shows the spacemen the furnaces that power the subterranean Krell array, and advises them not to look directly into the furnace, for one “cannot look into the face of the gorgon and live.” But by surviving the brain-booser—even though the booster killed the Bellerophon captain when he attempted to use it—Morbius has indeed seen the face of Medusa, though he’s repressed the experience.
Having shown the soldiers the fruits of his labors, Morbius then states that he will not accept their authority. Again Adams tries to make contact with Earth for orders, and this time the invisible force kills the only man able to fix the radio. Adams still will not leave, and his bond with Altaira culminates in a passionate kiss between them. The formerly tame tiger attacks her, for she’s now become just another fallen human. Adams is forced to destroy the creature,
Finally, the monster makes a major attack upon the crew’s camp, killing Farman and two others. Adams and Ostrow seek out Morbius’ home again, and while Adams speaks with Altaira, Ostrow—who demonstrates some of Morbius’ own lust for knowledge—sneaks away and samples the brain-booster. The Gorgon’s gaze kills him, but not before revealing the secret: that Morbius has conjured forth the planetary force, which is a monster from his bestial Freudian Id. “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious,” says Adams, “So we have laws and religion!” At last Morbius is convinced that the Invisible Thing is his other self, and that it—and he—is capable of killing Altaira for daring to love another man. He renounces the creature, a clear parallel to Prospero in THE TEMPEST drowning his magic book, but Morbius, unlike Prospero, has bonded too strongly to the world of the alien, and he perishes by breaking contact. Alternately, another reading might say that the doctor dies because he can’t stand being separated from his daughter, his last contact with the human world.
Even in dying, Morbius gives Adams the power to destroy the legacy of the dead, and once the C-57-P takes off with Altaira aboard, the entire planetary system detonates, thus keeping any more fallible humans from trespassing upon the realm of the gods. In the final coda, Adams sooths Altaira by claiming that in death Morbius’ name will “shine,” albeit as a negative example, an example of what not to do. Adams anticipates that some day human beings may advance to the level of the Krell, and that then, they will need to know what befell the impious Serpent as a result of eating of the Fruit of Knowledge. The “beacon” of his example will “remind us that we are, after all, not God,” and so, no matter how exalted the human race becomes, it will continue to colonize by the sweat of its brow, and to sublimate its energies into group effort rather than attempting to become free of the restraints of mortality.