#299. Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet, for its nostalgic sheen of chunky, glossy, ray-gun science fiction, as well as its distinctive mid-century Disney animation and candylike color-orgy set design, is a lot of fun but also kinda pointedly sinister by merit of how its fierce sexism comes wrapped in such prettiness.

            Cuz there’s some pretty wild sexual abuse and misogyny in this movie—which I shouldn’t be wincing to acknowledge, but I’m acknowledging it right at the beginning because, looking back, it stands out to me more than major details of the narrative, and I feel like I haven’t got my art-criticism cap screwed on tightly enough fi I’m taking a moral stance before an aesthetic one. Also, I don’t want to sound like a torch-carrier for the Twitter-born Cancel Culture—which I think everyone, including some of its occasional practitioners, despises at this point.

The essence of Cancel Culture is that an Inquisition of self-appointed moral authorities, upon discerning any element, in any work of art from any generation, that doesn’t adhere to the most progressive 21st century American sensibilities about social issues, deems that the work should be Cancelled (the book burned, the author blacklisted), and never discussed again.

            And I’m afraid of sounding like that because (1) I’ve never in my life encountered a piece of art and thought, “Other people shouldn’t be allowed to look at this,” and (2) I’ve been bothered, since the first bits of research I was doing in this Project, by the virtue signaling that runs rampant through so much modern criticism of cinema history, like when somebody devotes half of their 1,000-word thinkpiece about The Birth of a Nation, from 1915, to telling us that the Klu Klux Klan, which is celebrated as a heroic entity in the movie, is in fact quite bad–a fact that was being shouted at the film when it was released over 100 years ago, presented now as thought it’s the freshest thought–which then raises the question: If you think your reader is smart enough to read and appreciate your analysis of a hundred-year-old movie, but they aren’t savvy enough to know anything about the history of the Klan or that its practices are cruel and its philosophy batshit, then what…for whom are you writing? It’s like writing a biography of Stalin and then digressing into a puppet show to illustrate why it’s bad to hurt people.

The whole practice of giving moral instruction alongside of niche movie analysis feels condescending and I feel like that’s what I’m doing when I step aside from studying a movie to wagging my finger at it.

            So I kinda felt like I was short-changing the movie to’ve let myself get so caught up on the way that the crew aboard this spaceship, which has left Earth for a kind of reconnesance mission to a place called Altair IV, discover a beautiful young woman (Anne Francis) on this strange planet, a woman who seems virginal to the point of aloof, innocent, girlish asexuality, they force themselves on her and seem to take turns with her in accordance to rank. When the captain finds one of his crewmen molesting her out in the forest, he reprimands that young crewman, shoos him away, and proceeds to molest her himself.

            That this arrogant lecher of a captain is played by a disarmingly youthful and dark-haired Leslie Nielsen, whose later-career work in family-friendly comedy surely ingratiated him into tons of households, makes it even more off-putting.

            Backtracking: the reason these guys are visiting Altair IV is because an expedition to this place went dark 20 years earlier, and what they find is that one brilliant Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon—who flexed some earlier charm as the husband in Mrs. Miniver), along with his virginal daughter (the subject of aforementioned sexual assault) and a charmingly cumbersome android assistant, is living in stylish ‘50s-modern domestic solitude and performing experiments.

            The action-sparking issue here is that there’s some big invisible monster terrorizing the area surrounding his enclosure. When we see the monster, a large animated effect whose outline is brought to life when it lumbers into a force field, the cartooninesss looks innocent in a way that seems so at odds with some of the movie’s more sinister elements.

            Then, playing like something out of the late 1940s, when America was fascinated with psychotherapy and Freud in particular (see The Snake Pit and The Secret Beyond the Door), the monster turns out to be some projection of Morbius’s thoughts—I didn’t toally get it, and I don’t suppose the explanation is perfectly airtight, but I dig that the movie ladles a bit of metaphor into its monster.

            Much like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet is an earnest genre film that makes a statement with its thrills; the anti-nuclear statement of Day the Earth Stood Still is more forthright and political, but the idea here that a great monster could be forged of a person’s suppressed thoughts or feelings is (1) just a neat metaphor for a postwar society that’s dealing with lots of demons, and (2) seems to have its thumb on the pulse of a distinct 1950s suburban malaise that people like Nicholas Ray and Betty Friedan tackled in their own ways. David Lynch, too—years later.

            The deceptively tranquil surface, the quiet suffering beneath it.

            As somebody who’s no particular fan of sci-fi, I’ll say that Forbidden Planet, as a piece of pop-entertainment, is really fun and pretty and an enjoyable glimpse into a different generation.

            That being said, it also sports some really sinister sensibilities.

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