Contrary to the largely political bent of the 1950s boon of science-fiction films, Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 Forbidden Planet exists on largely psychological planes, played out in tense interpersonal relations that frequently hinge on Freudian overtones. Its deep-space travelers present an amusingly dated vision of American explorers, a spaceship populated by Cleaver clones who marvel at God’s creations as they search the cosmos and generally look like ambulatory propaganda for the righteous exploration of space by the ol’ US of A.
When the crew reaches a colony previously visited by another expedition 20 years earlier, however, they learn of a vague, sinister force that left most of the previous crew dead. More immediately unsettling, however, are the baser impulses that stir in the long-voyaging men when they spy Altaira (Ann Francis), the comely young daughter of the suspicious expedition survivor, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). The image of all-American wholesomeness cracks as the men devolve into wolf whistles, aggressive flirtation, and not-so-subtle references to their time in isolation in space that hang in the air as menacingly as the painted matte skies of the world.
A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet carries over the complex colonial and sexual relations of the play as characters are paired and paired again in gnarled relationships that play on everyone’s sense of disconnect from their natural home. The father’s possessive love of the daughter carries Elektra connotations, the daughter’s forced companionship with Robby the Robot has perhaps turned the machine into a beloved friend who can create diamonds and sapphires as gifts, and, of course, the men swirl around the woman like sharks.
The tangled psychological connections are borne out in the film’s innovative, still-impressive art design courtesy of Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan. Two-dimensional paintings and props emphasize the alien setting even as they start to seem like expressionistic projections of the characters’ tormented minds (a fitting visualization of this take on one of Shakespeare’s most self-reflexive works). Of particular note is the Great Machine of the race that once occupied the world, the Krell. Extreme perspective in the effects gives false backgrounds a sense of consuming vastness, of the space around the characters miles-long in every direction of the enclosed area.
But even this overwhelming display maintains the focus on the intimate scale, never straying into the more outwardly-oriented themes of Forbidden Planet’s contemporary generic peers. Nuclear power is invoked in this film only to quantify the power of the soul and the imagination. A battery of nearly 10,000 thermonuclear reactors is required to manifest thoughts into reality, and even then, it cannot account for the even more powerful id that informs the desires of the superego. When mortals turn themselves into gods, they also create doppelgänger devils, exploding tamped-down urges into terrifying monsters. As with all the Cold War commentary of the decade’s sci-fi, the enemy is within, but it is not alien minds one need fret over here but the darkest recesses of one’s heart.