While Forbidden Planet (1956) involves alien races, advanced robotics, and revolutionary technology, the movie more or less takes these elements for granted. The “vortex” in the movie is not one of space or of time, but of the mind.
The film is set in humanity’s future, and concerns the crew of a rescue mission contacting a colony planet which earth has lost contact with. All but two of the colonists have been destroyed through violent but unknown means, leaving behind only Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the monster that has destroyed the colonists is the same that destroyed the planet’s previous inhabitants: the invisible but very physical manifestation of the id.
While the superhuman Krell’s own subconscious destroyed them, it is now Morbius (who has undergone a mind-altering technological procedure which has given him enhanced capabilities) who now threatens the planet. Awakened by threats to his childish and innocent daughter, the manifestation of his jealousy begins to kill off the crew.
It is clear that the wonder and terror the film produces is not dependent on the interplanetary travel or the technology that is discovered, but on the strange and frightening nature of the human person. This is “an important film within the genre because of its deliberate and foregrounded references to psychoanalysis” (Cornea, 2007, p. 53) and this quality makes the story stronger than a mere adventure flick; it is intimately relatable across genres.
It was noted that “what is unusual about Forbidden Planet is the fact that the threatening alien force, the monster, is seen to emanate from the mind of the male scientist” (Cornea, 2007, p. 56). The scientist is the figure who, in horror as well as science fiction, is portrayed as an authority, as having the answers. While not always sympathetic, he mainly plays the part of the savior, or the destroyer, set above the rest of humanity in some way. Here, the scientist is put on the level of those around him in a devastating and game-changing twist; he shares the same weakness as those of lower intelligence, and has found it to be his downfall.
The Freudian “tri-partite structuring” (Cornea, 2007, p. 53) motif can be seen in imagery the film uses. The Edenic gardens that Altaira spends her time in, at one with nature and the creatures that fill it, is analogous to the superego: this is the world as it should be, where peace and innocence are the standards. The red effects used to show the outline of the invisible monster representing the id can be seen in the laser of the commander (Leslie Nielsen), who destroys one of the previously gentle animals who, in the former’s presence, attacks Altaira. Lastly, the mechanical lair filled with the Krell’s machines (and Robbie the Robot) represent the ego, as they are the devices created to control and negotiate in a world of conflict.
Cornea, C. (2007). Science Fiction Films in the 1950s. In Science fiction cinema between fantasy and reality (p. 53-57). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
This response was written for the Science Fiction Cinema college course I am currently taking. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.