Monsters from the Id: On ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956)

The 1956 science fiction epic The Forbidden Planet broke all sorts of new ground, both with its bravura special effects and in its attempt to work some Shakespearean motifs into the matrix of a genre that had, till then, leaned hard on Cold War anxiety and monster-fetish jump scares for its boldest impacts. It anticipated Star Trek by one decade and the original Star Wars by another, and it remains both a landmark in the history of sci-fi cinema and a touchstone for the quality of its subsequent achievements.

Editor’s note: Stream the film via Internet Archive, or for a high definition copy, this link can help

Characters and Plot

The plot of The Forbidden Planet centres on the discovery of an extinct alien civilisation on the planet Altair 4. A research party dispatched there some years previously to conduct a general survey has never reported back, and the film opens as a United Planets vessel emerges from hyperspace on a follow-up mission to discover the Bellerophon’s fate. While still in orbit, they are contacted by a member of the missing crew, Dr Edward Morbius, who assures them he has no need of rescue and bluntly advises them to leave at once. When the commander of the C-57D, John Adams, insists he must land and carry out his mission, Morbius responds with a dark disclaimer:

Commander, if you set down on this planet, I warn you that I cannot be answerable for the safety of your ship or your crew.

Some Cold War tropes can be heard behind this exchange. You couldn’t ask for a more all-American name than John Adams; meanwhile Morbius speaks in a rich mid-century baritone—the voice of actor Walter Pidgeon—that conjures memories, for those old enough to recall, of old-time radio programs and civil-defence directives delivered in stentorian timbres, while the name ‘Morbius’ itself, with its dark first syllable and Latin suffix, fairly reeks of that old-world antiquity that can make Americans stand and fidget awkwardly in the presence of their parent cultures. The effect is only amplified when mission records identify Morbius as ‘the ship’s philologist’—a rarefied discipline that studies patterns of language over long reaches of time.

Adams and Morbius meet in the latter’s elegant residence, the abode of not a Robinson-Crusoe castaway but a futurist Prospero pursuing abstruse research and wielding extraordinary powers—the sort of smooth-tongued intellectual viewed with deep suspicion by the muscular Cold Warriors of postwar America (fans and students of Oppenheimer might take note), a stereotype that would reach its satiric nadir barely a decade later in Stanley Kubrik’sDr Strangelove. But after his initial stern warning from afar, Pidgeon’s Morbius proves an agreeable host in person. Keen to allay his guests’ concerns, he appears equally keen to see them on their way.

His household includes only two other members: an obliging futurist robot named Robby—all clattering relays, flashing lights and whirling gyros, his voice a droll metallic basso—and Morbius’s daughter Altaira, born shortly after the expedition’s arrival on Altair 4. Learning what happened to her mother and the rest of the Bellerophon’s crew becomes Commander Adams’s primary concern, but Morbius can tell him only that though his wife died of unspecified ‘natural causes’, the rest were killed, one by one, by an unseen power that left each ‘torn literally limb from limb’ until just he, Altaira and three others remained. The latter sought to flee, but the Bellerophon was ‘vaporised’ as they tried to lift off.

During these exchanges, one of Adams’s crew begins to flirt with Altaira. Her radical innocence thwarts his advances, and incidentally establishes the ur-text of all those scenes in Star Trek where the beautiful alien asks Captain Kirk, ‘What is this thing you call kiss?’ Altaira’s Edenic simplicity—the commander’s name is ‘Adams’, after all—is initially played for comic effect, but takes a number of dark turns subsequently.i And that night the C-57D’s ‘klystron frequency monitor’, an essential component of its faster-than-light drive, is sabotaged by an invisible intruder.

Adams returns to question Morbius, who responds with a dramatic expansion of his account of the Bellerophon’s fate. The mission found the entire surface of Altair 4 an empty desert, but below ground discovered the still-functioning infrastructure of a civilisation whose members called themselves the Krell. Their fantastically advanced technology had climaxed some 200,000 years before at a level far beyond any human achievement. In a still-imposing sequence, Morbius conducts Adams and the ship’s doctor Ostrow on a tour of the Krell’s cyclopean facilities, self-maintained and still functioning miles below the planet’s surface after two thousand centuries of abandonment. Amidst what now looks like a steampunk fantasy of reverse engineering, they traverse miles-long galleries filled with gigantic circuits of relays, capacitors, resistors and solenoids, the minuscule humans appearing to crawl like insects past endless ranks of machines that recede down dizzying perspectives in every direction, crackling with thunderclap pulses of electricity.

Having enhanced his intelligence with a Krell educational device whose basic functions he learned to use early in his researches, Morbius has been able to apply a portion of their advanced technical knowledge to his own needs, which enabled him to construct Robby and the home he shares with Altaira. Later, having deciphered still more of the Krell’s records, he comes across unsettling hints about the Krell’s last days: their extinction occurred overnight, on the brink of an extraordinary technological breakthrough:

Recently I have turned up some rather puzzling indications that, in those final days before their annihilation, the Krell had been applying their entire racial energies to a new project, one which they actually seemed to hope might somehow free them, once and for all, from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.

But it was not to be. On the eve—as Morbius believes—of their keenly anticipated triumph, ‘This all but divine race perished in a single night’, overtaken by some ‘unexplained catastrophe’.

At this point Adams receives a call from the C-57D, informing him that the ship’s chief engineer has been murdered. ‘How was it done?’ he asks, and the reply is tersely dramatic:

Done? Skipper, his body is plastered all over the communications room!

After Adams leaves, Morbius sits stunned and mutters, ‘It’s started again…’, instinctively connecting recent events with the deaths of his colleagues on the Bellerophon, as he feared when the C-57D first appeared in orbit above Altair 4. Other scenes, however, suggest the renewed horrors may have sprung from roots that run deeper than Morbius suspects. The invisible assailant strikes again the next night, revealing itself in the shorting force-lines of an energy fence thrown round the ship as a defensive perimeter. Its fiery lineaments limn the mask of a gigantic predator that seizes and slays three more crew members before vanishing as abruptly as it had appeared.

A quick cut shifts us to the Krell laboratory, where Morbius slumps at a table, half conscious. Behind him, as the electronic score ululates like a thousand cyber-banshees, rows upon rows of meters along the walls register the engagement of the complex’s titanic array of reactors. Morbius is roused by Altaira’s screams, sounding from the depths of nightmare; as he awakens, the scene falls silent, the meters fade and he rushes to his daughter, who gasps out an account of a clairvoyant dream about the attack on the C-57D.

Meanwhile, Adams resolves to evacuate Altaira and her father from the planet, by force if necessary. With Dr Ostrow, he returns to the residence and remonstrates with Altaira, who does not want Morbius constrained against his will. While they argue, Dr Ostrow slips off to the laboratory to take the Krell ‘brain boost’, with Adams only noticing his absence when he appeals to him for support. Robby enters, carrying the doctor’s stricken form. As Morbius warned them, the Krell education device has overwhelmed Ostrow’s neural functions, but with his last words he tells Adams what he’s discovered: that the Krell did in fact achieve their astounding breakthrough, a union of mind and machine that empowered them mentally to project matter and force to any point on the planet, in any form they desired. ‘But the Krell forgot one thing’, Ostrow whispers hoarsely before he dies, ‘monsters…monsters from the Id’.

When Morbius enters, he first confronts Altaira and Adams, sneering loftily, ‘How romantic!’ Then, seeing Ostrow’s lifeless form, he exclaims with comparable disdain, ‘The fool! The meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell’. When Altaira objects to her father’s cold judgement, he replies,

He was warned, and now he’s paid. Let him be buried with the other victims of human greed and folly.

Here Morbius’s passions have unsettled his otherwise cool composure. He cruelly mischaracterises Ostrow’s venture, which was not only wholly selfless but has uncovered a vital dimension of the whole enigma, with which Adams can now challenge him:

‘Morbius, what is the Id?’

‘My daughter is planning a very foolish action, and she’ll be terribly punished.’

‘What is the Id?’

‘Id! Id! Id! Id! Id! It’s…an obsolete term…I’m afraid, once used to describe the elementary basis of the subconscious mind.’

‘Monsters from the Id…monsters from the subconscious. Of course! That’s what Doc meant.’

Robby then warns of an approaching intruder. As the invisible creature comes crashing through the no-longer-Edenic garden outside, Adams, Altaira and Morbius flee to the shelter of the laboratory. Morbius continues strenuously to deny Adams’s insistence that ‘that thing out there is you!’—his own subconscious, drawing on the almost limitless resources of Krell technology to power its rage as it did when the Bellerophon party voted to return to earth, in the same way that the supremely civilised Krell fell on one another in an orgy of self-destruction two thousand centuries earlier.

Only after confronting and denying his id-creature as it bursts into the laboratory does Morbius, fatally shocked, acknowledge the truth. Addressing Adams for the first and only time as ‘son’,ii he directs him to initiate an autodestruct sequence that will detonate all of the Krell reactors and destroy the planet in twenty-four hours. The final scene shows Adams and Altaira witnessing the explosion on a viewscreen in the C-57D’s control suite, after which Adams offers her this ambivalent consolation:

Alta, about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph—and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again, like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true, it will remind us that we are, after all, not God.

Imagery and Themes

The Forbidden Planet was produced and promoted as a special effects extravaganza, comparable in its time to 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or 1976’s Star Wars. Released in 1956, its presentation leaned on graphic conventions and imagery from comic-book sci-fi and pulp-fiction sensationalism. The title graphics project each letter in a monumental perspective, as if raying forth from an infinitely distant vanishing point. Iconic marquee posters depicted a slightly sinister-looking Robby holding Altaira’s unconscious (and pulp-fiction shapely) form draped alluringly across his metal arms in a tableau never seen in the actual film—a low-brow come-on meant to attract sensation-seeking punters.

But as with 2001 and Star Wars, the impact of The Forbidden Planet has outlasted whatever media commotion may have accompanied its initial release, and now outweighs even its value as a popular entertainment, considerable though that may be.iii It draws its peculiar power from the wide array of archetypes, cultural memes and literary allusions it smuggles beneath its generic exterior, many of which are only barely present and more or less secondary to the viewer’s enjoyment of the main story. Fifties sci-fi may be easy to dismiss as facile and ephemeral, as much of the genre has proved to be. But such transient spectacles may also conceal unguessed-at depths beneath their cartoonish exteriors.

When mass phenomena like popular cinema achieve wide currency, it is because they have been lifted on a tidal flow of zeitgeist-y,communal sensibilities. Often without overt intent (and therefore being less skewed by purely commercial considerations), producers, directors and screenwriters can tap veins of pattern and meaning that activate archetypes that have lain deep below the conscious mind for as long as mind has existed—possibly longer. Explanation effectively embalms them: whether you understand them as Jungian archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s mythography of the hero’s journey or the epic contentions of Freud’s superego, ego and id, they must be experienced rather than analysed. Whether or not they exist in actual fact is immaterial. They don’t particularly care what we think of them:as symbols, they simply inhabit our imaginations, willy-nilly, where they exert a power we feel whether we credit them objectively or no. They flicker among the events that take place in The Forbidden Planet, reverberating in many registers, from Cold War dissonance to Gothic horror to biblical, classical and literary manifestations.

Biblical motifs figure at many points. Altaira’s indifference to bodily modesty and the moralistic consternation this elicits from Adams play either side of Adam and Eve’s fall and loss of innocence, while her peaceable communion with the fauna of her artificial environment, both carnivorous tiger and herbivorous deer, places her in an idealised pre-lapsarian state. The id-monster, despite its overtly Freudian name-tag, springs straight out of medieval and renaissance demonology with its apex predator physique, glowing red eyes and nasty temper.

Morbius plays many roles. He is Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: mage and father, in charge of esoteric lore and powers, concerned to defend his virgin daughter’s honour against assault by not-entirely-welcome guests who have unexpectedly arrived in his back-of-beyond domain; he is the God of Genesis who ordains a paradise for his Altaira/Eve, but also the serpent, whose bestial id complicates and ultimately shatters her idyllic existence. Towards the end, as she begins to question his authority, he briefly plays the tyrant Creon to her unyielding Antigone.

Adams, as an officer of the United Planets, represents a different authority, embodied in a rule of law to which no one’s id answers fully. In Freudian terms, he is the superego to Morbius’s id. Yet he too plays the serpent in Altaira’s garden, introducing a disruptive element of nascent but increasingly powerful sexual desire. His crew presents a cross-section of recognisable naval types who have piloted vessels from the ship of Odysseus to the Milanese galley wrecked in Prospero’s tempest to Ahab’s Pequod and the USS Enterprise—unruly knots of (mostly) masculine energies and impulses, governed by a hierarchy of authority in precisely the sort of unstable equilibrium that the Krell assumed they had transcended entirely until their unsurpassed technology gave new liberty to lower instincts they’d forgotten they possessed. In a brief comic interlude, the ship’s cook enacts a below-the-salt recapitulation of this same theme when he discovers that Robby’s powers of chemical analysis and obliging programming can supply him with a limitless stash the ‘finest Kentucky bourbon’, with predictably embarrassing results that incidentally rehearse the pratfalls of The Tempest’s butler Stephano and clown Trinculo, who hatch a hare-brained (and wine-sodden) scheme with that play’s ‘[id-]monster’ Caliban to overthrow the stern government of his superego/master, Prospero.

More immediate topical themes make themselves felt repeatedly. Though The Forbidden Planet avoids giving direct voice to anxieties about nuclear war and its aftermath, the notion of a culture brought to utter ruin by its own advanced technology would have rung a few bells at the height of the Cold War. The motif of the Krell’s self-destruction also plays in two directions at once. Their long biological evolution and subsequent material progress took them far from what Morbius calls ‘the mindless primitive’, as he finally names his own rough beast, slouching from the backwaters of his psyche to rouse the whole Krell infrastructure against his insubordinate daughter and her newfound lover. The luminous sheen of progress and technological advance, which promised the Krell an endlessly ascending future, was undermined at the last by atavistic impulses sprung from roots sunk in their evolutionary past. Morbius’s collapse recapitulates the same psychic implosion on an individual scale.

The moral, summed up a little awkwardly by Adams in the final scene, is that humankind is the Krell, or will become the Krell in the fullness of time, at constant risk of engineering its own downfall. As we survey the serial devastations wrought in our times by a strange convergence between our clever hands and our stochastically obtuse minds—climate change, endless war and heaven alone knows what other id-monsters that may burst forth from our Krell-like AI powers—the dark, exemplary figure of Dr Edward Morbius hovers before us.

i In a crypto-Freudian foreshadowing of the larger mystery, the crewman who presses his attentions on Altaira becomes one of the first victims of the unknown presence that later assaults the ship, whose violence appears to have been triggered by the arrival of the C-57D and its crew.

ii Until this last moment, when not addressing him as ‘Commander Adams’, Morbius has employed the ineffably condescending ‘young man’.

iii Though it must also be said that its simply-drawn characters, including the square-jawed Commander Adams (Lesley Nielsen in a straight role that long pre-dates his comic Naked Gun persona), Pidgeon’s professorial Morbius and Anne Francis’s woman-child Altaira, by turns infantile and wise beyond her years, have dated considerably.

About the author

Robert DiNapoli

Robert DiNapoli is a poet, translator, essayist and erstwhile lecturer on English language and literature. His books include A Far Light: A Reading of Beowulf (2016), Engelboc (2019) and Reading Old English Wisdom: The Fetters in the Frost (2021).

More articles by Robert DiNapoli

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