Forbidden Planet is one of my all-time favorite science-fiction films. Its sixty-year-old special effects don’t compare to the incredible CGI available to contemporary filmmakers and some of its elements are puerile by today’s standards. Yet the movie remains impressive. I first saw it on rerelease years after its 1956 debut and found its story and themes, loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, more sophisticated than most SF cinema of the era. Gene Roddenberry noted that Forbidden Planet was one of the inspirations for his creation of Star Trek.
The story revolves around a starship crew sent to determine the fate of a colony on the planet Altair IV, which has been out of touch for 20 years. Led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen in his pre-comedic days), the crew finds a survivor, Dr. Morbius, and his engaging daughter, who was born there. Morbius tells Adams that the rest of the colonists, other than his wife who died of natural causes, were destroyed by an invisible “planetary force.”
A series of lethal attacks on the ship and crew by the mysterious force lead to a confrontation between Adams and Morbius, who has discovered the subterranean technology of the Krell, a long-lost civilization. The Krell’s greatest scientific achievement was a mind-over-matter machine that could materialize anything the populace could imagine, but which ended up destroying their entire species over the space of a single night.
Adams has fallen in love with Morbius’ daughter and intends to take her back to Earth. Adams forces Morbius to admit that jealousy over the prospect of losing his daughter, coupled with experimenting too closely with Krell technology, has given his subconscious mind terrible powers. Morbius is the planetary force. He not only unknowingly murdered the colonists because they wanted to leave Altair IV but is responsible for the attacks on Adams and the crew.
That’s the basic plot synopsis. What follows is the point of this recap. Here’s a taste of Adams’ dialogue as he accuses the disbelieving Morbius of being the agent of destruction.
Creation by mere thought… But like you, the Krell forgot one deadly danger. Their own subconscious hate and lust for destruction… And so the mindless beasts of the subconscious had access to a machine that could never be shut down. The secret devil of every soul on the planet all set free at once to loot and maim.
I tend toward a glass-half-full view of the world; it’s an exaggeration to say that the subconscious harbors only the darkest of emotions. Yet Adams’ words have always resonated. I can’t help but see parallels with contemporary civilization.
Today, massive clumps of cynicism-driven anger and fear morph into screeching diatribes, right-wing and left-wing alike, that increasingly clog the flow of rational online discourse. Could the Internet, despite its wondrous capabilities, be the Krell machine that can never be shut down, enabling the secret devil of every soul on the planet to ultimately bring about our collective downfall?