Forbidden Planet’s Forbidden Criticism

Although critics have traced the genealogy of science fiction to its genesis, often citing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sci-fi work, the genre has had a long history of eluding a concrete definition (Malmgren 2). Hugo Gernsback began by summarizing the qualities of the genre as early as 1926. He defined the new genre of “scientifiction” as “Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type[s] of stor[ies]…charming romance[s] intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision[s]” (qtd. in Stableford, Clute and Nicholls). By the 1940s Grensback’s “scientifiction” was replaced by a new term, “science fiction,” a genre tied to science and scientific extrapolation. J. O. Bailey’s 1947 monograph, Pilgrims Through Space and Time, argued that “a piece of scientific fiction is a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences. . . It must be a scientific discovery–something that the author at least rationalizes as possible to science.” (qtd. in Stablefor, Clute and Nicholls). Contemporary SF criticism relies heavily on Darko Suvin’s definition of science ficition.  According to Suvin, what distinguishes science fiction from other genres of literature is the “narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’…validated by cognitive logic” (Suvin 63). Nova is not a neologism, but a re-appropriation of a Latin word that translates to “new things” (nova being the plural and novum the singular). In terms of science fiction, nova are any and all imaginary discoveries or objects that affectively change the course of history such as time travel, mutation, artificial consciousness and faster-than-light travel. These nova, as Simone Caroti explains in “Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, force the reader of SF to engage in the “act of cognition, of rationally making sense of coming to terms with the estranging elements” (Caroti 225). According to Caroti, it is this act of rationalizing the nova that endows the reader with a sense of wonder. The pleasure of reading SF is thus gleaned through scientific extrapolation, the future is alienating in a Brechtian sense, but it is also uncannily familiar because the extrapolation is based on the present reality. In this way the novum, is a “specifically roundabout way of commenting on an author’s collective context.” (Suvin 89)

According to Foucault, épistemes are “the ‘apparatus[es]’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific” (197). A work of science fiction is built upon scientific extrapolation into the future based on the current épistemes of its era. Thus although Forbidden Planet is set some two hundred and fifty years in the future, the anxieties it expresses are a product of the mid-century modern American psyche. After the Second World War, the McCarthy-era had fostered a national paranoia of the socialist left. As a result of this paranoia, Hollywood eschewed making films that could be perceived as pro-socialist, for “any criticism of American society might be taken as an indication of pro-Soviet sympathies” (Booker 53). M. K. Booker avers that because of Cold War paranoia 

American science fiction filmmakers were a bit hesitant to project dramatically different futures because 1950s American society, in the throes of burgeoning social changes that would erupt in the sometimes violent protests of the 1960s, was in the grip of such rapid changes that it had a kind of social vertigo. (Booker 53)

And while Forbidden Planet does extrapolate a world of white, male domination, there are a number of ways that the film is subversive. I do not concur with Booker regarding science fiction’s role as a social Valium that assuaged gender- and race-related anxieties. There is a definite tension within the film the pulls between validating current social norms and exposing them. During an era of apprehension and anxiety, SF was framed as escapist literature, rather than self-reflexive, socially critical literature, as Suvin later categorize it, twenty years after Forbidden Planet’s release. Many critics deemed science fiction unworthy of serious scholarly analysis. Susan Sontag even noted that

[t]here is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanisation which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien it (qtd. in Matheson 331).

I would like to posit that the classification of SF as escapist and non-critical allowed for films such as Forbidden Planet to engage with social issues that would have been considered too taboo to engage with in more “serious” genres.

 None of Forbidden Planet’s promotional material alludes to the Tempest; it wasn’t until five years after the film came out that Kingsley Aims, in his 1961 book New Maps from Hell, noted that film had an incidental similarity to The Tempest (Buchanan 148). Less than a year later, Robert Morsberger, in a Shakespeare Quarterly article, reinforced Aims’s, claims asserting that the play was “beneath all the trappings of futuristic science fiction” an adaptation of The Tempest (161). The promotional material focused not on the 1950s present, or the film’s seventeenth-century Shakespearean inspiration, but on the “magnificent picture of that distant tomorrow” (Forbidden Planet trailer). The adaptive aspects of the film were perhaps diminished to ensure that any perceivable American criticism within Forbidden Planet would not stigmatize film’s box office success, for if the film were to be perceived as an adaptation of The Bard, that would reinforce the film’s scholarly clout and thereby attract unwanted critical attention. Since Forbidden Planet was identified as an adaptation of The Tempest a number of scholars, including Morsberger, Frederick Clarke, Kenneth Rothwell,

Lisa Hopkins, and Steve Rubin among a great many others, have attempted to trace who represents whom. There is, however, as Hopkins notes, no simple one-to-one correspondence between the two casts of characters, save perhaps the cook, who makes a fantastic Stephano. Robby the Robot, takes Caliban’s place in the drinking scenes with the cook, he also functions as the sole labourer carrying heavy lead where Caliban would have carried logs; like Ariel, Robby manifests illusions, in this case he conjures replicas of food and goods such as gems and textiles. Morbius is simultaneously Prospero and Caliban, his acquired Krell knowledge endows him with otherworldly powers, but his Id monster, amplified by that very same Krell technology, is a hyperbolic Caliban: pre-loqutionary, pregnant with incestuous desires and murderous tendencies. A huge deviation between Prospero and Morbius, as Simone Caroti notes, has to do with control, both of the self and of others (225). There are of course, more similarities and difference between the film and the play, but I will leave that for you to puzzle out.Forbbiden Planet might best be characterized as a film that is trapped within, what Deborah Tannen has called, the double-bind of communication. Tannen stipulates that there is a constant tension between individuals to assert both difference and solidarity, or in more tactile terms “a matter of continual self-correction between exuberance (i.e. friendliness; you are like me) and deficiency (i.e., respect: you are not like me” (Tannen 167). In this way Frobidden Planet is continually oscillating between assuaging the 1950s audience that the world they know will remain stable for centuries to come, while simultaneously alluding—quietly, subtly—to the tensions simmering below the veneer of 1950s society.  For the remainder of this presentation I will be exploring how Forbidden Planet portrays feminine mystique and I will conclude by touching on how the film depicts technology ambivalently as it vacillates between technophobia and technophilia.

You may be familiar with the 1940s image of a woman flexing her bicep in a factory jumpsuit with the caption “We can do it,” motivating women to take up typically male dominated professions during the Second World War. After the war, when there were no longer manpower shortages, women were expected to exchange “paid work in the public sphere for house-keeping and child rearing in the suburbs”(Yaszek 79). In 1957 Betty Friedan began to explore a pervasive sense of unhappiness that dominated the Smith graduating class of 1942. In her book The Feminine Mystique, Friedan compared depictions of women in 1930s magazines with contemporary 1950s magazines and noted a regressive shift. Prior to WWII women were portrayed as confident multitaskers balancing both career and family. By the 1950s, however, magazine articles and advertisements presented women as either happy mother/housewives or as unbalanced, depressed career women. In her article “Not Lost in Space” Lisa Yaszek notes that the “rhetoric of domestic patriotism blended effortlessly with that of the feminine mystique, reinforcing [the idea] that women might have either family and career, but that to sacrifice the former for the latter was unpatriotic and to combine the two was profoundly unnatural”  (79).

Raised light years away from Earth, Altaira is depicted as an Eve-like character; with her bare feet and revealing, nude-toned clothing she seems to represent pure innocent naiveté. At least, this is how the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D perceives her. The Eden allusions are reinforced by Altaira’s ability to befriend animals, including a vicious tiger, which is so docile she considers it one of her “friends.” While Eve was born a fully mature woman of Adam’s rib, Altaira, despite being a buxom nineteen-year-old, is presented in an odd infantilized state. During the 1950s little girls’ dresses were short, and as a girl matured the hemline lowered in accordance with her level of maturity (Driscoll). In Forbidden Planet Altaira’s dresses are similar to a child’s, they obscure her décolletage, but barely cover her rear. While many critics (Jane Caputi, among others) have touched on the uncomfortable incestuous tension that bubbles below the film’s surface, no one seems to have commented on Altaira’s infantile dresses. Alta’s extended childhood is perhaps a manifestation of Morbius’s attempts to sublimate his sexual desires, by denying her womanhood through emphasizing her childishness. For ultimately, her clothing is made by Robby, Morbius’s creation. Morbius does not only keep his daughter dressed in 1950s-child-appropriate clothes, but he also stymies her intellectual development. Morbius does not offer his daughter the Krell knowledge mind booster, perhaps because he prefers to keep her “ignorant,” in what I can only call an attempt to imprison her as child subordinate. The dresses, however, have the opposite effect on the crewmembers; they do not dissuade sexual attraction, but encourage it.

 Within the framework of the feminine mystique women were positioned as antithetical to men, lacking drive and supposedly fulfilled by domestic duties. Women were expected to never fully mature into sentient individuals, but were expected to remain stunted, content to cook dinner, vacuum and parent, but nothing more. Outside of the context of Earth, Altaira’s captivity within the child state stirs Commander Adams and Doctor Ostrow to express concern over her “lack of liberty,” which Morbius avers is a non-issue. Morbius, in front of the crewmembers, asks Altaira if she ever feels “lonely or confined,” to which Altaira responds, “well, I don’t know—I have you, Robby and all my friends [the animals].” Without being allowed to experience life away from Altair IV, Altaira, similar to a housewife dissuaded from working, cannot know if she is truly happy.

 As the film progresses, it becomes evident that Alta’s tiger friend is not endemic to Altair IV, but is one of Morbius’s subconscious creations. The tiger is only harmless so long as Altaira behaves in accordance to Morbius’s desires. When Adams kisses Altaira the tiger attempts to kill both of them. M. K. Booker argues that Altaira’s

obvious sexual accessibility arises not from any arrant erotic desires on her own part; it comes from her total innocence and ignorance of sexuality, which not only makes her easily impressed by virtually any man who comes along but also leaves that man in a position of complete mastery, able to tutor his innocent young conquest and to mold her to fit his own sexual style” (53).

Critics such as Booker as well as the film’s male protagonists neglect to acknowledge any hint of sexual desire on Altaira’s part, positioning her as the naïve object of Adams’s and Farman’s desires. Until the tiger attack scene there is no suggestion that Altaira’s activities have disturbed Morbius’s incestuous, possessive Id monster. There are, however, suggestions throughout the film that Altaira is not simply the object of desire, but an agent who stimulates, in her effort to seduce the most eligible of all the “18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6”. Sexual maturity is framed as a state that can only be achieved by a girl with the instruction by an age-appropriate heterosexual male guide. Both Adams and Morbius ignore Altaira’s independently budding sexuality, which culminates with her conniving plan to seduce Adams.

When Adams ‘rescues’ Altaira from the “space wolf” Farman he rebukes Altaira for attracting Farman’s advances. He tells her that her clothes are inappropriate and that if something had happened with Farman beyond the “healthy stimulation” of “hugging and kissing” (Altaira’s words) then it would have “served her right” (Adams’s words). When Altaira returns home she is furious and embarrassed. She tells Morbius that she hopes she won’t see Adamas again if she lives “to be a million,” but shortly after Morbius returns to his study she begins to devise a plan to ensnare the censuring commander. The following scene (which was in the trailer) is one of the only scenes that focuses on Altaira outside of the male scope of vision, she is neither being watched by her father, nor is she trying impress the Earth men. Alone with Robby the genderless robot, Altaira reveals that she is not ignorant, but Machiavellian. She orders a dress from Robby that mustn’t show anything “below, above or through,” but must “fit in all the right places, with lots and lots of star sapphires.” Her coy plan to entrap Adams and escape Altair IV hinges on Adams believing that she is ignorant. In this scene Altaira plays on her presumed ignorance, which is an integral part of her seduction plot. She has teased Adams into thinking she is swimming in the nude, but note how when Altaira exits the pond the camera makes sure to follow her out of the water, revealing that she is in fact wearing a bathing suit.  Ultimately Altaira manipulates Adams into believing that she is innocent and ignorant and that she will be a conquest to be molded and fit to his sexual style, when in fact she, through the rouse of ignorance, has the upper hand.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari work toward a definition of girlhood, asserting that “girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere” (277). They also argue that “the girl is certainly not defined by virginity” (276). Instead of the traditional definitions, based on sex, age, and virginity, Deleuze and Guattari define girlhood as a state of “becoming-woman,” and they assert that this is “the key to all the other becomings” (277). Through Altaira’s shifting personas (between virginal Eve-figure and tempting, irreverent flirt), we can glimpse the figure of the girl as described by Deleuze and Guattari—a figure in a constant state of becoming-woman, but never settling into the “opposable organism” (276). She continually oscillates throughout the film—but fails to settle on a definite state. Morbius, the self-proclaimed and self-made god of Altair IV ejects Altaira from the Eden-like garden when he perceives that she has graduated from girl to woman. The issue is that she, like all girls, does not have a definite moment of becoming woman, she is working throughout the film towards that goal. The feminine mystique relies on blanket states and teloses, a woman is this and wants that, but girls are many things, and girls wants many things, perhaps more than they know, and Altaira is desperate to know more than just the theoretical side of biology, among other subjects.

I want to culminate my presentation with a section I have called technotension. The film presents technology as a threat (it destroyed the Krell, just as nuclear bombs had the potential to destroy the world), but also as a boon. Robby is a benign technovation who abides by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. But Robby also aids in Altaira’s semi-forced infantalization. With Robby there, Altaira does not need to engage in any domestic work. Robby acts like an ersatz mother, creating dresses, arranging flowers, cooking meals, etc. In “Cruising Against the Id” Tim Youngs finds that “[t]he equivilence between women’s and Robby’s roles reinforces ideas of female servitude and therefore of man’s mastery over machines and women” (219). I would like to close by asking if you agree with Youngs; do you think that Robby’s performance of domestic tasks is ideologically sinister? Or is it perhaps a liberating image, suggesting that domestic responsibility is not aligned solely with gender, for as Robby says at the beginning of the film, for him the question of gender “is totally without meaning”


Works Cited

Buchanan, Judith. “Forbidden Planet and the Retrospective Attribution of Intentions.” Retrovision, Reinventing the Past in Film and Fiction. Ed. Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, and Imelda Whelehan. London: Pluto, 2001.148-62. Print.

Caroti, Simone. “Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” in Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace, ed. Alexander C.Y. Huang and Charles S. Ross (Purdue University Press, 2009), 218- 230.

Clarke, Frederick and Rubin, Steve. “Making Forbidden Planet.” Cinefantastique 8.2.3 (1979) 4-66.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. “Plastic Visibility, Visible Plasticity: On the Sexualization of Girlhood.”  York University. Vanier College, North York, ON. October 17, 2012. Lecuture.

Hopkins, Lisa. Shakespear’'s The tempest: the relationship between text and film. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess. History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), p. 1.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1983. Print.

Matheson, T. J. “Marcuse Ellul and the Science-Fiction Film: Negative Responses to Technology.” Science Fiction Studies 193.2 (1992): 326-339. JStor. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.

Malmgren, Carl Darryl. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

Morsberger, Robert E. “Shakespeare and Science Ficition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12.4 (1961): 161. Jstor. Web. 16 Oct. 2012. <>.

Rothwell, Kenneth S., and Annabelle Winograd. Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1990. Print.

Stableford, Brian; Clute, John, and Nicholls, Peter. “Definitions of SF”. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit/Little, Brown and Company. Online.

Suvin, Darko. “Science Fiction and the Novum (1977).” Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010. 67-92. Print.

Tannen, Deborah. “The Relativity of Linguistic Strategies: Rethinking Power and Solidarity in Gender Dominance”. Gender and Conversational Interaction. Ed. Tannen . New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993. 165-188. Print.

Yaszek, Lisa, ed. “Not Lost in Space.” New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Ed. Donald M. M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 2008. 78-92. Print.

Youngs, Tim. “Cruising Against the Id: The transformation of Caliban in Forbbiden Planet.” Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character. Ed. Nadia Lie and Theo D’haen. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 211-229. Print.