Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where can I get me one o' them bourbon-replicating robots?!?!? (Forbidden Planet)

It's 1001 Movies Blog Club time again, and yet again the weekly choice was mine to make, and I claim full responsibility. It's yet another entry from my personal sub-list of movies which loom so large in the various spheres of geek-culture that it's kind of astonishing I've never seen them before: 1956's Forbidden Planet.

I’ve sounded this refrain before, but it keeps echoing again and again: there may be some debate about when exactly “the modern era” began but there’s no question it was well before my time, which means as I became aware of most things in my life I was invariably coming in somewhere in the middle of the story. As a result, much of my pop self-education has involved going back and forth between experiencing the present and researching the past, encountering things out of order and backwards on occasion, acquainting myself with antecedents and ur-texts long after I had absorbed the things they influenced and gave rise to. Sometimes that’s fascinating, and sometimes it’s fairly jarring, particularly because of the fact that not only was I born well into the modern era, but after post-modernism, as well. I’ve never known current pop-culture that wasn’t at least a little bit self-aware.

And yet if I were to try to encapsulate the essence of Forbidden Planet in a nutshell, that might very well be where I would start: “not even a little bit self-aware.” And that’s not a criticism, not a fault you can legitimately lay at the feet of the filmmakers. Forbidden Planet is a bit of sci-fi pioneering, and also very much a product of its time. So it’s earnest, and unapologetic in its overreach as it attempts to do a number of things that hadn’t really been done before. Somebody has to construct something before everyone else can pile on with their deconstruction.

The parts of Forbidden Planet which hold up the best are the elements of science fiction that tend to be the genre’s entire reason for being, the speculative half-mad ideas about possibilities and potential. The visual designs of the movie, from Robby the Robot to the landscape of Altair IV itself to the mind-boggling size and scope of the subterranean Krell complex, look somewhat dated, but not in an unintentionally hilarious, so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. The imagery was so instantly iconic that it was immediately copied and quickly became shorthand for the exotic nature of alien worlds and future centuries, until innovators began to come up with alternative approaches to differentiate themselves from that 50’s (and 60’s) sci-fi aesthetic that we now think of as retro-future. Also, the central mystery and threat of the main plot, based on out-of-control subconscious desires given physical manifestation by the godlike technowizardry of a vanished civilization, are delightfully weird in their own right, and in a way which has essentially defied facile duplication in other sci-fi stories.

But memorable, quality sci-fi needs to weave together two different threads, one consisting of things which don’t exist or haven’t been discovered, yet someday might, be they habitable exoplanets or miracle-working supercomputers, and the other consisting of things which do exist, human beings in all their complicated, struggling messiness (or some metaphorical approximation thereof). Unfortunately, those are the parts of Forbidden Planet which resonated the least with me, as I presume they would fail to resonate with any present-day audience. The sci-fi tropes and trappings of Forbidden Planet still come off as cool, but the characters populating its story mostly come off as embarrassing, shallow placeholders plugged into a mechanically driven plot. There is a certain delight in seeing a very young Leslie Nielsen portray United Planets captain J.J. Adams, but Adams is a square-jawed hero archetype blissfully free of any flaws or other humanizing characteristics. By the same token, Walter Pidgeon’s Doctor Morbius is the mustache-twirling villain of a 19th century melodrama with an upgraded, interplanetary wardrobe. The rest of the cast (with one exception which I’ll get to below) is an almost undifferentiated mass representing the crew of the C57-D. From the slightly more enlightened vantage point of 2014, it’s almost impossible not to notice that the crew is uniformly male and uniformly white, which is one of the main problems with sci-fi written in the past and set in the future (and which is also probably fodder enough for an entire separate post). There are a couple of nods toward characterization in giving certain crew members one personality trait each (Ostrow’s intellect, Farman’s wolfishness, Cook’s hayseed naivete) but those half-hearted efforts aren’t enough to breathe any real spirit into any of them.

And then there’s Doctor Morbius’s nubile young daughter Altaira, and oh man if you thought the absence of minorities and women among the crew of the United Planets Cruiser was damning by implication, wait until you see how the movie handles the onscreen presence of its lone token female castmember. It’s not so much that the men all wear sensible clothes and she wears provocative minidresses (though it’s partly that) and it’s not so much that her character lacks agency or much of any reason to be involved in the story in the first place, except as a perfunctory love interest for Adams and to give a little more pathos to the tragic fate of her father (though it’s partly all that, too). The movie objectifies Anne Francis, there’s no denying that, but I found it even more disturbing how the male characters objectified Altaira, especially considering the narrative context.

Basically Adams, Ostrow and Farman conclude their first meeting with Doctor Morbius over lunch, move on to coffee, and then Altaira makes her appearance. She immediately becomes the center of attention, with all three crewmen basically jumping to their feet and leering at her openly. They are doing this in front of the girl’s father, but he makes no comment on it at all. The crewmen also know, at this point, that Altaira was born on Altair IV after the entire colony was wiped out, and she has never known anyone but her father and their servant robot. She is, effectively, a complete social retard. Pretty, though! So that makes her easy pickings to be charmed, which Farman immediately attempts - again, right in front of her dad. Farman gets nowhere with her despite repeated attempts, mostly because Altaira is so sheltered and guileless as to be utterly beyond the reach of innuendo. Eventually Adams rescues Altaira from Farman, but only because he wants her for himself, and only after he lectures her for dressing inappropriately around his cruiser-full of men who haven’t seen a female in however many years and months.

In other words, the romance subplot - able-bodied military men fighting over a young girl who literally cannot understand their social expectations and make her own informed decisions about them - is portrayed not as “bad” behavior nor even “regrettable but predictable” behavior, but simply “normal and understandable” behavior. Boys will be boys, the film seems to say with its matter-of-fact depiction and lack of narrative retribution. “What did you expect?” Adams literally says to her, somehow turning it all around to be Altaira’s fault. The fact that the writers apparently intended all this to be light-hearted fish-out-of-water culture-clash humor doesn’t make it any better, and might just make it that much worse.

Still, if you don’t go into Forbidden Planet looking for dating advice, you should be all right. As pure cinema, it deserves its place in the history books highlighting the accomplishments that moved the artform, and especially the sci-fi genre, forward to greater heights. And as a reflection of social attitudes, about women as infantilized support systems and minorities as non-entities, well, it pretty much belongs only in the history books, as well.

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