A second look at Forbidden Planet
People have always seen that Forbidden Planet owes a lot to Shakespeare's The Tempest. This is only half of the story, however, as the plot engine has been thoroughly modernized. In fact, just about everything in the production screams up-to-date modern, and it's worth taking a closer look at this greatest of 1950s science fiction movies.
The psychological dimension.
Spirits like Ariel and Caliban would not do in a rational modernist enterprise like Forbidden Planet, since the spiritual and supernatural (or maybe we should just say "the irrational") was then out of vogue. So we are offered Robby and the id monster instead. More importantly, Shakespeare's shaky metaphysics have been replaced by science--psychology, in fact. We are apt to be skeptical, because the mind has proven a tougher nut to crack than the science of the 1950s, still only some 20 years after Freud's death, would have guessed. Indeed, the popularization (and consequent trivialization) of (pop-)psychology, as well as the usual postmodern shaking of faith in rational progress makes it difficult for us to view the movie with the sympathy of contemporary eyes.
The 'magic' of psychology.
The substitution of psychology for metaphysics (admittedly streamlined for the movie's lay audience), was offered in deadly earnest, and with the conviction that there are absolute truths. The most intriguing example is the problem of the id monster. The Krell had advanced to such heights of intellect and altruism that they were blind to their evolutionary legacy--the "mindless primitive", as Morbius calls it. The Krell machine, which automatically turns desires into physical reality, is a dead letter, because it cannot by its very nature ever be safely used by anyone (as the fate of the Krell, and of Morbius himself, shows); yet those advanced enough to use it are apt not to perceive the inherent danger in their using the machine. This has the look of an insoluble problem, but see how Dr. Ostrow, with his intellect boosted higher than Morbius's and an evolutionary vantage point millions of years closer to the primitive immediately analyzes it correctly even as he is dying. The problem can be analyzed and understood, given enough smarts and an objective look at it. Indeed, once shown the light, Morbius immediately decides to destroy the machine.
A more frightening monster.
The importation of psychology also allowed for a more frightening monster. Only ever visible by inference (from the cast of its foot, the energy it uses, its destruction of steel shutters and a Krell-metal door, as well as the image generated by the play of destructive energy over its form), it is generated by scientific principles, a rational force (not magic) guided by an irrational will (Morbius' subconscious). As I see it, the screenwriters must have delightedly felt that they were eating their cake and having it too: a frightening, unpredictable monster, and plausible science throughout, plus no need ever to cheapen the monster by actually having to depict it.
A clue Morbius could not see.
The writers actually gave us a clue to the Krell machine's purpose during the film. When Adams and Ostrow are shown the Krell machine, they ask Morbius if it ever does anything. Among other things, Morbius says that the machine's power guages register a little when the buck deer fight in the autumn, or the flocks of birds fly overhead in the spring. But the Krell world appears to be a vast, lifeless desert apart from Morbius's oasis: where do these birds come from and where are they going?
The screenwriters never directly address the problem of Morbius' food and water supply (aside from telling us Robby can whip up synthetics if given a sample of food). But apart from that, Morbius' house "just happens" to sit on an oasis, and has real terrestrial tigers and deer around it, and birds overhead. One inference the movie has its characters make is that the space-faring Krell might have brought back terrestrial life forms. How strange, though, that the only life forms on Altair IV ever specifically mentioned or seen are terrestrial!
I suggest that Morbius created all of it, unconsciously, thanks to the machine; the food and water because he needed it, the birds, perhaps, from the mere subconscious expectation that birds should fly overhead in the spring--and bang! there they are. As his creations, this explains why the tiger tries to attack Adams and Altaira--an adumbration of the more terrible attacks by the id monster. Further support of the idea comes from Morbius' revelation that there had been a "minor alteration" throughout the whole 8,000 cubic miles of the system 16 years before--when the machine evidently adapted itself to the only brain on the planet capable of using it.
Lastly, the writers gave us a large clue to the mechanism behind the monster during the plastic educator scene. Morbius uses his mind to create a three dimensional model of Altaira; Adams exclaims in surprise when the model moves, and Morbius explains that it is because his daughter is alive in his mind from microsecond to microsecond. This is precisely the way his unconscious creates the id monster, and though
the ship's batteries destroy it, the Krell machine, like the plastic educator, rebuilds it from microsecond to microsecond.
The Theremin provides Bebe and Louis Barron's "electronic tonalities," an otherworldly score. Literally: Morbius plays 'Krell music" for Adams and Ostrow which is indistinguishable from the rest of the soundtrack, strongly suggesting that we are to interpret the whole movie as being backed by a Krell music score. In this way the filmmakers managed to avoid the clichés any use of conventional orchestral music would have forced upon them. They're also playing a sort of one-upsmanship with contemporary modern music with its serial dodecaphonic scale or atonalism.
Architectural and interior design.
Designed by Arthur Lonergan, the set of Morbius' house is wonderful, and furnished with period "modern" furniture and art. The house itself is supposed to be a concrete shell on geometrically complex piers, with largely glass walls. It is rather ahead of its day; Johnson and Mies had created glass box houses in 1949 and 1950, respectively, and Wright had been playing with the expressiveness of concrete for years, but a house like Morbius's would need a John Lautner (cf. the Elrod House, 1968, and the Hope House, 1979) to design it, or a Kendrick Bangs Kellogg (cf. his "Atoll House", 1976).
The interior looks like it could have been taken from any up-to-date California midcentury modern house--lots of Danish Modern couches and benches, abstract and primitive art. Had the house been built, it would have been an excellent (but surely expensive) case-study house.
http://jeu.frcd.free.fr/09s07i01.html (The id monster walks.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_40.jpg (Id monster foot cast.)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp05.jpg (Morbius' house interior.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_18.jpg (Another interior of Morbius' house.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_47.jpg (Primitive art and interior of Morbius' house as the monster kicks in the shutters.)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp08.jpg (Krell lab and plastic educator)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp10.jpg (Matte painting of Morbius' house and oasis.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_17.jpg (A better shot of Morbius' house.)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp06.jpg (The Krell machine.)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp07.jpg (More Krell machine.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_30.jpg (Morbius' tiger attacks Adams and Altaira.)
http://www.inetres.com/gp/sf/forbidden/fp_49.jpg (Id monster coming through the Krell-metal door. Consider the door's shape.)
http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/ls/SF/ForbiddenPlanet/fp11.jpg (The id monster under fire.)
http://www.locationsunlimited.org/lautner4.htm (Lautner's Elrod House).
http://www.csupomona.edu/%7Eblemerton/Palm%20Springs/Lautner.html (Mediocre Hope House photos).
http://www.math.ucsd.edu/~fan/apollo.html (Kellogg's Atoll House--link to the articles for photos).