mpestForbidden Planet Comparison to Shakespeare’s The TempestOn first
mpestForbidden Planet Comparison to Shakespeare’s The TempestOn first glance, Forbidden Planet can easily be seen to parallel many otherworks relating to technology, nature, or both. One of the most obviousparallels is, of course, to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story of a manstranded on an island which he has single-handedly brought under his controlthrough the use of magic.
Indeed, the characters, plot, and lesson of ForbiddenPlanet mirror almost exactly those of The Tempest, with the exception that whereThe Tempest employs magic, Forbidden Planet utilizes technology. At this point,it is useful to recall one of Arthur C. Clarke’s more famous ideas, which isthat any technology, when sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.Indeed, the technology presented in Forbidden Planet is not meant to beunderstood by the audience, but rather is, for all intents and purposes, magic.This is undoubtedly in part because the technology doesn’t exist and thereforecannot be explained to us.
What is more important, however, is that how thetechnology works is irrelevant for the purpose of the movie, which is toentertain and to teach us a lesson about man’s control over the elements andover his own technological creations.At this point a brief synopsis of the movie would seem to be in order,with special attention as to how it relates to The Tempest.In The Tempest, a man named Prospero and his daughter Miranda have beenexiled to a remote island which is completely uninhabited, save for an evilmonster and her son Caliban, and which is in a state of primal chaos.
Using themagical powers he has cultivated all his life, Prospero gradually brings theforces of nature on the island under his control, and manages to somehow enslaveCaliban, whose mother has died in the interim. (Some of these details are fuzzybecause I am familiar with The Tempest only through Marx). A group of sailorsis shipwrecked on the island, one of whom falls in love with Miranda, the lovelydaughter of Prospero.
Eventually, Caliban and other servants plot to overthrowProspero, but are thwarted and taken back into servitude, thankful to get offthat easily.Having summarized The Tempest, it is easy to summarize Forbidden Planet.A man named Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira are stranded on a distantplanet when a government ship lands there, whose commander falls in love withthe beautiful Altaira. The only significant difference in the two works, otherthen setting, is the conclusion of each. Before we look at the differencesthere, however, it is necessary to look more closely at the symbolism behindeach. In The Tempest, Prospero’s magic is a symbol of technology.
It lets himtame the island, is completely at his command, and even is understandable bythose who take the time to study it. Caliban represents the forces of nature,which Prospero has enslaved using magic, a.k.a. technology. It is worth notinghere that Shakespeare perceives “nature” in the form of a wild, hostileenvironment, not as a “garden of eden” form, a concept he pokes fun at in one ofthe opening scenes.
Eventually, nature rises up and lashes out at Prospero, but(from what one can gather from Marx), his magic saves him. He then acceptsCaliban back into servitude. The perfect harmony is thus achieved–man usingtechnology to tame nature, and doing it so well that he achieves the best ofboth worlds.Forbidden Planet teaches a different lesson, and teaches it in twoseparate stories. The first is the story of the Krell, a superintelligent racethat rose to its peak and then fell 2000 centuries before Dr.
Morbius and hisdaughter set foot on the planet. The Krell had achieved what they considered tobe the pinnacle of technology–they had left behind their physical bodies inexchange for computers. Their consciousness resided in computers, which “projected” bodies for them, so to speak. The perfect blending of man (orcreature, anyway) and technology. They were, in fact, a version of Hardison’s “silicon creature”–they had no physical bodies, save for a series of ones andzeros stored somewhere in the memory of a supercomputer 40 miles long.
What theKrell had forgotten to explore, however, was their own psyche. Confronted withthe virtually limitless power they had due to the nature of what they had become,all they did was loot, riot, and otherwise engage in self-destructive activity,so that in one day the entire race was destroyed. In this case, technology inthe form of the Krell’s supercomputer became a slave to the most basic form ofnature–the subconscious, where primal emotions rage with all the fury of aphysical tempest. As we see, the results when nature controls technology aredisastrous.The second story is the story of Dr. Morbius.
At the outset, Altaira IVcould easily be mistaken for paradise, albeit an arid and lonely one. While thearea that the ship is in is a desert like climate, the dwelling place of Morbiusand Alta seems climactic enough. Deer frolick in the nearby forest, and tigerswhich are normally fearsome killers are petted like kitty cats. It is the tigerwhich is the first clue that things are going wrong. An obvious symbol ofnature, a tiger attacks Alta one day while Commander Adams is there.
Adamsquickly uses his blaster on the tiger, symbolizing the utter dominance oftechnology over nature on Altaira IV. Shortly afterwards, things start gettingworse, and culminate in a fearsome attack by “nature” in the form of Morbius’ssubconscious on Adams’s ship. As the plot unfolds, we find out that Dr.
Morbius,by meddling with technology he didn’t fully understand, managed to inadvertentlykill dozens of people. It is worth noting that Morbius realizes on some levelthe extent to which things have gotten out of hand when his daughter pleads withhim to help the crew of the ship. His reply to her is along the lines of “Icannot help him (Commander Adams) as long as he stays so willfully”. In shortwhat Morbius is saying is strongly reminiscient of Frankenstein’s message, thatis, “This technology that I am supposedly master’ of has gotten out of mycontrol, and I am powerless to stop it”. Dr. Morbius is a grim reminder againof what can happen when technology is allowed to increase unchecked, to thepoint where human beings can no longer understand it, let alone control it.
Ironically, Dr. Morbius himself warned against the unchecked growth oftechnology by refusing to allow mankind access to the Krell’s wondrous secrets.Instead, he insisted that he would dispense what pearls of wisdom he saw fit,the better to keep mankind from destroying itself. In the end, of course, theentire planet was destroyed, along with several neighboring star systems.There are several lessons to be learned from Forbidden Planet. Thefirst is that before man can hope to control nature or technology, he needs tolearn to control himself, as evidenced by the disaster which destroyed the Krell.Second, when technology and nature are in direct conflict, the results will notbe beneficial, and will probably be destructive.
Third, when technology andnature are too far off balance from each other, the results will again bedetrimental.In short, Forbidden Planet is a kind of Frankenstein which is moredeveloped and has better symbolism, which is to say that it councils the samecourse of action that Florman does–caution, but not inaction. If we allownature to run rampant, we clearly cannot survive. (This statement again takesthe assumption that “nature” is a tempest, not a garden of eden.) If we allowtechnology to go unchecked, it will eventually overwhelm us when we least expectit. And if we pit the two against each other, it will destroy our entire solarsystem.
The proper course of action, then, is just what both Florman andMorbius propose–proceed slowly, and take into account the fact that all that isnew is not necessarily good.