Forbidden Planet & its Orientalist roots…

Forbidden Planet-Yuricich.jpg

We’re not quite at the stage of the “no instrumentality” hinted at in the landmark and personal favourite all-time scifi move, “Forbidden Planet”, when referring to the scientific and technological advances of the long-dead “Krell” civilization in the film – the best we can do on a day-to-day basis is WiFi connecting a smart phone to your in-car stereo – which is what I was doing today, and listening to a track from the film’s soundtrack album which came up as a random selection for my listening pleasure – in this case “Shangri-La in The Desert” – a slice of ahead-of-its-time electronica by the composers, the husband and wife team of Louis & Bebe Barron.

I keep going back to the film in a manner verging on obsession, ever since I first saw it on a late night broadcast in B/W, sometime in the equally monochrome-seeming British 70’s.

Everything about it smacks of class, even if it was (& still is) dismissed as a hokey throwback to pulp era fiction aimed at kids – a heady concoction of spacemen, ray-guns, flying saucers, menacing robots & a damsel in distress – the stock-in-trade of so many “B” grade SciFi potboilers of the 50’s – oddly & inexplicably totally omitted from the recent expansive exhibition of SciFi tropes at the Barbican entitled “Into The Unknown”.

The title of the track caught my attention because it clearly referred, almost as a turn of phrase and therefore carrying no weight especially, to something which is also a recurring motif in fantasy in the decades leading up to the 50’s, and to some extent to the present – that of “Shangri-La” – you can see it referred to in the recent excellent “Dr Strange”, where Strange is offered a card in Tibet with the word “Shambala” printed on it, before being told it is the WiFi password 🙂

To explain, where “Shangri-La” is a fictional invention, it did in fact refer to the mystical Buddhist “Shambala”, which has a semi-fictional / factual basis.

I say “semi-fictional / factual basis” because it’s hard to know without further extensive research if the concept has any place in orthodox Buddhist teachings or is just another product of the wild ideas of Orientalists, chiefly Helena Blavatsky, who helped propagate and disseminate these ideas in the West and effectively populated the Western imagination with them, right up to the present day.

When you look at it, there are so many things in “Forbidden Planet” which seem to be inspired by those ideas, and though I concede that its main inspiration is Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as is widely acknowledged, even this source has as its inspiration ideas & locations which are not remotely “Western” – just “exotic”.

I wondered if the Shangri-La reference came from the composers or the writers of the film – a question that may remain unanswered.

Blavatsky’s thesis, based supposedly on many years spent at the feet of Buddhist masters in Tibet, is that Tibetan Buddhists are the protectors of a very ancient and lost knowledge, some of which sounds fantastical in its details – lost civilisations, hidden subterranean kingdoms, technological advances beyond comprehension and “Shambala”, a geographical location in the Himalayas hidden from the eyes of the rest of humanity and existing in a kind of parallel dimension, and in addition interweaving elements from Hinduism, a religion which must have seemed impenetrable & alien to Westerners – and all this led to the foundation of a kind of religion or set of philosophies called “Theosophy” – an antidote, possibly, to conventional Christianity & other “organized” religions.

These ideas gained a significant following in the early years of the 20th century and gradually entered into popular culture via written fiction – the apparently psychically channeled “Book of Dyzan” is even quoted in the roller title intro of one of the old Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” film serials – a visual device later borrowed consciously by George Lucas in his “Star Wars” series – and you could say are a foundation, amongst many other influences, for “Dr Strange”.

Returning to the subject of this piece, and looking at it without any foreknowledge of its connection to Shakespeare’s work, the ideas which underpin the story seem to have a direct correlation to the ideas of M.Blavatsky & the “Theosophists” – the group which resulted from her “teachings”.

Now I’m not setting out to discredit Blavatsky and her often crazy-sounding ideas – if nothing else they provide a springboard to other ideas even if you do take them with a heavy pinch of salt & prefer to look for physical substantiation instead of taking them at face value.

The great thing about the film is that it uses elements that are superficially those of science-fiction to tell a story which has a broader significance in terms of highlighting what it is to be human and the perils of over-reaching ambition & the search for knowledge – things which threaten to overturn basic humanity – these are aspects that run through Blavatsky’s writings, but on a cosmic scale – whole civilizations are born, reach a peak and then descend into darkness, humanity is at the center of immense conflicts between powerful beings, & so on, aspects also reflected in the work of writers like H.P Lovecraft.

Looked at in terms of the plot details, all the elements are in place – Prof Morbius’ home is a kind of literal “Shangri-La”, hidden from view briefly from the approaching “C57D” United Planets Cruiser, by jamming signals.

His technological marvels, whilst essentially trinket-like in nature, are almost like magic to the visiting crew of the C57D, and eventually, when the vast underground complexes of the Krell are revealed, we see the evidence of what they left behind before they achieved a kind of non-corporeal immortality, finally freed from the physical limitations of their machines – a spiritual state, in fact.

Altair-7 is physically like the Himalayas, if not consciously – a desolate, hostile place where humans might struggle to survive, and critically, placed at the farthest end of the explored universe, and like Blavatsky’s version of Tibet, a “Forbidden Kingdom”.

The more I study the film, the more I see these parallels emerging, though of course, that is only my personal, subjective, take on it – it just happens that these ideas permeate SciFi and fantasy across the board and refuse to go away.

There have been several attempts at re-making “Forbidden Planet” – without seeing scripts it’s impossible to know quite how they could reinterpret the original compelling storyline without at least acknowledging where it comes from in the first place, though I’m sure many would vehemently disagree with my analysis in the same way that a fan who builds scale replicas of “Robbie The Robot” was horrified when I suggested that Robbie was just an ironic and knowing visual and conceptual reference to Hattie McDaniel’s role in “Gone With The Wind” – a technological replacement for the Southern States “mammie”…lol

I’ve often thought that if I was tasked with reinventing the story, how would I go about it ? – for starters, I’d cast Sean Connery as a grizzled, ageing Morbius stuck on a god-forsaken planet which looks surprisingly like say, Ladakh, in the foothills of the Himalayas­ – to all intents, a dead world – but he’s too old.

Altaira would be his planetary archeologist daughter, forever exploring the networks of dangerous underground tunnels they have both discovered – feisty, independent & perhaps a little crazy, and a total contrast to Anne Francis’ version, though a key thing about the original is the level of conviction in all the performances.

The crew of the C57D would be more militaristic in nature.

Having revealed the dark secret behind the invisible “monster” which is killing Col’ Adams crew, the big pay off is that “Altair 7” is in fact Earth, and the ancient civilization of the “Krell” is one which predates humanity by several millions of years.

…As for Robbie – well, he’d be this very odd looking, assymetric notion of a robot & not the walking,talking microwave / washing machine / fridge he is in the original – “he” would seem almost like an alien life-form to the crew of the C57D, and in fact, initially, they mistake “him” for Altaira’s pet, but in reality he is a very technologically advanced robot and would have been built by the Krell as part of a slave workforce – reconstructed by Morbius & Altaira from knowledge found in the subterranean tunnels.

Much as I like the whole Freudian thing of the “Ego” & the “Id, I’d ditch these since they are the originals chief USP and place it very much in the 50’s, when Freud & Jung were popular – it’s such a neat idea though, I’m not sure what I’d replace it with…

Sound good ?…let me know & I might knock up a script….:)

(C) The Naked Swami – July 2017





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