“Forbidden Planet” & Orientalism

Film Review:

We’re not quite at the stage of the “no instrumentality” hinted at in the landmark and personal all-time favourite sci-fi move, “Forbidden Planet”, when referring to the scientific and technological advances of the extinct “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 – eg I can listen to a track from the film’s soundtrack album which came up as a random selection – 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 2017 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 / spiritual 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.

“Matte” painting for the film by Matthew Yuricich

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 of the distinctive sound track 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 significant traction in the early years of the 20th century and gradually entered into popular culture via written fiction – the apparently psychically channeled “Book of Dzyan” is even quoted in the roller title intro’ of one of the old Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” film serials, “Dzyan” becoming “Dyzan”, to avoid an obvious connection – the title roller 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 that 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 and anticipated to an extent in William Hope Hodgson’s seminal “House on the Borderland”.

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 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 kind of spiritual state, in fact.

Altair-7 is physically like the Himalayas in appearance, even if this was not a deliberate intention on the part of the visual designers of the film – a desolate, hostile place where humans might struggle to survive, and critically, placed at the farthest end of the explored universe, and is like Blavatsky’s version of Tibet –  a “Forbidden Kingdom”.

Furthermore, watching a recent documentary on the history the UK horror film fan convention, “FrightFest”, threw up the word “Tulpa”, here the title of an apparently laughable Italian entry in the horror film genre, and this resulted in a Google search of the word, which I was familiar with as having a Buddhist origin – it turns out that a “Tulpa” is a thought-manifested being that its “user” can direct towards benevolent or more often than not, harmful purpose – and what sprang immediately to mind was the “ID” monster summoned by Morbius to protect his daughter, stripped of any overt association with Buddhism by the use of the word “ID” to instead refer to a more West-facing Freudian thought-manifestation.

Interestingly, the term first came to Westerners’ attention via the Theosophist works of Blavatsky and Co, who sought to re-interpret Buddhist philosophy and fuse it with aspects of Hinduism and Christianity as a more “modern” alternative religion.

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.

A lavish MGM production, the film strove to move away from the Saturday Morning serial roots of filmed science fiction with it’s crude sets and visual effects – a studio already noted for its evergreen adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” earlier on and it’s worth noting at this point that the author of the original books on which that film is based, Frank L.Baum, was himself a follower of Theosophy, as were many in the West in the post WW1 years and so the connection to the later “Forbidden Planet” seems all the more appropriate, if not immediately obvious, to the casual viewer.

Ravi Swami – February 2020