Was Dr. Morbius a power-hungry madman?
The classic 1956 movie Forbidden Planet is about a mind-reading machine that can materialize solid matter in any shape you want, anywhere on the planet Altair-4. But why, in all their infinite wisdom, didn’t the Krell deem it prudent to install an off-switch?
Forbidden Planet skirts the borders of fantasy, but remains rooted in nuts-and-bolts golden age SF. The manipulation of elemental particles is merely Clarkesian magic. The mind-reading is rooted in quantum physics. “The brain sends out electrical impulses,” Lieutenant Ostrow (Warren Stevens) explains in a deleted scene. All humans emit these “quantum waves” that the Krell machine can detect.
One of the movie’s more perplexing features is the presence of Earth animals on Altair-4. Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), sole adult survivor of the colonist ship Bellerophon which landed on the planet 20 years earlier, claims that the Krell must have visited Earth and brought back samples of Earth life. It’s a lame and over-complicated excuse.
There’s much more on this subject in the novelization by British writer Philip MacDonald, which was modeled on what seems to be a crude early draft of the script. The novel was published in January 1956, three months before the movie’s premiere.
It is set out as a series of reminiscences by Morbius, Ostrow, and Commander John Adams, captain of the relief ship C-57D, all of them compiled as a legendary history lesson a couple hundred years after the event.
In the novel, Morbius’s 19 year old daughter Altaira, who was born on the planet, says that the animals “just came” when she was young. When Adams’s tractor accidentally runs over a titi, Ostrow dissects it to find that it is little more than a child’s toy masquerading as an animal. He discovers “a heart and only two main arteries. No stomach. No intestines.”
These are the kind of internal organs a young girl would create. But Altaira has never been to Earth, so Morbius is much more likely to have decided she needed companions and dreamed them up himself.
And this is the crux of the matter. How likely is it that he did so subconsciously, and never questioned their appearance?
In the movie, Morbius explains that “recently” he’s begun to understand the purpose of the Krell machine. But the animals should have been a giveaway, years ago. Do simulacrum monkeys eat synthetic food? as Philip K. Dick might have put it.
Robby the robot, also Krell technology, appears capable of creating things himself, but only by standard physical principles. We may not know where he got the raw materials for the lead shielding, but he does complain that “star sapphires take a week to crystalize properly.” The point of the Krell machine is that it creates anything you want instantly.
Late in the movie, Adams (a truly terrific Leslie Nielsen) implies that only a man whose brain has been boosted is “strong enough” to operate the machine. Which suggests that Morbius is the only one who can do it, and the monster that ravaged both the Bellerophon and later the C-57D is entirely his own. Incidentally, this means there is no danger in the Krell machine as long as nobody else tries the brain boost, so he didn’t need to self-destruct it.
Could Altaira (Anne Francis) also be manifesting her inner desires? Did he put her through the brain boost? It might explain all that armor plating in Morbius’s house. She’s a girl with an awakening and frustrated sexuality. Is the armor intended to keep her rampant phallic monsters at bay?
In the novel, Morbius becomes a much more culpable villain. “He stated, categorically, that he did not know the final aim of the Krell,” Ostrow tells Adams in a letter he leaves for him after his death. “He did. And it was his own aim too. […] The animals. Altaira’s animals…were experiments by Morbius.”
Morbius knew what the machine does much earlier than he admits. But is that enough by itself to damn him?
In the movie, Morbius says he survived the original attacks because he wanted to make a new life for himself and his wife on Altair-4 “far from the scurry and strife of humankind.”
This reveals two things about him. First, he’s misanthropic. And second, when the others voted to return to Earth, he opposed them. But of course, he was opposing them before their vote to return to Earth, since his monster was already wreaking havoc to cause the vote in the first place.
In the novel, Morbius claims he and his wife survived because “we both had a love for this new world. So that none of our thoughts, even, were inimical to it.” This would seem to suggest that Morbius knew, even back then, what the machine did, but he did not know that the monsters were conjured up by his own subconscious. This means that he’s not culpable of anything more than wishing other humans dead. And you’d have to lock us all up for that.
What makes this so interesting is that Ostrow expresses almost identical thoughts in both the movie and the novel. “I was just thinking I could easily like this world — perhaps want to live in it, like Morbius,” Ostrow tells Adams in the novel. Since it is Ostrow who takes the brain boost, he is himself positioned to become a second Morbius. I think this makes Ostrow the most fascinating character in the entire story.
In the novel, Morbius knew enough about what was happening to tell Altaira the truth: “He says there was something that hated anyone who wanted to go away and tell about this planet,” she tells Ostrow. “But he says it didn’t hate him, or mother. Because they didn’t want to go away.” She suddenly realizes what’s happening now: “Oh! Do you think — Do you suppose — Could it be my fault? Because I don’t want to be here anymore? Because I want to go away with John?”
The answer is probably yes, but again only in Morbius’s subconscious. The monster first attacks the C-57D when Morbius learns he may have to go back to Earth for questioning.
There’s a get-out clause for Morbius — that the attack happens while he’s asleep — but the movie is unclear on this issue. During the second attack on the C-57D, he’s awake. In the scene immediately prior to the attack he’s shown leading Adams and Ostrow on a guided tour of the machine, and in the scene immediately after he’s arguing with them in his office.
Either way, even when he is wide awake he appears to have no idea that his subconscious has summoned up the monster.
Morbius is asleep during the climactic attack on the C-57D, but awakens when he hears Altaira scream. The movie is cut in such a way as to make it appear that the monster vanishes the moment he awakens. (Altaira screams because she dreamed of the monster threatening Adams, but I’ll overlook the potential fantasy aspects implied by this.)
The final confrontation between Morbius and his inner demon is frustratingly vague. In the movie it happens off-screen, and has no comprehensible outcome. The obvious answer is for the monster to destroy Morbius out of self-disgust that he is to blame for all the deaths, and hence annihilate itself in the process. But that’s not what happens. A wounded Morbius survives the encounter.
The confrontation in the novel is just as annoyingly off-screen. Adams, who relates the scene, is told “don’t look, darling!” by Altaira, so he doesn’t. The text turns into ellipsis-riddled gloop:
“We waited…There was no sound…Or was there? I don’t know…Then there was a feeling. A sensation of — of easing…I found my head was lifting, turning so that I could see — But I still don’t know what I saw. Or didn’t see but felt…But I knew. I knew the thing that had been facing Morbius was fading…And then it was gone.”
As far as the movie is concerned, Morbius appears to be an innocent victim. He is a new Einstein, attempting to protect humanity from something it cannot yet control. And he’s right: mankind is not ready to harness this new nuclear oblivion. His hubris is thinking himself capable of harnessing it himself.
Morbius is not a sorcerer. He is just a man who thinks himself more than he is, as do we all.
Is he “the mad scientist of the taped thrillers”? If we believe the movie, Morbius still doesn’t understand that the monster comes from his own id even at the very end, when it’s attacking the laboratory. (He is again wide awake during this attack.) Adams sneers that he sent his monster to destroy them when they were threatening his “little ego-maniac empire” but the whole point of the movie is that none of us are responsible for the evil impulses of our own subconscious dreams and desires.
The novel is less equivocal. It damns Morbius, if not for being culpably evil, then for being “decadent.” When Adams asks Morbius if he is ready to leave the planet, the doctor all but snarls at him: “Do you think you can make me go? Haven’t you learned what happens to meddlers?”
Adams turns on him. “You didn’t know it then,” he rants about the destruction of the Bellerophon, “but you went on learning, Morbius. And you found out. So it wasn’t in your subconscious anymore.”
This seems to me to be a terrible fudge. The book is implying that Morbius knew all about the monster and, fearing that it will be set loose on the C-57D once he is asleep, tries hard to stay awake. (Ostrow knocks him out with a soporific drug, inadvertently releasing it.)
By the 1967 Paperback Library edition of the novel, there was no doubt at all about how readers should think of Morbius. “Mad Dr. Morbius had a lust for power that extended far beyond the weird world of Altair-4,” screams the headline on the back cover. In the blurb he is described as “a strange scientist who plots to become master of the universe. Morbius warns the earthlings to leave at once — or be destroyed by his invisible force.”
Why the hardening attitude? My suspicion is it feeds better into the religious subtext that is seamed all through the movie.
“The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds,” Ostrow exclaims on arriving at Altair-4. “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious,” Adams declares, “so we have laws and religion.” Adams and Altaira are joined together “body and soul.” Morbius himself is a religious man. When he dug graves for the slain of the Bellerophon, he furnished them with Christian crosses. The very last words in the movie are an admonition against the powers of science: “We are after all not god.”
In the novel, the theme is hammered out remorselessly until you’re sick of it. “The Krells (sic),” Ostrow writes in his letter to Adams, “in the insolence of their success, tried to usurp the power of God. And were destroyed. Morbius, in the insolence bred by megalomania, has been, and is, working toward the same end.”
That makes him evil. “Morbius has no excuse except sickness,” Ostrow writes. “He is a sick man. Sick in the mind. And this sickness is the worst, the most deadly sickness. The greater the mind, the deadlier the sickness.”
Having hung Morbius upon the Babel of his own inquiring mind, the novel ends with a sour postscript written far in the future: “Regarded as a major tragedy by many scientists, the auto-destruction of Altair-4 was, in a way, welcomed by the Church and most thoughtful men and women.”
Dr. Morbius’s character flaw was not that he tried to limit science. That’s a good thing, apparently. It was that he didn’t limit himself.
It’s ironic when you think about it. This most glorious of SF movies, full of awe-inspiring human and alien machinery, is actually at heart a tirade against the folly of scientific advance. And a warning that all we will ever be is merely beasts of the field.