Thursday, March 3, 2011

“The Tempest” and Science Fiction

While as a teacher you may be teaching The Tempest as a fantasy novel, or, as it's categorized in the Shakespeare canon, as a romance, the play also has some decent science fiction cred as well. The 1956 classic science fiction movie Forbidden Planet is a really fun remake of the story. In it, the space ship C-57D lands on the planet Altair IV (captained by the late Leslie Neilson) to check up on a colony that landed there twenty years before. All members of the colony are dead except for a Doctor Morbius and his daughter Altaira. Without going into the plot too much, suffice to say the movie is a satisfying retelling of this classic story.

My favorite parts of the movie are the way Ariel and Caliban are transformed into science fiction ideas. Ariel, the faithful, powerful servant, is transformed into Robbie the Robot. Instead of the ethereal and graceful “airy spirit”, we get a clumsy but impressive creation. The most notable scene with him, perhaps, is when Morbius demonstrates to the visiting crew of the ship Robbie's power and limitations. Robbie has the power to lift tons, but his programming makes him unable to hurt a living human being, shades of Isaac Azimov's I Robot books.

Caliban seems nowhere to be found at first, except for a trouble fact the crew of the C-57D are bothered by: the mysterious deaths of all the other members of the expedition. As Morbius reveals more and more about his life on the planet, we learn that Morbius has discovered the remnants of a fabulously advanced civilization that once existed on Altair IV, the Krell. The Doctor has even learned how to harness some of the Krell's technology, increasing his own intellect far beyond what is was. Here we have the science fiction analog to Prospero's magic, advanced alien technology. This a trope used perhaps far too often here, but the presentation of it in this movie, combined with the still impressive special effects of the underground Krell technology, make it work.

But back to Caliban. We learn that the colonists' deaths seemed to coincide with a plan to leave Altair IV, a move Morbius disagreed with intensely. Concurrent with these events, a strange, invisible creature begins wrecking havoc with the landed space sip. An important part disappears, then a crewman dies. After a defensive perimeter is set up around the ship, the creature is halted, but not after its horrifying silhouette appears in a blaze of laser fire. This creature, the ship's doctor exclaims after examining its footsteps, cannot exist. It doesn't follow any known rule of evolution. As Morbius is confronted, the ship's captain realizes that the creature is a projection of Morbius's own personality, his “id” in Freudian terms, amplified by the Krell apparatus inside the planet. This means that the original colonists died because Morbius killed them subconsciously because they disagreed with his decision to leave the planet.

While students may argue or not whether Freud's concept of the “id” actually exists, this movie does present a good basis for that conversation. Caliban here is the unconscious, and what teenager cannot relate to anger or other emotions which cannot be expressed publicly? Caliban too in The Tempest occupies that same emotional space, displaying the savage base desires that Prospero fears. While the “id” creature in Forbidden Planet is far more savage than Prospero's servant/slave, the science fiction setting with it's advanced weapons and scanning instruments seems to allow for the more dangerous foe.

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