Forbidden Planet, Altair IV and the Krell

In 1956 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released what would become one of the most influential and ground-breaking science fiction movies in cinematic history. Forbidden Planet is loosely based upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and deals with an expedition by the United Planets Cruiser C-57D to the planet Altair IV, where the crew will attempt to learn the fate of the colonists who landed on the planet twenty years before in a ship named the Bellerophon. Upon landing, they meet the only surviving member of the colony, a linguistics professor named Dr. Edward Morbius, his 19-year-old daughter Altaira (who has never met another human being besides her father), and the iconic Robby the Robot (constructed by Morbius during his twenty-year stay). They learn of the mysterious deaths of the colonists at the hands of some horrific force, and ultimately learn of the planet’s long-dead indigenous race, the Krell. In the words of Morbius:

In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty, noble race of beings who called themselves the Krell. Ethically and technologically they were a million years ahead of humankind, for in unlocking the meaning of nature they had conquered even their baser selves, and when in the course of eons they had abolished sickness and insanity, crime and all injustice, they turned, still in high benevolence, upwards towards space. Then, having reached the heights, this all-but-divine race disappeared in a single night. In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe, even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing, absolutely nothing remains above ground.

The special effects for this movie were provided by Walt Disney Studios, and there is a battle scene with the mysterious “Monster from the Id” that resembles nothing so much as outtakes from a drunken wrap party following the filming of Fantasia. Long-time viewers of The Twilight Zone will recognize the Cruiser C-57D and the uniforms of its crew from such episodes as “Death Ship” and “To Serve Man.” Likewise, Robby the Robot made appearances in Twilight Zone episodes “Uncle Simon” and “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” as well as a starring role in the film The Invisible Boy.

But the most memorable thing about the movie for many (your humble Krellmusician included) is its score. It was created by the then husband-and-wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron and credited in the movie as “Electronic Tonalities” (not belonging to the Musicians’ Union, the Barrons could not be called “composers” and their work was not eligible for an Oscar nomination for “Best Soundtrack.”). It is often believed that many of the themes in the soundtrack were produced by a Theremin. While the classic instrument can simulate some of the sounds, no Theremin was used in the film score. Rather, Louis constructed custom circuitry based (as he claimed) upon the principles of “cybernetics” expounded in the book of the same name by MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. Barron then proceeded to drive the circuits into a destructive frenzy by applying voltages and currents far in excess of the design limits, all the while taping the sounds produced in their electronic death throes. Bebe then applied normal tape composition techniques of the time — cutting, splicing, direction reversal, speed variations, addition of reverb and other effects — to generate the sounds evoking Krell musicians from long-past millennia. The result was a score that some have called one of the first examples of ambient electronic music, full of remarkably organic-sounding timbres and rhythms, and a work that perfectly complements the visuals and overall tone of the film.

The soundtrack still holds up well over a half-century later. A modern version called Forbidden Planet Explored by Jack Dangers is a live re-creation of the soundtrack during a screening at I.D.E.A.L Festival, Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France on March 6, 2004.  To these ears it is an interesting attempt using modern synthesis equipment but lacks much of the life and organic qualities of the tube-generated, effects-processed, tape-spliced original.  There is even a book that studies the score and its production in great detail.

Much of my interest in science fiction, in science fiction films and in electronic music began when I first saw Forbidden Planet.  To me, being a “Krell musician” — using any available technology, no matter how old or new, to produce sounds that are firmly rooted in organic life as well as being adrift in the ether — is a high calling indeed.  It is to this music, to these technologies and techniques, and to the spirits of the long-dead Krell that this Web site is dedicated.