Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Monsters—From Microsecond To Microsecond

Today’s post doesn’t have much of a point, but it’s something that I find really interesting, and it is about the movie “Forbidden Planet,” so it’s related to all the other posts I’ve done about that movie.

I’ve talked about the movie in general, and I’ve talked about how watching it now feels completely different than when I was a kid. (I think it feels different because I’m seeing with adult eyes, and my impression is the filmmakers tried very hard to make the movie for kids—the adults in the story behave the way kids think they’ll behave when they’re adults.)

Today I just want to talk about two specific scenes in the movie. I want to talk about a bit of the writing that I admire very, very much. I would never write a movie—I don’t think—where the adults act so childishly. But the filmmakers did try to be true to a science fiction basic nuts-and-bolts vision of reality and I admire that.

When the filmmakers creating “Forbidden Planet” needed to have a monster, the filmmakers created a nuts-and-bolts science fiction context—of course with a lot of mumbo-jumbo dialogue that only sounds scientific—and then used that context to explain the monster. It doesn’t matter, really, that the dialogue is mumbo-jumbo. Everyone knows a movie isn’t a documentary. But the attention to detail makes it easy for the audience to suspend disbelief and enjoy the narrative.

Here’s what I’m talking about.

Toward the middle of the movie, the crew of the spaceship find out that the guy on the planet has discovered the remains of a lost, scientifically advanced ancient civilization and has learned to use some of the ancient civilization’s amazing tools. The man demonstrates what is apparently a child’s toy, a machine that constructs three-dimensional holograms based on a person’s thoughts.

The man demonstrates by creating a vivid three-dimensional hologram of his daughter.

One of the spacemen points out that the hologram is moving and appears alive. The man who has been studying the ancient civilization’s equipment explains that the image appears alive— “Because my daughter is alive in my brain, from microsecond to microsecond while I manipulate it.”

So that establishes that there is this weird and powerful technology capable of sensing a person’s thoughts and acting on them. And it establishes the idea that something can appear real if it is changing “microsecond to microsecond.”

Just a few scenes later, the spaceship is attacked by a monster. The monster is invisible, but becomes visible when it attempts to penetrate a force-field surrounding the spaceship. The spacemen fire powerful weapons, ‘blasters,’ at the monster, but the blasters seem to have no effect, although eventually, for some reason not immediately clear, the creature disappears.

Two of the spacemen then exchange dialogue that includes this sequence:

“Doc, an invisible being that cannot be disintegrated by atomic fission.”

“No, skipper, that is a scientific impossibility.”

“Hypnotic illusions don’t tear people apart.”

“That’s true enough. But any organism dense enough to survive three billion electron volts would have to be made of solid nuclear material. It would sink of its own weight to the center of this planet.”

“Well, you saw it yourself, standing in those neutron beams.”

“And there’s your answer. It must have been renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.”

That’s pretty cool stuff. The writer even has the character use the phrase, ‘from one microsecond to the next’ echoing the phrasing from the earlier scene.

So the filmmakers create a reasonable sounding nuts-and-bolts science fiction context for this creature to exist, showing an example with the man’s beautiful daughter. Then the same context supports creating an externalization of the man’s id, his darker wishes and desires, a monster.

That’s pretty cool stuff. It’s solid writing. Maybe it’s ‘just’ a kid’s movie, but attention to detail like that makes it a very well-written kid’s movie. And people respond to it. And—as I have—people remember it all their life. (And, of course, that hologram scene inspired the famous Princess Leia hologram decades later in “Star Wars.”)

That’s pretty cool stuff from “Forbidden Planet.”

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