Simulacrum and Power: Perception, Imagination, Reality
It seems we are always witnesses. Forbidden Planet tells us many things. It tells us that there are worlds behind us that we can never access, that we can only grasp at. It tells us there are worlds beyond us, that we again, are only capable of grasping at. Finally, it tells us that there are worlds within us, violent worlds within us, that when we attempt to grasp prowl stealthily beyond our reach.
Power, we know, does not exist in and of itself, but manifests only in its effects and in its enactments, in the relations between beings. Direct, explicit power relationships are all over Forbidden Planet: the masculinity competition between the three male protagonists, the sheltering and manipulation of Alta by her father, the power inherent in the colonialism that sets the backdrop and exigence for the playing out of the film. There are other powers at play, though, some of them unseen or intangible. The worlds within us, Forbidden Planet tells us, are dark and deep and full of animal, full of id: the outdated term that Morbius identifies by name but succumbs to in life. In the end, for Morbius, it’s his own id that does him in, his own innate feelings of hate, lust, jealousy, the innate desire for power over others and his environment. One might posit a number of explanations for the convergence of effects that merge in the moment Morbius comes to the realization that he is the monster, whether those explanations be psychological, material, ideological, or some combination thereof. One possible route to move our analysis in is toward an analysis of the reality that we encounter, perceive and imagine: for no matter how we construct that reality, our constructions mobilize real power effects, effects never fully in our control. The attempt to do so, it seems, brings about the downfall of Morbius.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was intimately aware of the connection between reality (accessible only in claims to realities, human beings telling other human beings what their truth is) and the power relations between human beings that are tied to those abilities to provide definition and conceptual frame. We are confronted in Baudrillard’s model with simulacra and simulation: we move along the hyperreal, dipping in and out of different frames of being until it dawns upon us that there are no fixed realities and references to which we might cling, but rather only copies of that which has no referent, no original, the copy of the copy. We live in overlapping, layered simulations that are all equally true, in which we find the laws and the order we imagine into existence to be nothing more a simulation (38). In light of this mutating flux of undefined ground, we are forced to deflect the vast sea of differences playing out and to cling to one, to solidify it and affirm it time and time again. This, we might call reality. Baudrillard tells in his Simulations of how “The only weapon of power, its only strategy against this deflection, is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production” (42). This is where power, simulacra, and Forbidden Planet meet.
Morbius is the supreme power broker in the film, controlling and commanding his daughter, displaying his great intelligence and knowledge to his guests, interacting with them only in a domain in which he is fully in control. He sets reality in Forbidden Planet, at least for a time: he tells and withholds information from his daughter, and imparts new information and new worldviews to the naive space cadets. As Baudrillard might predict of him, Morbius fixes reality, treats it referentially and as an objective enterprise, and does so in ways that benefit him alone (being the sole arbiter of the power-knowledge of the Krell). This is, of course, is a situation that cannot last: Morbius’ reality conflicts and clashes with the reality of Altair IV and of the Krell metaphysical energy force, and violence beyond Morbius’ control ensures.
Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. Brooklyn: Semiotext[e] Offices.