FORBIDDEN PLANET - A touch of the sublime

   Although I consider the film ‘Forbidden Planet’ to be a beautiful
   piece of work in itself, there is a scene very early on which
   introduces Robbie the Robot which is a clue as to why. But it is
   only a clue, since the very nature of sublime is that it always just
   eludes analysis.

   It is the scene where we first see the main door of the spaceship
   open and the descent of the crew onto the surface of Altair 4.
   But instead of alien monsters emerging, we see human beings
   walking confidently down the steps, at ease with a technology
   that has brought them to this world faster than the speed of
   light. The sense of scale and alien environment is achieved in a
   way which is peculiar to the time the film was made, and it is in
   this faintly melancholic scene that we notice a trail of dust in
   the distance indicating something travelling extremely fast. We
   are unsettled, and expect what arrives in the next shot to explain
   the situation. At first it seems to: it is a robot. What’s more, it is
   benign and candid; we are even able to witness its internal
   workings visible through its transparent casing (we can ‘see the
   washing going around’ as it were; a fitting analogy since its
   designer spent his early career designing washing machines).

   Yet for all this and the explanations it provides, we seem to be in
   the presence of an even deeper mystery as this wonderful
   machine stands before them on the sands of Altair 4. We are
   shown the arrival of humanity as ‘masters’ of nature, yet within
   a few moments we are presented with an enigma in the form
   of Robbie; an ‘echo’ of themselves and their technology
   represented as a mechanical man.

   What makes these moments work and even touch what I
   would call ‘sublime’ is largely the inspired efforts of the design
   team. There is a unity to the visualisation that ties the ‘look’ of
   Robbie to the men and their technology. It is as if the spaceship
   and crew, which are the perfect product of the ‘50s optimism
   and thereby its secular beliefs, is somehow condensed into the
   image of Robbie the Robot; assured, courteous, powerful,
   reasonable and confident; civilised.

   Yet, and here’s the sublime bit: this shining man is utterly
   enigmatic. We look at ourselves, just as we can look into
   Robbie’s transparent ‘face’ and see the inner workings, but
   what do we really understand?

   Chris Bennett 2008