“The film that, at first sight, would seem to challenge most forcefully the aesthetic framework set up by Metropolis is Forbidden Planet (1956). Its entirely electronic “score” by Louis and Bebe Barron, the first of its kind in Hollywood, is described in the credits as “electronic tonalities” and was composed at a time when the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert was in its infancy. Functioning both as music and as a sound effect track, the score was clearly designed to sound alien and futuristic.
“For instance, its sounds are increasingly aligned both with references to the astounding relics of a long-dead but highly advanced civilization and, in the latter half of the film, with the monstrous emanations unwittingly created from the main character’s subconscious mind with the help of the aliens’ unimaginably sophisticated technology. Yet the score shifts effortlessly from this nondiegetic function into diegetic mode when visiting astronauts are played an ancient recording of the creatures’ music, which has been clearly contextualized in the dialogue as an alien artifact of great value and wonder. The ease of this slippage is facilitated by the largely nondramatic nature of the score as a whole, which, in its twin function as music and sound effect, maintains a flexible and discreet distance from the emotional contours of the narrative. Despite Rebecca Leydon’s claims – and even the efforts of the composers themselves— this music, through its contemporaneous strangeness, for the most part seems to be conspicuously separate from the middle-American, patriarchal 1950s approach to human relationships depicted in the film, acting as a repository of certain concerns about new technological growth that were characteristic of postwar Western culture—concerns which, typically, develop from an initial lack of understanding and na ̈ıve wonder- ment at the benefits of technology beyond those already harnessed by humankind, move through fear and distrust of its potential, and arrive at a final rejection of technology’s evil and uncontrollable superhuman power (the planet is set to self-destruct by the departing astronauts).
“There is a tension between the film’s abstract, largely nonthreatening “coffee-percolator” sound world, which briefly intensifies into a louder, throbbing siren like noise—sometimes ambiguously diegetic in origin— for moments of dramatic pressure (the only concession to the prevailing aesthetic), and the all-too-threatening real prospect of the amoral use of technology that seems to constitute the story’s message. If this sound world has since become the clich ́ed symbol of an old-fashioned future, the film should nevertheless be commended for resisting the temptation to provide a counterpoising sentimental “human” element in its scoring, particularly in light of the narrative’s ostensibly tidy closure, which, through this resistance, is curiously lent an open-ended, distanced, mythic quality.”
Text: Jeremy Barham, Scoring Incredible Futures: Science Fiction Screen Music, and “Postmodernism” as Romantic Epiphany.
Image: Music edit from Forbidden Planet, via YouTube.