Integrating the Alien in Forbidden Planet, Solaris, and 2001: A Space Odyssey
The search for and/or uncovering of secret knowledge is featured prominently in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanisław Lem’s Solaris and Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet, and in all three works the object or entity that holds the deep truths to be discovered is alien. The key to insight comes from an outside source, detached from humans and even the planet Earth. Solaris’s Kris Kelvin learns about both the limitations of humanity and his innermost psychological workings by studying the incomprehensible sentient “ocean” that covers the titular planet’s surface. The main cast of Forbidden Planet catch a glimpse at humanity’s future by exploring the ruins of Krell civilization, an ancient alien race which wiped itself out by advancing technologically past a point their very nature was compatible with. Kubrick’s film contains probably the most direct examples, a major one being the cognitive revolution experienced by apes who embrace an alien monolith which allows them to develop into a spacefaring civilization (12:21). This last example especially could be interpreted as reaching gnosis, described in The Gnostic Bible by Marvin Meyer as “insight, [...] knowledge as immediate awareness of deep truths,” (n.p.). In all three texts, gnosis is attained through an internalization of the external, a process of understanding that which is foreign and, to some extent, becoming it. Of course, this is not to suggest that every text ends with a successful gnostic awakening, but that the interactions that each work’s characters have with alien forces gives them a foundation of knowledge and experience that could be built on to reach ultimate insight. These successful interactions with aliens happen primarily in two ways: using the external as a looking glass, empathizing with the issues we see as reflections of our own and trying to overcome them, which happens with HAL-9000 in 2001, the Krell in Forbidden Planet and the ocean in Solaris. The second way is through confrontation with a force so radically different that it prompts either a change in our way of existence to be more like the alien that confuses us or a desire to pursue such a change, like 2001’s monoliths, the Krell technology that the mad scientist Dr. Morbius encounters in Forbidden Planet and, again, Solaris’s ocean. Assimilation of or by alien forces being the key to gnosis is also supported by studying all the cases where a character fails to transcend because of their incompatibility with these aliens, which is the case with the ocean and all of Solaris’s human characters, Morbius and the Krell from Forbidden Planet, and HAL and the apes from 2001.
Humans, seeing the flaws which impede us from reaching a higher state of being reflected in non-human entities, develop a greater capacity to surmount these weaknesses. In Solaris, Dr. Snow expresses a very similar opinion on humans’ quest for contact with alien forces: “We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors” (75). This approach is taken by many of Solaris’s Solarists as well as Dr. Morbius and the crew who came to the planet Altair in Forbidden Planet. Forbidden Planet´s Krell are so analogous to humans that Morbius and the crew are able to study what's left of their civilization and find within that usable plans to recreate their machinery, as evidenced by Morbius’s creation of Robbie the Robot. By using another remnant of their technology, the plastic educator, Morbius and the ship’s doctor are able to gain insight into the Krell’s metaphysical, collectively uploaded consciousness, revealing to them the cause of their downfall: “Monsters from the id” (Wilcox 1:24:59). The id, the most primal part of the unconscious mind responsible for desire, seemingly as present in the Krell as in humans, manifested itself and destroyed their world, causing the Krell to wipe their own species out. At the end of the film, Commander Adams seems to learn from these pseudo-humans’ mistake, as at the end of the film he reflects on the history of the planet he is leaving and states “it will remind us that we are, after all, not God” (Wilcox 1:37:35).
Kris Kelvin sees a more abstract representation of himself in the nebulous “communication” he has with Solaris’ ocean. After beaming his brainwaves into the ocean as x-rays, it seems to take a keener interest in him, and beams thoughts back into his head in the form of dreams, one of which is even describable: “I am being touched, my prison is being probed, and I feel this contact like a hand, and the hand re-creates me” (Lem 187). A possible interpretation of this dream is that the ocean is expressing the concept of studying and being studied, as it could be representing itself with both Kelvin and the hand. Both the attempt and inability to understand the alien seem to be common to Kelvin and the ocean. Although it is not stated, a conclusion can be drawn from this interaction: for true comprehension to be possible, one party must either become something more comprehensible by the other or ascend to a level where it can comprehend the other.
In 2001, some of humanity’s worst qualities are exemplified in HAL. Upon finding out it is at risk of being shut down, it tries to kill every astronaut on board the ship it controls (Kubrick 1:27:04). HAL seems to be hell-bent on self-preservation, getting rid of anything that could even potentially threaten it. While HAL takes a primal, almost savage approach, which seems to be based on impulses from its id, David Bowman overcomes this, and ends HAL’s life more “righteously”. He acts logically, not responding to HAL’s attempts at emotional appeal (1:49:50). But he still shows some mercy by allowing HAL to sing its final song as it died, giving it peace in its last moments (1:54:40). While it is impossible to make a definitive claim about this due to the film’s lack of concrete explanation for its events, Dave is the only character in the film who overcomes the primal violence and greed humans are prone to, and it is possible that this superhuman quality is what leads to him being picked to ascend at the end.
Gnostic ascent or the desire for it can also be sparked by contact with a being so radically different from humanity that we must change in order to understand it. Considering the film he appears in, David Bowman is a surprisingly simple example of this. At the end of the film, he confronts an alien force beyond his comprehension, accepting it, and letting himself, in turn, become something alien (Kubrick 2:18:52). This clash with a radically different power causes him to completely change as an entity and reach a higher level of existence. Earlier in the film, the apes who accept the monolith experience a similar leap to a higher level of consciousness, although it is not as complete a jump as Bowman’s: they still chase after the same base desires, as evidenced by their continued rivalry with another group over a watering hole, just with more fire- and brainpower (18:13).
Kris Kelvin, after all his communication with the ocean, does not ascend or transcend, but realizes that something must change in order for him to understand the ocean. This is supported by the quote he remembers about the observations humans make about the ocean: “Transposed into any human language, the values and meanings involved lose all substance; they cannot be brought intact through the barrier” (Lem 180). He realizes that humans, as we are now, are simply unable to understand something as different as the ocean. A s such, the conclusion of the novel can be interpreted as only being the beginning of Kelvin’s gnostic quest. His last line in the novel, “I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past,” is his pledge to stay on Solaris, forever awaiting the next possible drop of insight that could lead to his enlightenment (Lem 214). For an example from Forbidden Planet, while the Krell are in many ways similar to humans, they are still far enough away to not be perfectly understandable. Morbius felt the need to ascend to their level after seeing that such a higher existence was possible, and this fueled the research that would lead to his death (Wilcox 53:59).
The importance of integrating the alien in the quest for gnosis can be shown by analyzing cases of failure, where an unwillingness or inability to internalize the external prevents a successful ascent or transcendence. As mentioned previously, HAL-9000, after contact with the monoliths’ power, experiences an increase in its most human traits. To orient this on the path to gnostic ascent, HAL is taking a step backwards. It doubles down its most primal, deep-seeded attributes, not at all trying to find flaws in or evolve past them. Contrasting Bowman’s successful evolution, where he becomes a being of an altogether different nature, HAL does not adopt the qualities of the alien and becomes even more firmly rooted in humanity. The apes from the beginning, as stated before, experience almost the same thing as HAL: their animalistic, primal human desires are continually pursued. They don’t become a higher being, just better at being human.
Kris Kelvin, despite how hard he yearns for it, never reaches a point where he can fully understand and communicate with the ocean. He is too human, and his human mind is unable to decipher any messages the ocean might be trying to send him. Even if he wants to embrace the ocean, he simply is unable to do so. Conversely, the ocean is too “oceanic” to ever seemingly fully understand the humans. In his speech about an imperfect god, Kris speculates that “somewhere in [the ocean’s] development, it probably came close to the divine state, but it turned back into itself too soon. [...] It repeats itself” (Lem 207). The “divine state” of godhood can be seen as almost identical to a state of gnosis, where knowledge and understanding of the universe and the self are attained. But by failing to adapt, by continuing on its own unchanging path, the ocean continues to exist as only “the first phase of the despairing god” (Lem 208).
The Krell are possibly the best example of a failed ascension. Although there is no evidence of their being in contact with/under the influence of an even greater alien race, Commander Adams states that they “forgot one deadly danger: their own subconscious hate and lust for destruction” (Wilcox 1:27:30). The Krell’s inability to reject the most basic part of their being and adopt radical, alien attributes in their place blocked them from transcending to what they believed to be a perfect form of existence detached from the physical world, existing only as knowledge that knows.
The only successful gnostic ascent in any of the three texts explored is David Bowman’s in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In HAL, a being that is almost human but still distinct enough to meet the criteria of being alien, Dave sees the worst of humanity, and is able to change his own behaviour to minimize those qualities in himself. He also tries relentlessly to pursue that which he does not understand, as evidenced by the scene where he chases progressively older versions of himself, leading finally to a monolith (Kubrick 2:14:30). His last act as a decrepit old human is reaching out to the monolith, trying to make contact with it and allow it to do what it will to him (Kubrick 2:18:13). And what it does is change him, turn him into a humanoid but still remarkably inhuman baby capable of existing in the vacuum of space with a serene, unperturbed expression. The progressive aging could symbolize growing wiser with each passing instant he exists in the monolith’s presence, and the final evolution into a fetus would then show that all that knowledge has been internalized, instinctual. He does not necessarily know anything, but is aware of all. He has reached gnosis, and done so by allowing himself to take the greater aspects he sees in foreign entities and replace them into himself. Only by ceasing to be human is he able to evolve to a state the Gnostics believe to be the zenith of humanity.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, performance by Keir Dullea, MGM, 1968.
Forbidden Planet. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, performances by Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen, MGM, 1956.
Lem, Stanisław. Solaris. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, Faber & Faber, 2016.
Meyer, Marvin and Barnstone, Willis. The Gnostic Bible. Shambhala, 2003.