Report Card: Barbarella


Jean Claude Forest wrote his Barbarella strips for V-Magazine, he meant them to be sexy, camp, and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Réalisme was not much on his mind. When the strip made the transition to the big screen, it kept these sensibilities firmly in place. The technology was fittingly just a collection of narrative devices, based loosely on 1960s technology paradigms and a handful of extant sci-fi tropes.

Sci: D- (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Most of the technology in Barbarella are based on popular sci-fi narrative shortcuts: False gravity, free-floating video telephony, teleportation, force fields, and yes, focused-energy weapons. These are tropes, and lots of shows throw that caution to the wind, but you should not think of this as hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason this just didn’t fail out is Alphy’s artificial intelligence, though a poor cousin to HAL (2001 premiered that same year), is a prescient voice-interface to a limited agentive system that fulfills its social role.

Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The Positronic Ray is of course the MacGuffin of the whole adventure, so technology plays a pretty pivotal role. And in the cases where the tech moves the story along, it does it cleanly and clearly, highlighting the causes and effects that let know that the heroine is alternately controlling her ship, out of batteries for her weapon, or trapped with no apparent means of escape.

Interfaces: c (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Barbarella is ultimately a mixed bag for its interfaces. Sure, you have Alphy, feeding her, keeping her company, and even managing the communications tech in the background all pretty seamlesly. The shagpile cockpit is even a surprisingly solid bit of industrial design for error recovery.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that is fine, but could stand some improvements, like the portable brainwave detector and the Queen’s display controls.

And then Durand-Durand’s Positronic Ray and the Queen’s Bed Chamber Door interface were bad enough to take me out of the movie and wonder what on Tau Ceti were they thinking. They were so bad that it countered any awesomeness the filmmakers had accidentally stumbled upon.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Sure, see it for the lovely camp value, space titillation, and to see how agentive technology should work. But don’t expect much other interface inspiration.

Related lessons from the book

  • Both the Dildano’s map and the Queen’s Door should tighten their feedback loops (page 20).
  • Barbarella still talks in stupid compterese when speaking with the fully conversational Alphy. She should follow human social conventions, too (page 123.)
  • Alphy avoided the uncanny valley (page 184) through disembodiment.
  • Durand-Durand failed to give Barbarella a safeword (page 303.)

New lessons

  • It’s probably a trope of its own, but Durand-Durand should provide himself Just Enough Control.
  • The gravity controls could have used a scenario to Put it in Context.
  • Both the portable brainwave detector and the energy box beg for Haptify Secrets.

Report Card: Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet is an influential film not just because of its positive audience reaction and later cult success, but also because Gene Roddenberry has stated that it deeply influenced his massive science fiction property Star Trek, in look, general plot structure, and even some of the same effects.

The film is also notable for the introduction of Robbie the Robot, an anthropomorphic robot who was such a hit (and so expensive for MGM to create) that he warranted a follow-up movie all to himself, and inspired the creator Robert Kinoshita to make a similar robot for the long-running family-friendly serial Lost in Space.

But as much as we adore the nostalgic themes and effects, and as much as we recognize the influence of the film, our review must be of its interfaces, and for that it does not ultimately fare well.

Sci: B+ (3 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

The Krell technology is meant to be advanced beyond our understanding of physics and technology, so the film shouldn’t be dinged for that. Robbie is somewhat problematic (how, again, does he hold and fire the gun?) but as a result of Krell enhancements, we can forgive a bit of that, too. The Terran technology in contrast scores higher, even with the invisible “force field” version of an electric fence.

Fi: B (3 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

For a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the interfaces could have easily been tacked on, unrelated to the central plot. But for the most part the interfaces are deeply integrated in the story, telling a tale of a man’s toying with technology that is terrifyingly advanced and ultimately uncontrollable. The film’s indulgence in some extraneous (and ultimately poorly thought out) “gee-whiz, what’ll they think of next?” moments are the main reason it does not warrant full marks.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Between demure self-destruct mechanisms, death-prone trash bins, and critically unhelpful astrogator tools, the interfaces in Forbidden Planet are gory distaster scenes waiting to happen. There’s little that a designer would want to pull from these for their own work in the real world. Unless, perhaps, you’re Krell.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The astrogrator’s armillary would have worked in more circumstances with a dynamic, volumetric display (and some attention to visual hierarchy.) (Page 75)
  • Commander Adam’s Public Address system balances ease and control in activation (page 202) while also signaling state (page 202.) It also is an example of a Fixed Connection system (page 203).
  • With his language use (page 187), mobility, and ability to manipulate human objects, Robbie the Robot might have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (page 184). Fortunately his strange manner of speech and inhuman appearance clearly signals his inhuman-ness, as recommended on p185.
  • The handwave switches in Morbius house illustrate the first of Hollywood’s Gestural Pidgin (page 98): Wave to Activate.
  • Though the Krell technology has many usability problems, the Plastic Educator shaped the look of Volumetric Projections from this point to the present day in sci-fi (page 78), and will likely shape it for decades to come.

Suggested new lessons