Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Country: USA

The Day the World Changed Hands
The Forbin Project

Uncertainties and fears about technological progression and the role of science in modernity has long been a preoccupation of science-fiction and horror narratives. In the 1970’s these ‘Revolt of Technology’ tales reached a higher level of visibility thanks chiefly to the neurotic machinations of HAL 9000 aboard the space station Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Although Kubrick pushed the boundaries of cinematic form and spectacle, the strongest sensation within his film was a deep pessimism and paranoia about mankind’s relationship to sentient technology. This was adapted perfectly to the 1970’s and became the clinical and logical flip side to the primal and instinctual ‘Revolt of Nature’ films which were also achieving prominence. Both of these sub-strata of horror and science-fiction were informed by the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia which smothered much of American production post Watergate. The fault often lay with venerated institutions - the military, scientific research, the government and even the media. The resolutions were often unsatisfactory and closure never fully achieved. The first major production to absorb the thematic impetus of 2001 was Universal Pictures’ Colossus: The Forbin Project. Interestingly the source material - a novel called Colossus by British sci-fi writer D. F. Jones pre-dated 2001 and appeared in 1966, and was the first part of a trilogy. The remaining two books remain unrealised by cinema, which on the strength of this film is something of a shame.

We are now so used to the miniaturisation of technology that the awe inspiring size and magnitude of Colossus may illicit surprise or even laughter. So vast is the computer it has to be housed in a massive underground bunker inside a mountain in Colorado. The immensity of this 'glorified adding machine' is achieved through the inspirational photographic effects of Albert Whitlock, whose matte paintings give a sense of grandeur and awesomeness to the inner workings of the computer. Less impressive however is the childish naivety of the American authorities, especially the military, who seem only too glad to hand over the entire responsibility of the nations defence to Colossus. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is nothing if not meticulous, his dedication to the self sufficiency of the artificial intelligence he has spawned includes making the bunker utterly impenetrable to outside attack, and removing any kind of fail safe programme. Forbin is so self assured and so confident in his own genius that he refuses to consider the possibility that his creation may be deeply flawed. The flaw lies in the very characteristics that have driven Forbin throughout the project - logic and vanity. Colossus absorbs these qualities, and extends them to their furthest limits when contact is made with a similar computer called Guardian that the Soviets have been secretly developing.

The optimism that Colossus creates is as much about the relief the President (Gordon Pinsent) experiences due to no longer having the direct responsibility of giving the order to fire nuclear missiles in the event of war. The cold war however is thawing considerably in this film, and the liason between the American government and their Soviet counterparts is cordial and productive. They are united by a common threat, a threat which their own hubris and determination to become the solitary super power has brought into existence. This message of cooperation, collusion, and negotiation in the face of a threat external to mankind is the only positive aspect of this deeply pessimistic production. The belief in the scientific expert is still absolute despite the autonomy of the computer, on no occasion is Forbin blamed or attacked, but must instead search his soul and correct the human failings that have led to this turn of events. In the shape of German actor Eric Braeden Dr. Forbin is highly convincing, and is humanised in a clever subplot where he convinces Colossus of his need for total privacy when in the company of a mistress, that he uses this opportunity to relay information back and forth with the CIA is testament to his ingenuity.

If aspects of the film seem overly familiar that is because this is essentially a retooling of Frankenstein (1931) for the nuclear age. The allegory of parent/child relations gives the film an important layer of humanity, and the battle between Forbin and his offspring is as much about patriarchal dominance within their relationship, as it is a need to wrest control of America’s nuclear capability away from the computer. When Colossus is invested with a mechanised voice, the film takes on a more chilling tone. The implacable delivery, execution orders, and the rhetoric of subjugation and control is menacing in its common sense. Mankind can only gain the peace it so desperately craves by sacrificing liberty and freedom, and existing in servitude to Colossus. That Colossus recognises the importance of being deified and worshipped, and insists that Forbin will come to love the computer, offers a troubling final indication of the arrogance and vanity that the good doctor instilled in his creation. If there is one criticism of the film then it lies in the static delivery of director Joseph Sargent (whose other genre offerings include the passable Nightmares (1983) and the disastrous Jaws: The Revenge (1987)). Sargent does little of inspiration with the camera, and the recurring images of control rooms and political offices and nerve centres results in a visual blandness. This is a very talky sci-fi flick, but one with an abundance of fascinating ideas that stand up to modern scrutiny, and offer an intriguing vision of the political fabric of America as the 1970’s dawned.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I've always wondered about this one, I like the premise for it. It seems like every generation has their fears augmented by cinema. In the 50s it was giant bugs and radiation, in the 70s it was the fear of the supernatural, nature running amock, lots of frogs, lots of snakes, lots of killer worms, the 80s was slashers, crazies, killers, so were the 90s for the most part. The current generation is being scared by fears of decease, and contamination.

    You ever seen a film called Demon Seed? It very similar in theme to this one, also about a group of scientist who trust computers way too much. Its essentially about this scientist who hooks up his whole house to a computer that does everything, from opening up doors, to changing the channel on the t.v. to trying to rape your wife!

    It was an interesting film dealing with the same themes, technology is evil and can destroy us, but Demon Seed has a very unrealistic premise to it, wont spoil it for you in case you havent seen it. Its an interesting splice of 70s horror. It starred Julie Christie.

  2. Not a lot happens in it Franco, but at its core is a series of ideas and philosophical positions which make it more thought provoking than entertaining. I guess it belongs to a more cerebral brand of sci-fi which Kubrick had popularised with '2001' and which films like 'Colossus', 'Silent Running', 'Logan's Run', 'THX1138' and 'Solaris' built upon.

    I saw 'Demon Seed' many years ago, and I was drawn to watching the film after reading the Dean R. Koontz novel it was based upon. I thought the film was better than the book, but my memories of it are quite dim now. I remember the computer was called Proteus or something similar. Its a film I should definately take a look at again. Thanks for dropping by buddy.


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