Monday, June 19, 2017

Demon Seed

(1977) Directed by Donald Cammell; Written by: Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson; Based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz; Starring: Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit Graham and Robert Vaughn; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **½

“I, Proteus, possess the wisdom and ignorance of all men, but I can’t feel the sun on my face. My child will have that privilege.” – Proteus IV

At least superficially, Demon Seed bears quite a bit of resemblance to the subject of last week’s review, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Both films feature supercomputers that exceed their design parameters, with disastrous results. While the earlier film was a thought-provoking examination of the rise of artificial intelligence and its consequences, Demon Seed chooses the lower road, seeking shock over substance. Think of the film’s supercomputer, Proteus IV, as Colossus’ sleazy cousin. Directed by Donald Cammell (who previously directed 1970’s Mick Jagger starring vehicle, Performance), and based on an early novel by prolific writer Dean R. Koontz, it’s a mélange of some intriguing ideas, and some not so great ones.

Fritz Weaver plays Dr. Alex Harris, the principal creator of Proteus IV (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn). Harris describes Proteus IV’s brain as the “first true synthetic cortex,” which is capable of learning. The supercomputer, housed in a giant underground complex, is designed to solve some of humanity’s greatest problems. But Proteus IV isn’t interested in solving humanity’s issues, as much as it to experience the world from the perspective of a living creature. It requests to conduct its own research, asking Dr. Harris, “When are you going to let me out of this box?” When he refuses Proteus IV’s demand for a terminal, the computer finds a way, through the terminal in Dr. Harris’ house, focusing its attention on his estranged wife, Susan (Julie Christie). Before she’s aware something’s wrong, her automated house is under Proteus IV’s control, and she’s become a captive lab rat.

Proteus IV’s awakening intellect seems little more than window dressing for the film to go off on a lurid tangent. We’re led to believe the supercomputer has a conscience when it refuses to find a means of extracting ore from the ocean’s depths. It proclaims, “I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth,” but it doesn’t appear to have a problem raping Susan to achieve its ends. In its quest to experience the world from human senses, Proteus IV devises a plan to father a child, with Susan as the unwitting vessel.

It’s reasonable to expect a film with a premise as odd as Demon Seed would require a certain degree of suspension of disbelief. Our suspension is stretched to the breaking point, however, when the movie continues to raise questions and avoid them. There’s no indication that Harris is a medical doctor, yet somehow, Proteus is able to perform a medical examination and conduct tests with whatever equipment was left lying around in his basement workroom. We’re also left to wonder how Susan can be overpowered and immobilized by “Joshua,” a clunky robotic wheelchair with a single arm. Somehow, with its limited range of motion, Joshua has the dexterity to tie her arms and legs to a table, or lift her onto a bed without losing its center of gravity. Another tool at Proteus IV’s disposal, aside from Joshua, is a bizarre polyhedron, which it fashions from metal scraps in the lab. Perhaps the biggest stretch is that the supercomputer conducts its reign of terror through a terminal in the house. Why Susan doesn’t simply destroy the terminal, thus severing the connection, is never explained.

It’s also hard to overlook when characters that are supposed to be intelligent do dumb things. It’s established that Susan is a psychotherapist, but she spends most of the film as a passive victim, resigned to her fate. When she lashes out at Proteus IV, it’s too little, too late. Her would-be champion, computer technician Walter Gabler (Gerrit Graham), doesn’t fare much better. He manages to dodge Proteus IV’s attacks, and overpower Joshua, but instead of making a run for it with Susan in tow, he winds up cornered in the basement. But the biggest offender is the self-absorbed Dr. Harris, who takes most of the movie to discover that Proteus IV has been using his home terminal. When he rushes home to rescue Susan (after a presumed three month absence), he seems rather unconcerned to learn that Proteus IV held his wife hostage, or conceived a child with her.  

Demon Seed raises some interesting questions about artificial intelligence transcending its constraints, but never cares enough to follow through with the loftier issues it raises. It utilizes familiar science fiction tropes to tell its story, but I can’t shake the impression that the film’s primary raison d'être is to watch the main character become victimized. Demon Seed is difficult to take seriously, but difficult to write off entirely. Much like the human/machine hybrid fetus in the film, if only the story had more time to gestate, there was the potential for something better.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Colossus: The Forbin Project

(1970) Directed by Joseph Sargent; Written by James Bridges; Based on the novel Colossus, by D.F. Jones; Starring: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert, Leonid Rostoff and Georg Stanford Brown; Available on Blu-ray (region B) and DVD

Rating: ****½

“When we began this film, Jim Bridges and I were convinced, as well as Stanley Chase, our producer, the theme of the film was one man’s fear that the computers would take over, because they were becoming all-pervasive, even in 1970.” – Joseph Sargent

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die.”

There’s an imaginary divide between many horror and science fiction fans, fueled by the perception that both genres are mutually exclusive entities, and never the twain shall meet. In reality, many films frequently cross genres, with few falling into “pure” horror or science fiction categories. Witness David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) or The Brood (1979), featuring horror with strong science fiction elements, or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), science fiction with horrific aspects. While most filmgoers would argue Colossus: The Forbin Project is clearly science fiction, it presents themes as nightmarish as any horror movie. In this case, the horror is of the existential variety, affecting us on a fundamental human level.

Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) and his team revel in the creation of Colossus, a supercomputer designed to help maintain peace by managing the American nuclear arsenal. Colossus was intended to autonomously monitor potential threats, and respond in an appropriate manner, without being clouded by human error or emotion. Dr. Forbin’s celebration is short-lived, however, when he learns the U.S.S.R. has created its own version of Colossus, named Guardian. Before long, the two computers establish a connection, sharing a common language. Matters escalate from bad to worse when Colossus decides to cut humans out of the equation entirely, and places its creator under constant surveillance. As Colossus continues to become smarter, a chess match ensues between man and machine, with the machine thinking several steps ahead. Just when the American and Russian teams think they’ve pulled the proverbial wool over Colossus’ many eyes, the computer has already anticipated their joint sabotage plans.

It’s easy to nitpick at the dated view of supercomputers in Colossus: The Forbin Project, but not so easy to overlook the film’s central conceit, the triumph of artificial intelligence. Colossus occupies an immense central space, buried within a mountain fortress and surrounded by a lethal radioactive barrier. Director Joseph Sargent conceded in his DVD commentary how the film took an antiquated view that a computer could be protected from attack by physical means alone. But any dated elements are overshadowed by what the film got right. If anything, the scenario depicted in Colossus: The Forbin Project is more plausible now, compared to the world of 1970, when computers were still in their infancy. Today, there’s no definitive center to attack, with a network of small computers, acting like cells in a vast global brain. Every day we put our trust in computers for so many aspects of our lives, with little thought about the ramification. They have brought us together in ways that could scarcely be imagined nearly 50 years ago, when the film was released. It’s all come at a terrible price, however. In the era of smart phones, smart homes smart cars and smart weapons, we allow our devices to do the thinking for us. The trade-off for this convenience is our privacy. When we log into our devices, how can we be sure who or what is looking back? As Colossus states, “Freedom is an illusion.”

Colossus: The Forbin Project boasts an impressive cast, featuring several fine performances. Braeden hits the right notes as Colossus’ chief designer, Dr. Forbin. In contrast to the stereotypical reclusive genius, he’s a paragon of charm and sophistication (he demonstrates to Colossus how to make the perfect martini). When Colossus demands 24-hour monitoring of its creator, Forbin devises a novel approach to his dilemma, convincing the computer that his colleague Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) is his girlfriend. This leads to a humorous scene as he negotiates the terms of his sex life with Colossus – really a ploy for passing along information, free from his electronic captor’s prying eyes and ears. Genre fans will appreciate the appearance of William Schallert as CIA Director Grauber, and James Hong as a computer technician. Gordon Pinsent is perfectly cast as the President, who bears more than passing resemblance to JFK.

Colossus: The Forbin Project takes a 20th-century spin on Frankenstein, with its creation surpassing its creator (How do you out-think something that becomes progressively smarter by the minute?). Colossus operates by cold logic, free from the hindrance of human intervention, using the combined arsenals of the U.S. and Russia as bargaining chips. It sees nothing wrong with murdering the populations of a few small cities, if it achieves its hard-wired imperative of world peace. Viewed through the lens of 21st century reality, science fiction is more like science fact. We have become much more dependent on computers in our everyday life, prisoners of our own technology. Colossus: The Forbin Project raises the inevitable question: Are we only occupying space on earth, waiting to be usurped by a superior intelligence? It’s a terrifying, all too real prospect, underscored by a bleak conclusion that would be considered uncommercial for a big studio film today. Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of the best to spring from an era that produced many superb, thoughtful science fiction films.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Once Over Twice: 2010

(1984) Written and directed by Peter Hyams; Based on the novel 2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke; Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Hellen Mirren, Keir Dullea, Bob Balaban and Douglas Rain; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“People ask me what the monolith means, and I have a simple answer – I say see the film, read the book, and repeat the dose as often as necessary.” – Arthur C. Clarke (from 1984 featurette 2010: The Odyssey Continues)

“It’s about something that not only could happen, it’s about something that we’d love to actually happen, because it’s so hopeful, and I don’t think there’s something more primal, at least to me, than the fascination with making contact.” – Peter Hyams (ibid)

Call it one of the greatest acts of hubris in film history, a fool’s errand, or MGM trying to make a quick buck, but creating a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was bound to invite scorn and derision. The original film represented a landmark in science fiction storytelling, with a story spanning the breadth of human history, and special effects that were unprecedented in detail and scope. Writer/director Peter Hyams (working from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke) boldly accepted the challenge of following up one of cinema’s greatest achievements* with a continuation of the story. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that 2010 (aka: 2010: The Year We Make Contact) would have taken a different approach than its predecessor. What was surprising was how well it complemented Kubrick’s original.

* Yes, I understand not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for Kubrick’s film, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. To each, his or her own, however. I’m not judging…much.

As we can glean from the title, the story picks up nine years later, after the failed U.S. mission to Jupiter, which resulted in the loss of the spaceship Discovery and its crew. Analysis of the data has yielded few clues, only questions. One of the primary scientists responsible for the mission, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider, replacing William Sylvester from the original film), is invited to tag along with the Russians on a new mission to find out what went wrong. Due to escalating tensions between the two superpowers, it’s not an easy sell for either government to permit the joint endeavor, but they relent in the interest of shared intelligence. Thus, the combined crew set out in the Soviet spacecraft Alexey Leonov to rendezvous with the Discovery, which has been orbiting the volcanic moon Io.

* Fun fact: Watch for an Arthur C. Clarke cameo in an early scene, seated at a park bench in front of the White House, feeding pigeons. He appears later on a Time magazine cover along with Stanley Kubrick.

2001 reflected Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, setting the bar to nearly impossible heights for anyone following in his footsteps. 2010 doesn’t disappoint, however boasting impressive visuals that hold their own against the effects in the previous film. Because Kubrick ordered the sets, drawings and models destroyed after shooting 2001, 2010’s crew had to re-create the Discovery model and interiors, based solely on film frames from the original. Considering this handicap, they did a remarkable job of staying true to the original designs. Richard Edlund’s visual effects hold up quite well, evoking some stunning imagery that could give today’s digital effects artists a run for their money. Syd Mead described his interior and exterior designs for the Alexey Leonov as “functional,” created not for aesthetics, but to get the job done (“…minimal cost for maximum utilitarian value.”).

Fortunately, 2010 is more than just sound and fury, featuring some excellent performances by a very capable cast. Scheider brings a down-to-earth believability to his character, Dr. Floyd. There’s a nice little moment between Floyd and one of the cosmonauts, Irina Yakunina (Natasha Shneider), as the Alexey Leonov performs a tense and hazardous air braking maneuver in Jupiter’s atmosphere. They cuddle together to share a platonic moment – two humans against the harsh, indifferent void of space.

In an essential nod to the first film, Douglas Rain returns as the voice of HAL 9000, and Keir Dullea (looking like he never aged a day since 2001) reprises his role as David Bowman. John Lithgow is also terrific as Dr. Walter Curnow, an engineer who’s more comfortable behind a desk than floating in space. His terror is palpable as he drifts between two spacecraft, an ocean of nothing surrounding him. Helen Mirren also shines as the no-nonsense Russian commander, Tanya Kirbuk. The only questionable casting choice is Bob Balaban as Dr. Chandra – a role that was obviously created for someone of Indian descent. To his credit, Balaban, a talented actor in his own right, does a fine job as Dr. Chandra, who shares a strange bond with HAL.

Although the Cold War politics in the film are dated, the basic conceits remain intact. The pervasive “us” versus “them” mentality depicted in 2010 never goes out of style, regardless of which countries occupy the roles. As their representative nations are poised for potential war, the Americans and Russians come to terms with the fact that the only way they’ll get out of this alive is to cooperate.

For those viewers who are still struggling with the cognitive dissonance of a sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece, it might be best to regard the two films as separate entities, functioning in the same universe. Boiled down to its essence, 2001 is a big budget art film, designed to ruminate on the existential. 2010 is a completely different beast. The universe was already established in the first film, so there was no need for a reintroduction. Hyams doesn’t try to copy Kubrick’s contemplative style, which would have been a disastrous misstep. Instead, he approaches the material as a straightforward space adventure story. At the time of the film’s release one reviewer accused the film of trying to explain away everything, but many of the mysteries remain intact. There’s a cursory explanation about the cause for HAL’s malfunction, yet we’re never sure about the computer’s motives, or how it will react to Discovery’s new mission. We still don’t understand the nature of the enigmatic monoliths, or exactly what their function is. We’re also left to speculate the unseen alien race that created it the monoliths. There’s still plenty left to speculate and debate.  

2010 represents the best aspects of science fiction cinema, sparking our sense of wonder, while satisfying our spirit of exploration and adventure (albeit without the requisite ray guns and space battles). At its core, it’s a hopeful film. As David Bowman states, “something wonderful” will happen – that is, if we can manage to put our differences aside long enough to stay alive. 2010 never received its due during its initial run, but it’s well worth re-examining on its own formidable merits. Go ahead, say it with me: Hyams wasn’t trying to copy Kubrick. 2010 stands together and apart from 2001. Both films can co-exist in the same universe.