Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Outland




(1981) Written and directed by Peter Hyams; Starring: Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle, James Sikking and Clarke Peters; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“…What appealed to me about making it in outer space, and making it really a western, was the frontier aspect of the western, more like what Deadwood is to the western, as opposed to what The Searchers is to the western.” – Peter Hyams (from DVD commentary)


Many of the best science fiction films are about asking the big questions, dealing with lofty issues that confront our species and our place in the cosmos. While this is true to a great extent, sometimes we just want to see some people explode in the vacuum of space. Fortunately, Outland has us covered. Writer/director Peter Hyams’ film is unabashedly a western in sci-fi clothing, but it’s a winning combination, accompanied by another terrific Jerry Goldsmith score.


The harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Jovian moon Io* serves as the backdrop for Outland’s story. The residents of a company-owned mining complex work round the clock to meet their quota of extracting valuable minerals. William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the colony’s newest marshall, and quickly discovers all isn’t right. Some of the miners are cracking under the pressure, and the numbers are more than mere coincidence would suggest. His snooping doesn’t sit well with the colony’s director Sheppard (Peter Boyle), who only wants to preserve the status quo and get his fat bonus check. When O’Niel persists in his investigation, he graduates from a nuisance to a liability, targeted for elimination by hired assassins. The tension mounts as the hours and minutes tick off until the next shuttle arrives, with the killers onboard.

* Fun Fact: According to Hyams, he originally intended the film to be titled Io, but it was changed to avoid confusion with the number “10.” 


Sean Connery is convincing in his portrayal of O’Niel, as someone who seems to be the last honest man. He’s earnest, but never appears self-righteous in his quest for justice. His zeal for his new position doesn’t carry over to his wife Carol (Kika Markham), who’s less than thrilled with her husband’s new assignment, and ready to jump on the next shuttle back to Earth. Her predictable departure is a convenient way to get her out of the film so Connery can do what he does best, kick butt. His fight against company-sanctioned corruption becomes a solitary one when he discovers his team members are paid to look the other way. Connery doesn’t have to say a word to convey his irritation. With only a raised eyebrow or a nod, he makes it clear there’s no time for anyone’s bullshit.  

While Mr. Connery is very good, Frances Sternhagen wins the prize for her standout performance as the cynical and sarcastic Dr. Lazarus. As a self-acknowledged burnout who’s “one accident away from a malpractice suit,” she’s there to help the residents with their standard broken bones and scrapes, and not question things too much. With O’Niel’s prodding, she discovers a powerful amphetamine* in a dead miner’s system, which enables them to work longer and harder before their brain is fried. Sternhagen infuses some much-needed humor into the film, and provides a nice counterpoint to O’Niel, with her own brand of intelligence and courage.

* Another Fun Fact: According to Hyams in the DVD commentary, one of his trademarks is naming criminals after family members. The drug smuggler featured in the film, Nicholas Spota, gets his name from Hyams’ brother-in-law Nick and father in law’s last name, Spota.


The optical effects hold up quite well, from the stark beauty of Io’s moonscape in the shadow of Jupiter, to the detailed mining complex.* Outland also has the distinction of being the first film to employ the Introvision process, which combined a live actor with footage of a model. Outland follows in the tradition of films like Silent Running and Alien, depicting space habitats with a more “lived in” look, rather than the pristine, sterile environment found in many earlier science fiction films. Philip Harrison’s outstanding production design favors functionality over aesthetics. The stacked, cramped living quarters for the miners look appropriately claustrophobic. Other details, such as a heavy pressure door and collapsible corridors appear to do what they’re designed to do. John Mollo’s practical costume design reflects the ethos of the production design, made for utility, not fashion. The mining colony residents wear t-shirts and caps, which is probably much closer to the reality of the future, compared to broad-shouldered tunics with capes (with all due respect to Things to Come) or itchy spandex onesies. Hyams added another layer of believability with color coding for the hats, uniforms and space suits, to indicate the division of labor.

* Another Fun Fact: In order to make the complex’s exterior set look bigger, diminutive actor Deep Roy stood in for Connery in some of the space suit scenes.


Hyams doesn’t let scientific accuracy get in the way of a good story, with regard to the effects of a zero-pressure environment on the human body. It’s a foregone conclusion that people wouldn’t actually explode when exposed to outer space, but there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing a few of the characters come to nasty ends. If you wanted to get nitpicky, you could assert the assassins could have used something more futuristic and less messy than conventional firearms (shooting up a multi-billion dollar space facility with shotguns can’t be a good idea). There are plenty of ways they could have dispatched O’Niel without gunfire, but that would be missing the point. The guns add an anachronistic touch, fitting nicely into the old west motif, as do the saloon doors featured in the film.


Some critics have denigrated Outland as nothing more than “High Noon in outer space,” but the film never pretends to be something it’s not. Some SF purists may argue that a story isn’t really science fiction if it could be told through a different genre, but Outland exists somewhere between both worlds as a hybrid western. It’s safe to assume our future will involve using technology to exploit nature, and corporate greed will be alive and well for generations to come. My advice: Don’t get hung up on labels. Relax and enjoy this damn fine piece of entertainment.

* If you want to split hairs, Hyams didn’t consider Outland to be a science fiction film, but a “science feasible film.”

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.”
Colossus


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.