(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
“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.