(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
“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 a 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.