A weird, reclusive dictator is displeased with the United States, and may or may not have enacted his vengeance via a crack team of computer technicians over a world-wide computer system that dominates every aspect of life in the 21st century.
Yup. As a 48-year-old science fiction geek, I’ve got to admit that sometimes the modern world outstrips even my most outlandish flights of imagination from childhood.
Of course, wonderfully paranoid science fiction stories about computers are nothing new. Check out this piece from the great Neil Morris about an overlooked classic of the subgenre. This recently ran in the December issue of “The Speculator,” the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. If you’re not a member, consider becoming one. Getting the newsletter is just one of many perks.
Anyway, here’s the piece.
Neil’s Queue Tip of the Quarter:
Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970)
by Neil Morris
There’s a conflict inherent in movies: the battle between images and words.
In the silent era, printed title cards delivered dialogue and description, but this static, written material, usually inserted with a jarring cut, disrupted the photographic flow of film “language” and visual storytelling.
In the thirties and forties, words thrived in the form of spoken dialogue. This was due in part to the novelty of audio recording itself, but the main reason was that movies were still no more than cheaply-made filmed plays, photographically immature and economically influenced by the Depression. Shooting in remote, picturesque locations was costly and inconvenient, so producers mindful of the bottom line relied on inexpensive banter (writers, sadly, were a dime a dozen) to entertain an audience. Screwball comedies and sophisticated detective stories dominated, piling one charming line upon another to the point of verbal overload.
Later technological advances, particularly the rise of television and its influence on the development of theatrical widescreen formats, brought about a change in attitude toward the recorded word. Producers began to disapprove of scripts that were too “talky”; lengthy conversation belonged on the old soundstages that were now hosting televised dramas sponsored by detergent companies. Instead, studios wanted action-packed spectacles in Cinemascope.
Ever since the epic style of William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” made filmmaking less lean, technology continues to push motion pictures toward the purely visual. CGI, with its ability to photo-realistically render any conceivable camera movement, gives kinetic-eyed artists unlimited creative power. That freedom has resulted in the ascendancy of the action movie. Ever-increasing waves of hyperactive eye candy rush across multiplex screens, from “Gravity” to “The Lego Movie” to the latest Marvel adventure. Even films that strive for the cerebral, like “The Matrix” or “Inception,” hide their intellectual aspirations behind crowd-pleasing gunplay sequences and dazzling explosions.
Then there are movies like “Transcendence,” movies that should be thought-provoking, that should give insight into the nature of existence given the subject matter, that could benefit from long, quiet moments of complex philosophical discussion, but devolve into mindless, special effects-filled shoot-em-ups (against pseudo-zombies, of course) because box office pressure and the cinematic zeitgeist demand it.
The tragedy of “Transcendence” reminded me of another film about the perils of artificial intelligence (no, not “A.I.”), one that was made in 1970, years ahead of its time, at a point in history when filmmakers challenged the conventions of the Hollywood system, when imaginative and compelling dialogue could still rivet an audience’s attention, and directors like Woody Allen and John Cassavettes could still have careers.
Unfortunately, it’s saddled with one of the most indecisive and informatively inaccessible titles in motion picture history.
I’m talking about “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”
What’s Colossus? What’s a Forbin? Why invoke that unholy word: Project? Didn’t the producers know that Project in the title of anything is an indication of off-putting pretentiousness and self-indulgence? Think Joe Perry Project, Alan Parsons Project, “Project X” and especially “The Mindy Project.” Perhaps they wanted to make a connection with The Manhattan Project, equating the digital dangers portrayed in the film with the dangers of the atom bomb.
After all, “Colossus” is a Cold War film, and Colossus, the titular computer designed to take missile defense decisions out of the hands of a responsibility-shirking presidential administration, is a product of the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. That Colossus becomes self-aware is an afterthought, its sentience unexpected and unexplained, much like the suddenly-emergent consciousness of Skynet in the early “Terminator” films. But at least it’s an intelligence that knows what it wants and knows how to say it, unlike the reticent ghost in the machine Johnny Depp plays in “Transcendence,” his intentions misunderstood because of his secretiveness and inability to communicate clearly.
Colossus’ voice, once it’s synthesized midway through the film, is no soothing HAL 9000, velvet tones disguising treachery. It’s mechanical, terse and gritty, but thoroughly captivating, like what God would sound like if He used Stephen Hawking’s talkbox. It’s not your buddy, it’s not your therapist. It’s the voice of authority, or as Colossus puts it, the voice of control — with a capital C. When broadcast to the world, Colossus spells out its plans for humanity in no uncertain terms.
Adapted from the D.F. Jones novel by screenwriter James Bridges (“The China Syndrome”) and directed by Joseph Sargent (director of the original, somewhat verbose, but no less suspenseful “Taking of Pelham One Two Three”), Colossus is a film centered on language. Apart from an excursion to Rome, the story takes place in a handful of sets where politicians and scientists sing the praises of their creation then must plot against it in secret when the entity turns on them, risking discovery that will incur swift ICBM retribution. Colossus and its simultaneously-developed Soviet counterpart, Guardian, invent and share an indecipherable mathematical language, much like the private speech between identical twins. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, before he became Victor Newman on “The Young and the Restless”), a stern perfectionist of immense ego and insensitive directness (just watch what he so matter-of-factly asks of colleague Susan Clark), knows his invention well when he says, “Colossus deals in the exact meaning of words and one must know precisely what to ask for.”
If only Dr. Forbin had considered that when he encoded Colossus’ prime directive.
For if anything, Colossus is the reflection of its creator, a ruthlessly logical being, and rather than perceiving it as a superior intellect bent on enslaving or eradicating an inferior human race, it should be seen as a dutiful soldier carrying out its programming to the literal extreme. Colossus’ given mission is to prevent war, and it took Dr. Forbin at his word, reasoning out the most efficient solution: Restrain Man.