The chilling 1970 sci-fi film called Colossus: The Forbin Project comes to us courtesy of a bygone age when movies – especially genre movies – weren’t afraid to be smart.
This clever, sharply-crafted and utterly fearless techno-thriller is based on the 1966 novel by Dennis Feltham Jones. Like the literary work, this mostly-faithful film concerns the activation of the American supercomputer Colossus, as well as the ensuing changing-of-the-guard as the intelligent machine achieves something approaching sentience and decides it should rule the Earth.
Our story commences inside the massive, multi-story Colossus complex somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. There, technicians and scientists celebrate in a high-tech control room as a Kennedy-esque president (Gordon Pinsent) makes a profound announcement to the American people.
With the U.S. still locked in Cold War competition with a dedicated competitor, The Soviet Union, the Commander-in-Chief has handed over the entire defense of the U.S.A. to Colossus, an advanced computer system created by Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), a cool-as-a-cucumber scientist.
The reasons for this hand-over, the President asserts, are many. Computers, he informs the citizenry, do not act out of emotion or impulse of any type. Not out of hatred, anger, envy, nor love. Machines understand only…facts. The activation of Colossus will ensure a new world of peace, security and prosperity for all.
Once activated, however, things don’t go quite as planned. Colossus almost immediately issues a dramatic warning (right in the middle of a Presidential speech!) Specifically, the American supercomputer has detected a Russian counterpart, a CCCP supercomputer named Guardian. Alarmingly, the two machines want to talk to each other without human interference. Both super powers reluctantly permit this dialogue, but come to regret the decision when the machines shift from transmitting harmless multiplication tables to advanced calculus to baffling equations regarding gravitation and the expanding universe. By Forbin’s estimation — in mere hours — the computers have pushed ahead of human science by roughly one hundred years.
The Soviet Chairman and American President mutually decide to sever the communication link between supercomputers for security reasons, but Colossus and Guardian are angered by the interruption. They order that communication be restored. Immediately. To prove that they are serious about this directive, each Computer lobs a nuclear missile at a designated military target in the opposing country. Only one missile is stopped before detonation, resulting in 6,000 human deaths. With precious little choice, the United States and Soviet Union quickly permit Guardian and Colossus to re-link, and fret that their smart machines now hold the keys to the worldwide nuclear apparatus.
Colossus and Guardian then order the Russian creator of Guardian murdered by the KGB. Forbin, Colossus’s “father” is spared, but put under house arrest and 24-hour videotape surveillance by Colossus. Those operating against either computer are shot by firing squads. And if anyone fails to obey the orders of these powerful computers, then the machines jump right to the nuclear option, and the murder of millions. Human control of America and The Soviet Union is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, Colossus quickly draws up plans to gain control of nations in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
In the end, Colossus defeats Forbin’s last desperate gambits to destroy the machine (a power overload and a manual re-alignment of nuclear missiles). Colossus then speaks with his own mechanical voice. He renames his complex “World Control” and informs the human population of Earth that there will finally be world peace, just as the President wanted.
“I bring you peace,” Colossus claims. “Obey me and live. Or disobey and die.” Colossus than reports that he will not permit any further war. He will instead “restrain” mankind and devote himself to eliminating famine, overpopulation and disease. It is the dawn of a New Age. The Age of Colossus.
The computer’s final message: “We can co-exist…. but only on my terms.” Colossus also informs the humans, including Forbin, that one day they will eventually come to love and worship Colossus; that they are not losing freedom so much as their pride.
As you can gather from the synopsis above, Colossus: The Forbin Project serves as a frightening “what if” scenario, one that concerns our technology run entirely out-of-control. The film deliberately and pointedly references Frankenstein twice, and that leitmotif (of a father and his monstrous, rebellious creation) runs throughout the movie.
For Colossus is a strange, mirror image of his human “Daddy, a mechanical reflection of his progenitor. Consider that Forbin is a preternaturally cool customer. He is icy, cool, slow-to-anger or register panic. He is utterly reasonable, and – until the film’s conclusion when he realizes he is defeated – Forbin never seems to break even a sweat. He’s a quart low on anxiety, to coin a phrase, and Forbin possesses the analytical mind of a computer himself. His artificial child also possesses all of these qualities.
Notably, Colossus also boasts Forbin’s biggest flaw: vanity. Both man and machine, both father and son, are confident in their abilities to the point of arrogance. Forbin has created the ultimate computer (no, not the M5…), and yet seems entirely blind to the dangers Colossus ultimately poses. He is excited, not concerned, when Colossus “exceeds” the parameters of his programming. What should be a warning sign or wake-up call is instead an opportunity for papa’s pride.
The father/son relationship of Forbin/Colossus also follows closely the trajectory of human father/son relationships. At first, the young son is deferential, inquisitive and seeking a role model, learning from his father (via heuristic analysis) and gathering information. Then the son grows, and gathers other influences (in this case, Guardian). Next, the son establishes a sense of self — a sense of independence — and defies the father; an act of adolescent rebellion. Finally, the child surpasses the father both in intellect and achievement. The cycle moves even further ahead as Colossus seeks to create his own son, an updated computer system that will operate on the Island of Crete and render him, someday, obsolete. Just as Colossus has rendered Forbin obsolete.
Scary? Well sure, but let’s remember that it has been exactly this way in the human life cycle since the dawn of time. I say — rightly so, for how else do we progress and evolve? Yet in this case, there is undeniably something frightening about the passing of the generational torch because the son is a cold, emotionless machine, an artificial intelligence.
As the child of a two-year old son, I saw Colossus: The Forbin Project in terms of a parent/child relationship for the first time when I watched again last night. At one point in the film, young Colossus grows adamant about getting his way on some matter, and Forbin determines that the Computer must learn who is “master.” In other words, the child must learn that the parent is always in charge. This is not an easy lesson to teach, yet it is an absolutely essential one. As a father, Forbin is a distinct failure because he cannot transmit this lesson successfully, but also because he has found no way to program his machine with the crucial human quality of “empathy.” And ego without empathy creates a monster. Or at the very least, something inhuman.
Another of the film’s themes is also brilliantly illuminated. In particular, it involves the fact that Colossus – as a supercomputer – “deals in the exact meaning of words.” Anyone who issues Colossus an order must be extremely careful to know exactly what he or she is requesting. Yet who can deny that much of our human vocabulary and interaction relies heavily on personal interpretation? Ironically, by film’s end Colossus has indeed fulfilled his stated programming: bringing to America and the entire human race — for the first time – “unity” and “peace.” Those are the very things that the President of the United States sought. Of course, Colossus has made these things happen in a way that, as liberty seeking, human individuals, we find anathema.
In other words, be careful what you wish for…
I find this idea fascinating, and wonder: is Colossus actually a villain at all? Or did he simply do his job in the only way he could conceivably do it, by taking matters out of our hands? In a few short months following his “world control,” Colossus could end hunger, stop overpopulation, curb disease, and bring an end to war. In return, the people of the Earth simply have to follow “his” orders (a reversion of the usual user interface, wherein computers follow our orders). Is domination by Colossus too high a price to pay? Consider that in this technological, atomic age, one push of a button (by a senile, impulsive or temperamental president) could result in nuclear apocalypse. With Colossus, that horrible possibility will never ever occur.
How badly do we desire world peace? What would it cost us to achieve it? Would we be willing to pay that cost if it meant we had to put an “other” in charge? In Colossus: The Forbin Project (a product of the Cold War, pre-Detente era) those questions are deliberately raised, but we’re given no trite or easy answers. The film just leaves you…thinking. And thinking.
I understand that Colossus is being re-made by Ron Howard’s production company at this very moment. Yet Colossus: The Forbin Project is a film that takes place almost entirely in control rooms and political briefing rooms. There are no major action scenes. How would that translate today? I’m afraid the answer is, not so well. I’m sure there will be a temptation to tart the whole thing up and add chase sequences or special effects or something. By contrast, director Joseph Sargent teaches us a lesson in economical, effective filmmaking. He makes the 1970 film visually compelling with his gritty, almost cinema-verite-style sensibility. Much of the action seems caught on the fly, as if the events are happening to us spontaneously. Refreshingly, this naturalistic style feels very real in an easy, unforced way. It’s not exactly documentary-style (not with all the various and sundry insert shots and montages of out-dated computer technology). But nor is it traditional filmmaking either. Whatever you call it, it’s solid, tense work.
One of the best and most amusing sequences in the film involves Forbin’s attempt (while under 24 hour surveillance) to open a line of communications with another scientist on the Colossus team, Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark). The only way he can achieve this end is to convince his wayward creation that his co-worker is actually his mistress, and that they require privacy (away from the prying ears and ears of the supercomputer…) to make love. What follows is a funny, sharp exchange of counter punches between man and machine as each tries to gain the advantage. How often do you require a woman? asks Colossus. Every night, answers Forbin. Not want; require, says Colossus snarkily. Four nights a week, Forbin relents. Colossus agrees. But puts forth his own set of requirements.
When Cleo and Forbin do meet (and remember, they are co-workers, not intimates), Colossus forces them to strip naked in front of his cameras (and in front of each other), before retiring to the bedroom. Awkward! Forbin’s plan is crazy and uncomfortable, perhaps inspired, but he knows that it is the only way to outwit the computer, and the movie really haas some wicked, kinky fun with this unexpectedly human situation.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is a ceaselessly intelligent film about the brinkmanship between man and machine, between a father and son. Imagine an opponent who can think faster than you do. Imagine an opponent who is unclouded by impulse or emotions. Imagine an opponent for whom the nuclear option is never, ever off the table.
Then be afraid. For all of us.