DVD Review Of Colossus: The Forbin Project

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/29/07


  There was a time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when science fiction films seemed to be emerging from their cult status, and into the mainstream as films that could express the deepest and highest aspirations of mankind in ways that mere literary sci fi could not. There were a plethora of intelligent films in that era. Yes, there had been intelligent sci fi in the decades before. In the 1930s, there was William Cameron Menziesí Things To Come, based upon the H.G. Wells tale. The 1950s saw such sci fi films as The Day The Earth Stood Still, On The Beach, Forbidden Planet, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. But it really was the late 1960s that saw sci fi reach a greatness besides mere Ďgenre greatness.í Genre greatness is where one can say that a film was a great film noir, sci fi, romance, etc. But truly great films transcend their genres and become great art regardless of what art genre they originate from.

  In this era there were folks who specialized in quality A science fiction films, unlike the B quality sci fi films of the past. These included heavyweight directors like Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) and superstar actors like Charlton Heston (Planet Of The Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green). But there were also many other quality and literate sci fi films like Slaughterhouse 5, The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, THX 1138, Silent Running, and Loganís Run, just to name the best known. Then came the puerile Star Wars series (from George Lucas, who inexplicably also made the wonderful THX 1138), and sci fi has never again reached the heights of that Golden Age which the Star Wars franchise killed off. Yes, there have been a few exceptions- the first two films in both the Alien and The Terminator series, and the 2001 sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but thatís about it. Star Trek does not count, since its franchise films were merely a leveraged television phenomenon.

  However, one of the truly terrific sci fi films that has been criminally neglected critically, is director Joseph Sargentís hour and forty minute long Colossus: The Forbin Project, based upon D.F. Jonesí 1966 novel Colossus, and adapted for the screen by James Bridges. The film was shorn of any real star power, but the very fact that it lacked A List Hollywood names lends it an authenticity and believability that still carries through today. Despite this and the also well made The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3, in 1974, Sargent never made it to A List director status. Yet, Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of the rare genre films that mixes subgenres and succeeds. It is a Doomsday film, which is a vast range including films like On The Beach, Planet Of the Apes, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man, but it also a Frankenstein/Amok Computer film, as well.

  Although Colossus, as a character, is never as memorable as HAL 9000 in 2001, it still is a chilling villain that harkens back to the more innocent-minded 1950s foray into similar territory, The Invisible Boy, even if it is as out of date as its predecessor- being the typical supercomputer of that era, the size of a vast building, with tape machines, a synthetically tinny robotic voice (done by the incomparable voice artist Paul Frees), and a missionary zeal to fulfill its stated mission- to bring peace to mankind, by whatever means necessary; not unlike the sort of benignly dictatorial peace that is offered by the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) in The Day The Earth Stood Still. And, unlike HAL, in 2001, Colossus cannot emote through vocal inflection. Also, several of the shots that reveal the immense size and scope of the computer, hidden away under a Colorado mountain, are a direct quotation from the vast planetary-scaled machinery the Krel, in Forbidden Planet, constructed. And the supercomputer Skynet, from The Terminator series, is a direct descendant of Colossus, even if the earlier film is much more judicious in its showing of death and carnage, therefore more suspenseful, relying almost totally on the reaction shots of horror from its human characters.

  The film also trusts its audience, for by filmís end, when the supercomputer has outwitted the humans that frantically try to undo it, we are never told how it did so; unlike many films which blatantly tip off the way something to be kept Ďsecretí, diegetically, is learnt. Also, Colossus displays a logic that is without emotion. When it discovers the first of two major sabotage attempts it order the two scientists responsible to be executed, lest it will nuke major cities. Then, after the scientists are shot dead, Colossus commands that their corpses be left in its view, then cremated. But, it is not a villain acting out of personal gain, it seems. Colossus displays a cold rationality, until the filmís end, where it announces to the world its intent on subjugating humanity into a forced peace. Then, it seems the computer has progressed beyond mere sentience and ego and into full blown hubris- if not a God Complex, declaring that, in time, the world, and its maker, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) will come to not only love and respect Colossus, but be in awe of it.

  Yet, all seemingly starts out wonderfully, with the cerebral Forbin celebrated as a genius who has created the secret supercomputer that will protect the United States from a nuclear attack with flawless precision. But, upon its announcement to the world, the Soviet Union announces it has its own supercomputer, Guardian. Colossus, however, has detected this before the announcement by stating simply, ĎThere is another systemí- a sly comment on the Capitalism-Communism debate. Swiftly, the two computers exchange data, team up, until Colossus basically cannibalizes Guardian, and, in the synergy of the two systems, establishes World Control. Through threats and actual detonation of nuclear devices, Colossus takes over, and Forbin is reduced to his creationís slave. At first this is merely 24 hour monitoring, save for four times a week, for a faked romance with another scientist, Doctor Cleo Markham (Susan Clarke), working on Colossus, which blossoms into the real thing- albeit it never becomes a serious subplot, thankfully. And the tactfully screened nudity of the two lovers is to be applauded for the human body is not the focus of this film, any more than human love is. This faux-cum-real romance allows Forbin to become more human by filmís end, even as he resists Colossusís commands. One suspects that Colossus, despite stating it was allowing Forbin privacy, really just pretended to turn off in the bedroom, and monitored the scientistsí discussed plans to take it offline. After all, given all the conditions it assigns to allow Forbin sex, one suspects it suspects that more hanky-panky than sex is going on.

  The end of the film, with mankind (and Forbin) beaten but not bowed, is sensational, for it just ends with Colossus eyeing a seething Forbin as it dictates to the world, then fades to black, as mankindís domination of the world has come to an end; a theme that echoes in film series as diverse as Planet Of the Apes (Braeden starred as the villain, Dr. Otto Hasslein, in Escape From The Planet Of The Apes) and George Romeroís Living Dead films. The film retains its power because of a great script, terrific acting, and a great premise- beyond the evil computer takes over the world trope. Despite Colossusís hubris, it never deviates from fulfilling Mankindís and Forbinís stated wish- assured peace, and advances in science.

  Bridgesí screenplay never devolves into jingoism, when it easily could have. Both Americans and Russians are shown in positive and negative lights. The Americans are shown as dickwavers when Colossus is announced, and the Russians gleefully execute their computer expert on Guardianís orders. Both the Soviet Premier and American President seem sincere in their desires for peace, and horrified that they have authorized their subordinates to create such monsters. The acting is superb, from the German born Braeden (nťe Hans Gudegast, with a pre-Arnold Schwarzenegger Teutonic accent), who later achieved daytime television superstardom as Victor Newman in the soap opera The Young And The Restless, to Clarke as his lover, to even the unnamed JFK-like President, played by Gordon Pinsent. Other good performances are turned in by the mostly known by television actors in lesser roles, such as William Schallert as CIA Director Grauber, Georg Stanford Brown as Dr. John F. Fisher- one of the executed scientists, Alex Rodine as Dr. Kuprin, Marion Ross as Angela Fields, and Dolph Sweet as a Colonel in charge of nuclear defenses.
  The DVD, put out by Universal, has no features, and not even a menu. Itís just the film in a 1.33:1 format, chopped down horribly from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, thus causing pan and scan to cut off many key elements at the edges of the frame. And once itís done the film simply starts playing again. What a shame, for this film- which has stuck with me for over thirty years (the last time I saw it) deserves much better treatment.

  Yes, there are the usual sorts of implausibilities in a film like this- such as the American military industrial complex and the CIA having few qualms about relying on a supercomputer- one that is sealed off and untested. Also, why didnít Forbin program Colossus with something like Asimovís Three Laws Of Robotics; a Hippocratic-like injunction to Ďdo no harmí to humans? And there is not even Murphyís Law in the film, which could accidentally kibosh Colossus, even if Mankind could not, much less the concept of viruses, bots, nor spyware. Nor is the concept of GIGO ever insisted upon, for surely a flawed man like Forbin could not have created a perfect thing? And what of the non-computer controlled technology? Even if the nuclear missiles could be auto-launched by Colossus and Guardian, surely fighter planes could shoot them down, as 1970ís technology was far short of what we have today. And the easy compliance of the Soviets seems too wish-fulfillment, as well. But the sparkling dialogue and tense War Room scenes (ala Dr. Strangelove) more than make up for those lapses. Then there is the spare, atmospheric electronic score by Michel Colombier, which never gets too emotional. Itís a great match for the theme and acting in the film, even if Albert Whitlockís special effects are passť.

  Why the film did not become a hit is likely for several reasons: a) its low profile cast (although Braedenís performance here should have made him a big star), b) the long shadow of HAL 9000 from 2001, which was still playing in some theaters two years after its release, and c) the dour ending- a great display of artistic integrity, but always a risky box office choice. Other films with downer endings- Planet Of The Apes or Soylent Green, at least had a big star like Charlton Heston to get crowds in the door, despite word of mouth over the non-Hollywood endings. Yet, that great word of mouth is why the film has never been forgotten, and is considered a cult classic. Its ending is also very much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, with the moral, Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

  Forbin and mankind do get what they wanted: an end to war, and a promise to end disease, pollution, overcrowding, and starvation, knowing fully well that Colossus is likely to deliver on its promises; a thing which makes Colossus all the more effective than any mere human dictator could be. Yet, itís not that they got their desire, but how they get it that is the crux, for the how displays one of humanityís greatest fears- the loss of control. Thus, Colossus: The Forbin Project stands out not only as a great sci fi film, but as a great testament to the power of ego and hubris- Mankindís, Forbinís, and the computerís. After all, had only one side in the arms race concocted a supercomputer, neither Colossus nor Guardian could have grown out of control so quickly.  This focus on egotism links this film to the eerily similarly titled Forbidden Planet. Yet, unlike the earlier film, the human race does not seem able to escape destruction from the product of its own ingenuity. Were such ingenuity on display these days, in Hollywood, the film industry would be in far better shape than it is today. Perhaps old Colossus knew a few things, after all?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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