Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

I am really sorry about this. I mean it. You see, I just didn’t know. It was only after I’d done the notes for this month’s film that I heard from a friend that there were people out there hoping I’d pick some great comedies to write about during the long winter months. Oops. Maybe those people should skip this column. If you’re slipping into a mild seasonal depression, reading about a film that moves from crisis to defeat might be unhealthy. Then again, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) does have Gordon Pinsent as the President of the U.S. And looking at Sixties’ hairdos would brighten up anyone’s day.

The Sixties was a great time for paranoia, both in life and in the arts. Between the Vietnam War and the skullduggery & thuggery of the Cold War there was no question that any fears one had about conspiracies against humanity were justified. Those years produced two of the greatest artistic expressions of paranoia: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Colossus (1970) isn’t in that league, but coming as it did at the tail end of the decade it was a wonderfully depressing footnote. Yes! it told us with grim enthusiasm, there may be worse alternatives than living with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Gosh! we’re so darned creative we can invent something that’ll make sure we never have the opportunity to be stupid again.

Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braedon) is a computer specialist working for one of those secret government agencies that somehow manages to get billions of dollars in funding without officially existing. His brainchild, literally, is a supercomputer named Colossus.

Forbin doesn’t trust human beings. Better that America’s nuclear arsenal be under the dispassionate control of a machine than under the twitching trigger fingers of the generals and politicians who pay him. He does have a point. Forbin’s not mad, he’s just overly optimistic:

“Colossus’ decisions are superior to any we humans can make, for it can process more knowledge than is remotely possible for the greatest genius that ever lived. And even more important, it knows no emotion—no fear, no hate, no envy. It cannot act in a sudden fit of temper—cannot act at all so long as there is no threat.”

Yeah, right. Define “threat.” No fear, no hate, no envy…. no conscience.  Haven’t any of these people read Frankenstein?

To give credit where credit’s due, Forbin’s invention turns out to be even better than he thinks it is. Its learning curve is steeper Isaac Asimov’s. Colossus is even more convincing in the 1990’s, when a world chess grandmaster such as Kasparov nearly has to share his title with something that comes in a large box. What’s becoming clearer is that we may never recognize the moment when (if it ever happens) a computer moves from manipulation of digits to structuring of thoughts.

Even worse than the fact that Forbin hands the whole enchilada over to Colossus is that his Soviet counterpart has done the same with a machine called Guardian. Colossus, wired into the world communications and energy net, discovers its counterpart immediately.  Communications are initiated. Their respective human designers watch in awe as the two computers run through (and beyond) the entire evolution of human thought in a matter of hours. Aw shucks, it’s kind of like having manufactured Einstein or Mozart. Someone wisecracks that the next step after personalization of the machines is deification, and everyone has a good chuckle.

The laughter disappears when Colossus and Guardian launch preemptive nuclear strikes against their supposed masters. Really big oops. It finally sinks into Forbin’s self-satisfied brain that he’s committed Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest sin: Never build anything you can’t unplug.

By this time, unfortunately, Colossus has Forbin under house arrest and is telling him he’s using too much vermouth in his martini. Now that’s omnipotence. Cardinal scientific sin number two: Never give nuclear weapons to anything smart enough to tell you how to mix a martini.

But wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here. We’re talking about human beings in a life and death struggle for survival. Dinosaurs may have had brains the size of walnuts; we don’t. Can humanity really be outsmarted by a souped-up adding machine with delusions of grandeur? Would Hollywood ever release a movie where all the good guys get shmucked? You betcha! Remember that in a world where Rod Serling could produce The Twilight Zone, and Chris Carter can get the X-Files on the air, anything is possible.

As the winter snows creep relentlessly down our Kootenay mountainsides (hey, I warned you not to read this column) I’d like to close with Colossus’ touchingly pathetic picture of Colorado tourists admiring the supercomputer’s mountain stronghold, for a brief moment blissfully ignorant of their new masters’ existence. While at the same moment, in California, Forbin is listening to a short lecture from his new boss:

‘This is the voice of World Control. Obey me and live. Disobey me and die. The object in creating me was to eliminate war—this objective has been obtained. War is wasteful. Man is his own worst enemy. I will restrain man. You will come to obey me with a fervor based on the most enduring trait in man: self-interest. Elimination of famine, overpopulation, disease—the human millennium will be a fact. Freedom is an illusion. All you will lose is pride. You will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

Martini anyone?

Another film to which I no longer have easy access.  It’s available in a new Blu-Ray version from Amazon, so I’ll be putting in an order.  I definitely need another look.

Unfortunately, my science fiction reading over the last couple of decades has been pretty slim, so I can’t suggest anything new in the way of stories/novels about rogue AI’s.  There must be some great ones out there.  If anybody reads this and can help me out, it would be greatly appreciated.  In the meantime, I’ll pull out a couple of my still-unread The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies off the shelf.  Editor Gardner Dozois always packs in some doozies.

Movie Information

Genre: Science Fiction
Director: Joseph Sargent
Actors: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinset
Year: 1970
Original Review: November 1996


Trial – by the Brothers Lynch

A 15-minute science fiction short that could be an abbreviated episode of the Black Mirror TV series.  Hits hard like a first-class sci-fi short story should.  “All progress has a price,” says a key character.  The Brothers Lynch want you to imagine the kind of society that will pay this one.


The Black Film Canon: The 50 Greatest Movies by Black Directors

Exactly what the title says it is.  The films are listed in alphabetical order, and if you click on the accompanying photo still you’ll get a capsule review.  The oldest entries: Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus (1941), Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (1969), Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973).  You can sort the list by title or by year, or run other searches based on parameters such as Biopic, Doc, Hood, Int’l, Female Directors, etc.


Something Weird: The Very Best in Exploitation Cinema!

Exactly what the title says it is.   If you’re looking to buy copies of Assassin of Youth (Marijuana), Nude on the Moon, Bad Girls Go to Hell, or Olga’s House of Shame, look no further.  This adults-only website for all that’s cheesy is based out of Seattle.  I’ll leave the sub-categories to your imagination.  Also features less predictable titles such as Atomic Scare Films, Campy Classroom Classics, and Classic TV Commercials.  Some entertaining one-page reviews (“Watch this film [Submission (1969)] with a dysfunctional loved one of your own”).  Quentin Tarantino was here.

Films Worth Talking About:

Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin), Candy, Dodes’ Kaden, Ryan’s Daughter, Les Choses de la vie (The Things of Life), L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child), Le Boucher (The Butcher), Airport, Borsalino, Woodstock, The Confession, M*A*S*H, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Drama of Jealousy (The Pizza Triangle), Myra Breckingridge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Catch-22, Five Easy Pieces, The Choice, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Love Story, Little Big Man, Deep End, The Owl and the Pussycat, Le genou de Calire (Claire’s Knee), The Boys in the Band, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Tora! Tora! Tora!  Husbands.


The Bigger Picture

Films:  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)




Books:  Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

The Word on the Street

COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT was not a big hit at the box office for various reasons. One is that its cast wasn’t exactly well known. Another reason is that its ending isn’t exactly a happy one. Still a third reason is that Universal had trouble trying to promote it in the wake of the huge success of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The latter reason is obvious: Colossus and Guardian, like HAL in the Kubrick movie, become central characters here. The difference here is that while HAL malfunctions due to a programming conflict, Colossus and Guardian remain all too stable, convinced beyond a doubt that they know how to protect Mankind better than Man himself. As the computers point out: “One inevitable rule is that Mankind is his own worst enemy.”  [virek213]

A lot has already been said about this compelling, oft-overlooked film, virtually all of which hits the proverbial nail on the head. While Eric Braeden delivers a superb, understated performance as Dr. Charles Forbin, the fact is that the real star of the film is the vast, omnipotent machine he has created. Even before it begins to speak with the chilling Cylonesque voice it has ordered designed for itself (the great Paul Frees like you’ve never heard him before), you’ll find yourself glued to the screen watching Colossus “talk” to its supposed masters over its huge monitors….Frees gives Colossus an emotionless yet fearful quality of speech that seems to belie its implacable drive to dominate human destiny.

My favorite part of this film has always been, and will always be, the climactic monologue Colossus announces to the listening masses of humanity. From its opening line — “This is the voice of world control,” an identity neither Colossus nor its counterpart, Guardian, had used to that point — you know this isn’t going to be a happy speech if you are a sentient, flesh & blood resident of the Earth. What is particularly creepy about the speech is that, for all of its strangely optimistic sermonizing about how “the human millennium will be fact” and how the computer will set about the task of “solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man” — outwardly the Utopian dream — the message Colossus is presenting is set against the dreadful backdrop of “disobey (me) and die.” As Colossus intones, “You say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride.” In the end, unlike other supercomputer-run-amok films such as “War Games” or “Tron,” “Colossus” is an end-of-the-world story without the nuclear or viral holocaust. In this film, it is the human spirit that is the casualty while the human biology lingers on. Unlike the rest of the doomsday genre, our end comes not so much with a bang as it does with a whimper.  [alynsrumbold]

I have not seen this movie in 30 years, but I remember every scene as if it were yesterday, and the deep feelings that I had when I first saw it lingers on as well. THOSE are the marks of a truly memorable film….
What makes this move work on so many levels is that it taps into our greatest fears — one of which is NOT death, but the loss of control over our lives. Why are people afraid to fly when their chances of being killed in an auto crash are so many times greater? Loss of control.  [dr_rip]

This film is on my list of the 10 best under-rated films of all time. Most horror films leave me cold, but this film is flat out scary.  [thaneofmemphis]

This is one rare movie. It deals intelligently with complex scientific issues and does so without dumbing down the concepts, nor making any painful errors in trying to keep up with its own topic. I found it convincing when I was a kid hacker in the mid-70’s (when “hacker” meant “person who writes programs for fun”), and it is just as persuasive to me now (after I have acquired a computer science grad degree, and 25 years of experience in the field).

Spooky score takes it up a rung on the ladder, too. See it.  [pro_crustes]

The moral of this movie makes an interesting contrast with the moral of “Forbidden Planet.” “Forbidden Planet” showed that no matter how advanced our civilization gets technologically, we can’t escape the “monsters” buried deeply in the baser instincts of our subconscious. “Colossus” showed that we can’t escape hubris or “Murphy’s Law” either.  [sdlitvin]

Many of the Artificial Intelligence / supercomputer films, that have been released in the last thirty years have borrowed, if not downright stolen, their ideas from what Colossus set out. Gene Roddenberry used the idea in the 1968 Star Trek episode, ‘The Ultimate Computer’, while James Cameron cites Colossus as his inspiration for Skynet, in his 1984 movie ‘The Terminator’.  [Darryl_G_Morrissey]

I felt compelled to write about “Colossus: the Forbin Project” as it is still on my mind. I had a somewhat strange reaction to it. I can’t remember the last time I was actually frightened by a film in the same way that I was frightened by this one. Typically, my fear response only kicks in when I see a potent image thrust at me quickly or when a movie uses unusual, eerie sounds to induce anxiety. Most films tend to frighten people by this primitive jack-in-the-box method.

But the fear “Colossus: the Forbin Project” gave me is the same fear I experienced after reading Orwell’s “1984”. It’s the fear of being taken over. Of losing personal freedom. As the Colossus computer’s demands and actions grow and become all-encompassing the audience’s reactions seem to mirror the Forbin character’s reactions. To watch him slowly crumble in the face of what he has created is frightening because he seems so implacable for most of the movie. We put our faith in him because he reacts to each twist in the plot with a knowing smile.  [tbyrne4]