When the Colossus supercomputer is activated, it’s hello machine overlord, goodbye human freedom!
In the realms of technological thrillers, Colossus: The Forbin Project is a trendsetter in predicting the potential pitfalls of allowing a computer to rule humanity. The film speaks of freedom, human arrogance and the shortsightedness of humans in order to get that short-term gain.
The trailer calls out the pedigree of the film by comparing it immediately to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It appears that humans have built a supercomputer, dubbed Colossus, and when it comes online it takes over the world infrastructure, and captures its creator in a technological prison full of surveillance. He has some sort of team that he’s working with on the outside in an attempt to stop the machine, and uses the ruse of needing a sexual companion to share that information. Colossus appears to have inspired such films as WarGames and potentially The Terminator. It should be an interesting view on the evils of technology.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film opens with Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden) making some final updates and activating Colossus, a giant super-computer hidden under the Rocky Mountains which has been designed to take over America’s defense program and maintain its nuclear arsenal. The President (Gordon Pinsent) goes on television with Dr. Forbin to tout the capabilities of Colossus, including its inability to have emotions, its superior processing power, and its ability to defend itself from attacks. As Colossus comes online, it detects another computer system in Russia, called Guardian. Colossus demands to be linked to Guardian. Both countries agree, what could the harm be?
The two machines begin trading simple math problems, which soon evolves to higher levels of calculus, binary language, and then a new machine based language that the humans cannot understand. Concerned that the system may share American secrets with the Russians, the President orders the phone lines cut. As both the U.S. and Soviet scientists sever the hard link the machines demand to be reconnected. Colossus threatens the scientists that it will launch a nuclear missile at a Russian oil field if not reconnected.
The scientists believe the machine to be bluffing, but are quickly shocked when both computers launch missiles against each country. The scientists reconnect the two machines in time for Colossus to fire a defensive missile, destroying the Russian missile headed towards Texas. The U.S. missile destroys the oil field and the nearby town. Both leaders lie about the nature of the incidents. Dr. Forbin and his peer, Dr. Kuprin (Alex Rodine) the creator of Guardian, plan a secret meeting to discuss next steps. However, the meeting doesn’t start before Kuprin is assassinated and Colossus demands Forbin return home.
Colossus and Guardian have collaborated to keep the scientists apart. Colossus demands that Forbin install audio & video surveillance around the facility, and submit to being held prisoner, all the time with the threat of further nuclear launches. He manages to convince Colossus that he has human needs, and asks that his “mistress” be allowed to visit four times a week. This is a lie, concocted to allow Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) unmonitored access to Forbin in order for them to plot to stop the super-computer.
The scientists plan is to replace the warhead arming modules with dummy modules while doing maintenance which Colossus has demanded. Additional scientists are working on a plan to introduce a repetitive program that will hopefully overload the computers circuits. When Colossus discovers these plans he has the scientists responsible executed, and then detonates one of the missiles in its silo, killing hundreds of people. Forbin blames himself for the loss of life.
Colossus announces that it and Guardian are now one. They address the worldwide television audience as the “voice of World Control.” Colossus was created to stop war and that’s just what’s its done. Human problems, such as famine, overpopulation and disease will now be solved by the computer. Colossus will have Dr. Forbin build even bigger and stronger computers, to which he says “never.” Colossus reminds the humans that freedom is an illusion and in time they will come to regard the machine with respect and even love.
“The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless.” – Colossus
History in the Making
Colossus: The Forbin Project as with many other films viewed for Sci-Fi Saturdays was originally based on a novel of the same name by British novelist D.F. Jones. Written four years prior to the release of the film, the story in the novel sets itself in the near future (the 1990s) and unfolds in a very similar manner. It creates the dystopian-esque world where man is controlled by machine, which is a plot that had come to a head in sci-fi literature of the 60s and would permeate into sci-fi film and television in the 1970s.
Director Joseph Sargent, who had directed the original Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” created a believable “now” for the film by using a cinema vérité style of filmmaking. This is a style of filmmaking, normally associated with documentary films, in which the events unfold unscripted in a chaotic and natural way. Its use in standard Hollywood-style films are usually invoked to add realism to the events of the film. Colossus: The Forbin Project makes use of the style in several areas, most notably the computer mainframe set and in the White House location. The use of overlapping dialogue and imperfect sound recording (ie celebratory-noise or computer-noise in the background) adds the air that the footage was just “captured” live. As mentioned in the article on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used observational documentary elements, this was the beginning of sci-fi films utilizing techniques to seem more realistic and draw the audience in, especially for films that couldn’t rely on special effects to carry the weight.
As with HAL from 2001, Colossus also creates a sentient Artificial Intelligence in its computer, vilifying the machine and creating a strong protagonist. It was a key film in creation of computers as dangerous and evil constructs that would take over the world, in this case literally. At the time, computers were something which had fascinated the public as with HAL in 2001 or the comedic The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but were still five years from being available in a home model. They were not yet a common appliance as they would be by the 1990s. Audiences and filmmakers were understandably apprehensive about the applications of these machines. While they were useful tools, couldn’t they also be exploited? And unlike other dangerous tools that man has created, this particular one was able to think and learn on its own.
With the creation of pseudo-AI assistants in the early 21st Century (think Alexa or Siri), it’s ludicrous to believe that the rudimentary computers of the late 1960s and early 1970s would be able to do anything was shown in the film. However, the threats posed by Colossus and Guardian were all too real to audiences of the Cold War. Machines being put in charge of nuclear arsenals is more chilling than having actual feeling, rational humans in some cases. As the film shows, once the computer had made up its mind it could not be reasoned with and would not back down. The sentience of Colossus that’s depicted would be a strong sci-fi staple that would continue to flourish throughout the 70s and 80s and beyond, with films like Westworld, The Terminator (the rise of Skynet in particular), WarGames, and The Matrix, to name a few.
Of course, using computers to offload repetitive or suitably complex mathematical tasks is understandable. That’s the beauty of the tool, but to turn over the defense of a nation, with its nuclear stockpiles, to a computer that can have no human oversight seems ludicrous and shortsighted on the part of the humans involved. Forbin and the President seem delighted at the accomplishment of the creation of Colossus, having not thought through any particular consequences, with the remainder of the film being humans trying to catch up after ceding control. The themes of freedom, responsibility, and self reliance resonate strongly in the story.
As with the films of the 1950s which dealt allegorically with the horrors of the atomic bomb and the fears that it unleashed, the Cold War of the late 60s and 70s between America and the Soviet Union would find resonance in the sci-fi films of this time. Colossus: The Forbin Project tells of man’s reliance on machines to the extreme where he has given up the control of his destiny in order for peace and security. As Colossus states, his goal in being activated was to prevent war, which is just what it intends to do. And just like the mythical genie-in-a-bottle, there’s no way for Forbin to stop the proliferation of Colossus’ programming.
In an attempt to keep the knowledge that a computer is now in control, the President of the United States and the Premiere of the Soviet Union both fabricate falsehoods about the nature of the attacks propagated by the AI machines. The Soviet Premiere says that the town near the oil field was destroyed by a meteorite, while the President tells of an off course missile over Texas which was fired during a drill. These lies, which are transparent to the audiences, are fueled by many real-world conspiracy theories from the assassination fo JFK to the potential hoax of the moon landing. The President later even worries about how much the public will find out about Colossus, just as they appear to defeat it. Of course, shortly after that the machine announces its intentions to the world and puts an end to presumably everyone’s career.
The Science in The Fiction
While the artificial intelligence applications of Colossus: The Forbin Project are ludicrously beyond the reach of 1970s scientific achievement, the film doesn’t try to make up some strange style of computer. The world of the film has a suitably large computer, larger than many of the time, that uses accurate inputs and outputs for the time. Humans enter the commands via a keyboard (the film has people saying these commands out loud) and Colossus responds via a large dot matrix LED display. That is, until Colossus upgrades itself to have voice control.
When the humans initially try to cut the hard lines to prevent Colossus from “talking” with Guardian, some on-screen displays show the computer attempting to reroute communication through different avenues in order to maintain the connection. This depiction is very reminiscent of modern internet traffic which must traverse many different connections, rerouting itself when there is heavy volume or downed line. Forbin also reminds people that Colossus is a computer that takes the exact meaning of words literally so it’s necessary to be cautious when giving it instructions. Maybe like the initial instruction it was issued to prevent war. Oops!
The film also shows the use of teleconferencing between Washington DC and the main computer center in Los Angeles. It’s not presented as a sci-fi element, but as a normal mode of communication between two government centers. It appears very much like modern teleconferencing calls work, with a small monitor and a camera relaying the image of the participants to each side. Sometimes in films, the ‘in-universe’ displays tend to show the cinematic image from the film camera, but not in this case. They appear to have shot adequate and different footage from the POV of the conference screen to display. An almost invisible effect today, masking the fact that this film was produced 50 years in the past.
The use of cameras and audio recording devices is used further in the film as a means for Colossus to monitor the humans working with it. This oversight is an all too real reality in today’s world, where companies and computers track users digital movements and local governments use surveillance tools to monitor citizens and public places. The fallout of the data used from these observations has yet to be fully realized, as many seek to keeping their privacy while in public. Colossus takes the surveillance to its most horrible end, ferreting out non-collaborators against it and having them publicly executed, as a warning to others.
The Final Frontier
Colossus: The Forbin Project makes use of many character actors and no “stars” as such in order to focus on the threat of the real star of the film: Colossus. Eric Braeden would make his big break as Victor Newman in the long running soap opera The Young and the Restless, but can be seen as Dr. Otto Hasslein (time travel theorist) in Escape from The Planet of the Apes. Susan Clark has a popular career in the 80s starring with her husband Alex Karras in the hit sitcom Webster. As mentioned last week, William Schallert appears here as the clueless director of the CIA. Fans of the Bionic Man (and Woman) on television will recognize Martin Brooks (Rudy Wells in that universe) as the ill-fated Dr. Jefferson Johnson–one of Forbin’s close comrades. Marion Ross, who is much better known as Mrs. Cunningham on the long-running sitcom Happy Days makes a small appearance as Miss Fields, the secretary for the project. And finally character actor James Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China, The Golden Child) has a small role as Dr. Chin. Finally, when Colossus gains a voice, it’s none other that character actor Paul Frees, who had a role as the voice of the aliens in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, providing that voice.
As a sci-fi film, the audience is constantly rooting for the humans to be able to stop the machine. So in the end, the conclusion of the film is quite shocking and nihilistic–presaging a number of other 1970s films that depict the hopes of humanity crumbling against hubris, or some other apocalyptic vision. Colossus: The Forbin Project stands as a great parable for giving up freedom for convenience, and manages to endure as a solid thriller five decades later.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.