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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Colossus: The Forbin Project

In the spring of 1970, Universal released a powerful sleeper of a sci-fi: Colossus: The Forbin Project (CFP). Unjustly, it seldom makes it onto lists of great sci-fi. CFP does not star big name talent. Eric Braeden and Susan Clarke were more known in television series roles. Nor does it have flashy special effects. The story is an excellent follow-up to our recent Frankenstein study, with a high-tech (for 1970) monster and its creator. Based on the 1966 novel "Colossus" by D. F. Jones. The poster makes a dark recasting of the 1967 musical "Hair" and the song "Age of Aquarius," by stating "This is the dawning of the age of Colossus."

Quick Plot Synopsis
Deep beneath a Colorado mountain, Dr. Charles Forbin turns on a super computer the size of an office building. He seals it up, and leaves. Forbin, the President and a room full of dignitaries congratulate themselves on their national defense success. Colossus would handle American nuclear missile defense faster and without human failings. Colossus interrupts the parties to announce: "There Is Another System." It detected that the Soviets had a matching super computer named Guardian. Colossus requests a data link between the two. Both sides are reluctant, but agree. Colossus and Guardian develop a common language, beginning with math, through calculus and into binaries. Worried that they don't know what their computers are sharing, both sides cut the link. Colossus demands it be restored. When the humans say no, Colossus and Guardian launch a missile. They refuse to intercept the incoming missiles unless the link is restored. The humans relent, but not in time. A Russian oil complex and town are destroyed. Forbin and his Russian counterpart, Kuprin, meet in Rome to discuss what to do. Colossus finds out and orders Kuprin shot (or it would destroy Moscow), and Forbin brought home to house arrest and 24 hour surveillance. Forbin tells Colossus that he needs privacy for sex. He names as his mistress, his cohort, Dr. Cleo Markham. In these pretend romantic interludes, Forbin and Cleo exchange news and plans. Programmers Johnson and Fisher plan to run some mega-complex program in hopes of overloading Colossus's circuits. Colossus orders all missiles retargeted to other nations so it can control them too. The army generals plan to swap out missile detonators for dummy detonators, eventually depriving Colossus of weapons. Fisher tries the overload program, but Colossus knew. It orders Johnson and Fisher shot, as a lesson to all. It also detected the missile sabotage and blows up two missiles in their silos as a lesson to everyone. In its eerie electronic voice, Colossus addresses the world to say that it is now in control of the world. "Obey me and live. Disobey and die. The choice is yours." Colossus tells Forbin that he will someday regard him with respect and awe, and eventually love. Forbin proclaims: Never! The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Even though the visuals are sorely dated (punch tape?) the story line remains very relevant even today. There is much food for thought in this film. All that room-filling computer equipment is a nostalgia treat for those "into" computers before there were desktop PCs.

Cold War Angle
The stalemate between the West and the East serves as a background, but the old squabbles pale in comparison to the solution. The horror we thought we feared from THEM, instead comes a compassionless third party -- of our own making.

The REAL Frankenstein 1970 -- Unlike the Boris Karloff film of 1958, by that title, CFP truly is the story of Frankenstein modernized for the world of 1970. Forbin is the computer-age incarnation of the well-meaning (if naive) genius doctor. The monster he creates is a powerful giant. As in the classic tales, the doctor loses control of his monster. It kills and cannot be stopped. The writers clearly had this in mind. At one point, Cleo tells Forbin that her mother thought the novel Frankenstein should be required reading of all scientists. Forbin agreed.

Technophobia -- The 1950s' infatuation with science and technology was fading during the 60s. Technology was becoming something to fear. Early examples of the technophobia sub-genre include: Gog ('54) in which a computer which controls an entire defense base begins killing people off; The huge Krell computer in Forbidden Planet (56) is a forerunner of Colossus. The Invisible Boy ('57) is a story of a super computer secretly improves itself until it begins taking over control'. As computers began to show up more in the lives of middle-america, the more resonance there was for technophobia films.

Political Parallels -- CFP works well, too, as a political allegory that is relevant for today -- even 50 years later. Men seeking relief from some great fear, can rush too quickly to create a government powerful enough to relieve that fear. Their "creation" will succeed in its task, but become a "monster," a new tyrant worse than the old fear. In the early 1930s, the German people sought relief from an economy in shambles. They created a government that would become the Nazi state. Russian peasants and workers sought relief from the oppression of the Tsarist system, but created the Stalinist state.
"A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have…." -- President Gerald Ford,, 1974
The lesson in CFP fits today. Whether the "great fear" is global warming, or terrorists, a rush to create a government powerful enough to solve it quickly, will become an even more terrible tyrant. Beware of politicians in a hurry for you to approve their plans.

Non-Silent Screen -- Note how messages displayed on Colossus' screens are always accompanied by loud printing sounds. CRTs and message boards make no sound. That would be too underwhelming, so director Joseph Sargent had most of the displays make a printer sound. People like audio clues to visuals. A real life example of this is in Boston's South Station. The big schedule board is all LEDs, therefore silent. But when it changes, a sound is played -- that of the cascading split-flap style boards of the 1980s. We like sounds with our visual messages.

Bottom line? If you haven't seen CFP. Find it. Watch it. Just as Cleo's mom thought "Frankenstein" should be required reading for scientists, CFP should be required viewing for people eager to give governments more power to solve some issue. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: Those willing to give up freedom for safety, will end up with neither. Fans of action sci-fi flicks, accustomed to fireball explosions, zipping spaceships or magical special effects, will likely find CFP boring, so will miss the warnings.


Tom J said...

great article about a truly great film - this is by far my favourite 'mad computer film' that there is.

Sorry for the shameless plug however CFP was the topic of my second episode of my podcast so if you get the chance check it out.


great work again and even reading this makes me want to go back to it!

Nightowl said...

Hi Tom,
Glad you liked the review. I enjoyed your 5/28/2010 podcast. We share many views on Colossus. Yes, it is truly a great movie on so many levels.

Nice to find another Colossus fan out there.

CavedogRob said...

Great review. Nice to hear there are other fans of this film!

Mic said...

This has to be one of my most favorite old sci-fi. I'm surprised it isn't better known.