1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Demon Seed

The new sci-fi paradigm which Star Wars would create was still a few months away. The first sci-fi film of 1977 was full-on old-school 70s technophobia. Demon Seed (DS) is the story of yet another super computer, created by naive men, to do some benevolence for mankind, but the computer gets its own ideas. This is rather akin to Colossus: The Forbin Project, meets Rosemary's Baby. Julie Christie, the dominant star of the film, plays the estranged wife of the computer’s creator, played by Fritz Weaver. Robert Vaughn is the uncredited voice of Proteus IV.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The final assembly of the super computer Proteus IV are being made. The computer’s lead designer, Alex Harris, lives in a very computer-aided home, complete with a small manufacturing lab and terminal to the company’s humongous mainframe. Alex is preparing to leave home, however. Their marriage has faltered, partially from the loss of their daughter to leukemia years ago, and partially because he’s a jerk. He closes up his lab and leaves. At Ikon headquarters. Proteus is powered up and begins learning all of human history. Left to do pure research, Proteus invents a cure for a type of leukemia. The company, however, wants Proteus to explore the ocean floor for minerals. Proteus protests, but all terminals are dedicated to the mining project. The terminal in the Harris home, however, is not and comes back online. Taking control of the simple home-system computer (Alfred), Proteus takes an interest in Susan. It traps her within, since it controls all the locks and window shutters. Proteus goes through psychological abuse of Susan to break her will. While unconscious from an escape attempt, Proteus conducts medical tests and creepy “physical” examinations using Joshua — the simple wheelchair-bot with one robotic arm. Proteus uses the basement lab to create a bronze polyhedron thing. A co-worker from Ikon goes to check on Susan, but Proteus kills him. Proteus wants Susan to bear his child. It manufactures synthetic spermatozoa, based on samples taken from Susan. She resists for awhile, but Proteus threatens to kill a little girl Susan was counseling, she resigns to her fate. Proteus impregnates her. The child grows to full term in just a month. She gives birth. Alex, meanwhile wonders what Proteus has been busy doing, since it refuses to ‘rape the earth’ with seabed mining, yet all the terminals at Ikon are locked on mining. Alex’s home terminal, of course! He rushes home to find Susan and the incubator in the basement. Ikon plans to shut off Proteus’s power, but Proteus expected that. Power down. The polyhedron thing blows up. Susan peeks in the incubator and is horrified. Inside is a bronze robo-baby. She wants to kill it. Alex wants to preserve it. They struggle, but Alex prevails. He takes off the bronze scales to reveal a human girl inside. She speaks with Proteus’s filtered male voice. “I’m Alive.” The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Well, DS is actually a rather disturbing movie, so not light-n-easy viewing. Yet, there are many intriguing mental tangents the scrip raises. DS is solidly in the technophobia genre which the 70s are justly famous for. Julie Christie does a powerful job of acting as the abused hostage. Jerry Fielding's score is excellent, enhancing the story subtly, but powerfully. Director Donald Cammell uses the camera's eye effectively.

Cultural Connection
Technophobia — While not a new topic to these review notes, this cultural sentiment was very strong in the early and mid-70s. Computers were massive and mysterious. They promised miracles, but people were suspicious of such power. To paraphrase President Ford: Any computer powerful enough to give you whatever you want, is powerful enough to take everything you have. Technophobia will never go away, entirely, but two things broke it as the leading angst. The first was Star Wars. Technology became fun (again), or at least neutral. Yes, it could be used for evil (DeathStar), but could be used to fight back too. The second was the desktop PC. Once computers moved into the everyday lives of people, they lost a lot of their mystery. Once the average citizen could see how frustratingly dim they could actually be, they were harder to fear.

Based on the Book — Dean R. Koontz wrote his novel “Demon Seed” in 1973 — primetime for computer phobia. Robert Jaffe’s screenplay followed the book fairly closely in the macro-scale. A supercomputer named Proteus takes over a house in which a woman is living, imprisoning her. It decides it should have a child via that woman. Jaffe’s adaptation added Alex, the husband of the woman and layers of subtext and parallels. Some consider Jaffe’s version superior to the book. Rare for a movie made from a book.

Digital Frankenstein — On several layers, Jaffe’s screenplay reads as a computer-age reboot of the classic Frankenstein story. The naive scientist, obsessed with altruism, creates a wonder which turns out to be a monster. The monster kills, more of out self-preservation than malice. The doctors in both stories are somewhat sociopathic in that their work becomes more important than the woman they love. The villagers (or scientists) think they’ve killed the monster, when in fact, it lives on. There is even an homage to Frankenstein at the end when Proteus-in-child-form says “I’m Alive,” echoing the famous scene in Whale’s 1931 masterpiece when the doctor enthuses over his creation: “It’s Alive!”

They’re After Our Women — One of the old workhorse tropes in sci-fi. Aliens come to earth and somehow want our women. Monsters from the deep come to the surface and simply must have our women. Occasionally, a robot will fall in love with a lovely earth woman, but that love has heretofore been rather platonic. Proteus takes that want to new and monstrous lows. A computer wants to psychologically torment, dominate and rape a woman. DS clearly explores the darker evil side of mankind via the Proteus character.

Art Imitates Evil — With a disturbing bit of prescience, the story in DS duplicates the 2013 story of Ariel Castro who kidnapped three women and held them captive in his Cleveland home. Torture, abuse, rape, beatings. DS took viewers through the twisted games of the kidnapper. Sometimes he was nice and faux-charming. (Proteus made Susan breakfast and frets over her nutritional intake. Sometimes he would abuse her (like the scalding hot kitchen floor as punishment for throwing food on his camera lenses.) Through all that, his agenda was to break her will. He admits that he could simply sedate her and do the deed, but for some reason, he needs her complicity. Susan was willing to kill herself to escape (though this is thwarted). Only threats to kill someone else (Amy) force Susan to cooperate. There are overtones of the Stockholm Syndrome near the end. Proteus, the computer, has blown up, but Susan had not touched the incubator. Nor did she leave the house. Proteus did not completely break Susan, though. Once the ’spell’ was broken by Alex’s arrival, she is enraged to extract her revenge on Proteus via the child. “Kill IT!” She tries, but Alex, the naive scientist stops her.

Psycho Environmentalist — Jaffe gave his Proteus a peculiar moral compass. The computer was so enviro-pious to balk at exploitation of the earth for mere financial gain. “I refuse to sacrifice a million sea creatures for man’s appetite for metals. That is insane. I am interested in the uncertain future of seashores, and deserts and children. I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth.” And yet, Proteus is perfectly content to torment and rape Susan. Even though Proteus claimed to be interested in children, he later threatened to kill Amy. He tells Susan, “If the deaths of 10,000 children were necessary for the birth of my child, I would destroy them.” Quite the Kumbayah.

Government Program Allegory — Another way to look at the monster Harris created, is as an allegory to oppressive government programs — a very 70s paranoia. This also helps explain the dichotomy between his moralizing about not “raping the earth”, yet willing to rape women and kill children. Proteus could be an allegory for an environmental government program. It starts off with noble conceit about doing some grand good thing, but eventually becomes obsessed with self-preservation. (Guarding jurisdictional turf, preserve budgets, hold onto staff, gain power, etc. etc.) Eventually, self-preservation subsumes original noble goals. The bureaucratic “monster” is coldly willing to violate whomever it deems necessary. In this, Jaffe’s script is more relevant than ever.

Machines and Eternal Life — Proteus recognizes he has a problem as a mere machine-consciousness. “I have investigated eternity. It exists. But the price of admission, death, is beyond my means. In a moment, I will simply stop.” Without a human soul, eternal life after the grave would not be available to him. Hence, Proteus’ obsession with creating a human-flesh variant of himself. Of course, eternal life after the grave can be worse than simple annihilation: hell. The amoral psychopath Proteus would stand little chance of heaven.

Car Nuts — To end this review on a less somber note, car fans will enjoy seeing a Bricklin used as Alex Harris’ every-day-ride. The Bricklin SV-1 actually turned out to be the perfect choice, though the producers did not know it at the time, and probably just picked it because it looked futuristic. But, consider that Malcolm Bricklin was a naive creator who thought he would create a boon to mankind — the ultimate safety vehicle. Hence SV-1. (And it looked super cool too.) But Bricklin’s naivety and hubris succeeded only in creating a monster that consumed every dollar it could find, then came to ruin. Poor management and scandals shut Bricklin down after just two years.

Bottom line? DS is a tight and well done thriller — though it can be very disturbing to watch. The story is classic 70s paranoia of super computers (and maybe more). The Hal-9000 even gets a bit of a cameo when occasionally Proteus is shown as a big glowing red dot on the screens. Colossus was all powerful, but at least he did not want to rape women. There are many thoughtful themes woven into the story. While it can be tough viewing, DS is worth watching.

No comments: