Monday, 6 June 2011

Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970)

The fear is real... a supercomputer decides our fate in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Although he is better known for directing the classic The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Joseph Sargent actually made some of the strangest films of the 1970's, including Goldengirl (1979), a sci-fi drama about a neo-Nazi Doctor who uses his adopted daughter as the guinea pig for a super-drug, engineered to advance physical human strength. Bizarre, I know, yet the film was well recieved in its day. But Colossus is Sargent's best picture, and a minor cult classic which deserves to break into the semi-mainstream in the same way as, say, Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973) has.

Best described as a situation room sci-fi, Sargent's fascinating thriller is driven entirely by dialogue, but conversation is handled with the aplomb of an action sequence, making a set-piece out of two supercomputers swapping complex mathematics; and if that sounds exciting to you, then Colossus will be a sure-fire pulse-pounder. There are some lame moments too, however, which prove how much the film has dated - notably a scene where Forbin teaches Colossus how to make the perfect martini, even ending on a shot of Forbin holding the glass up to Colossus' probing camera with a cheesy marketing smile that just screams 70's. Plot holes are naturally in abundance, most notably in the fact that, despite his ability to reconfigure missile trajectory and assassinate traitors, Colossus cannot access the Control Room where US forces seek to destroy him. Of all the rooms he would wish to access, would this not be top priority? Still, the film - produced on a shoestring budget - is a compelling slice of sci-fi; calm, composed and with a thought-provoking denouement steeped in fevered paranoia.

One thing that impressed me about the film is how contemporary it feels in terms of theme; its concerns are still prevalent, still important and debated, and I don't think it would appear odd to find Colossus in cinemas now, especially after the atrociously stupid Eagle Eye (D.J. Caruso, 2008), which spurs from the same basic idea but at the expense of mega-budget chase sequences. Its aesthetic is dated, sure, and the size of the machine - blinking stat screens, spool tapes, dials, knobs and all - is obviously rooted in the 70s, but the ideas in the film were prescient for their time, and remain thought provoking in our current climate. The NORAD system (North American Aerospace Defense Command) was a primary influence on Colossus, and that real-life machine, developed in 1958, was active during the Cold War also, and controlled America's national defense systems. There's a very prominent air of mistrust hanging over Colossus, which can also be found at the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when HAL conspires against the humans on Discovery. Can a machine conceivably overpower its creator, assume control and assert power, without the advantage of emotion, rationality and judgement? Does a computer understand the world, or just view it? Does it translate compassion or empathy and have feelings of its own? These are questions at the heart of Colossus, and they seem more vital than ever in the technology dependent century we now live in.

There's an ingeniously contrived scene in the final third which seeks to accomplish two things; 1) bring love interests Forbin (Eric Braeden) and Cleo (Susan Clark) closer together, and 2) allow them to exchange information in privacy without the watchful gaze of Colossus. See, the machine has requested to surveil Forbin at all times. Orwell's 1984 finds itself even closer to the home here; it's actually inside, watching us eat, drink and undress, with a camera positioned in every corner. Forbin has convinced Colossus that he needs female company four times a week, and lies about Cleo (a fellow scientist) being his mistress. They wine and dine together, and then retire to the bedroom, bashfully, to exchange information to the CIA. Naturally attraction has its way but there are deeper ideas running through these scenes - the idea of home surveillance stripping the individual of any right to their own life, under the suspicion that they may do something spontaneous, as human nature wishes and allows us to do. It would seem, in these scenes, that the machine can only define and not feel, yet by the end that line is not so defined. Cleo refers to Colossus as "the first electronic peeping tom", but Forbin comes to think of it as something decidedly more monstrous; "I think Frankenstein ought to be required reading for all scientists" he says, after witnessing a double-murder instructed by his creation.

For all the sociopolitical context - and there's more to be considered than what I have discussed here - Colossus is perhaps best enjoyed as a straightforward cerebral thriller, and an essay on the dangers of leaving humankind to the whim of a computer. The machine in Sargent's film has flaws instrumental to the 1970's and bad movie plotting, such as sealing off the impenetrable computer in a bunker wherein there must also, surely, be an off-switch - yet if you forgive these minor details Colossus is a picture of great importance. I don't think it's quite the masterpiece that some claim but there's definitely reason to celebrate something this intelligent and exciting; a film which elicits tension from people talking in rooms about technological jargon that nobody understands, and thinks so far ahead of the time in which it was made. In fact, it was thinking to a time beyond where we are living in now, where fantasy is becoming reality at an ever-quickening rate. Let it never be said that we weren't warned...

Colossus: The Forbin Project is part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.

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