Take cold war fears of nuclear annihilation, and add in an intelligent super-computer gone amuk, and you have ”Colossus: The Forbin Project”. This was certainly not the first time a computer taking over had been depicted on film – both “2001 A Space Odyssey” and “Alphaville” predate this, for example. The idea also appeared in literature earlier , and the film is actually based on the novel “Colossus” by DF Jones. Isaac Asimov also addressed this idea, as did Robert Heinlein and others. I think this is an excellent film for blending the idea with current world politics, coming up with a story that, should the technology be available, is all too plausible.
Essentially a scientist called Forbin builds a super computer called Colossus. The American Government puts this machine in control of all their weapons. Forbin has designed it to be invulnerable to attack. Shortly after being activated, the computer announces that there is another computer, and they find out that the Russians have built a similar device. Colossus requests contact, which the scientist thinks is a good idea because he wants to see what will happen. But this experiment goes wrong. After communicating, the two computers merge, essentially becoming one mind. From there Colossus instigates world domination, using the threat of detonating nuclear warheads if its orders aren’t carried out. All attempts to stop this fail.
This film comes across as creepily plausible for a number of reasons. Firstly there is the trust placed in scientific invention. Computers and what they do are there to benefit people, and it would not occur to them that, should the computer be sophisticated enough, it might have other ideas about how to carry out its purpose (ensuring peace, in this instance.) Secondly, there is the need for security. After all, we have all heard about how hackers can exploit back door programs to enter secure systems and steal information. The system is made so fool-proof, in order to protect it, that when they need to disable it themselves they have no way to do so. Then there is the ‘peace’ that each side is looking for. They put the computer in charge of the weapons in order to give themselves a tactical advantage. ‘Peace’ to each side really means that they have the upper hand – in war, they win. They wanted logic without emotion in charge of this, but logic without emotion had no inbuilt sense of nationalism, and therefore took the logical way to achieve peace – people make war, so control the people.
I found it funny in a weird way to hear the characters huffing and puffing about ‘man being the master’. It was a very psychologically plausible comment, especially from those in power. They were appalled by the idea that a machine was giving them orders. Colossus had no sense of pride, because that is an emotion. It also had no sense of regret about the deaths it ordered. Everything was done logically for its stated end. Of course, Colossus was quite correct. It was very logical to take over, and it was quite possible that humans would benefit ultimately. But of course, to a computer the ends justify the means, and Forbin couldn’t get his head around that.
Can we see Forbin as a bit hypocritical here? He is, after all, working for the government and designing what is essentially a weapons control system. The ends, it would seem, justify the means when humans are making the decisions.
The cast are not well known. Eric Braden stars as Forbin, and he is not an actor with whom I was familiar. I thought he was good in the role. He portrayed the intellectualism of the character in a convincing way ie you can believe him as a scientist. (This is not always the case with actors in such roles.) Susan Clark as Doctor Markham was second in charge, and the actor did lend credibility to the character which lifted her above token female or love interest. I found it interesting that there were a few women on the scientific team, and they were given speaking roles, not merely as window dressing. Not bad for 1970.
The opening sequence is worth mentioning. In it, Doctor Forbin is activating Colossus prior to sealing it in the bunker they built for it. The view of the interior as he does this, and the safeguards he switches on as he leaves, are enough to tell the audience exactly how impregnable the machine is, how impossible a task it would be to get at Colossus directly. It was a very effective way to start the film.
Joseph Sargeant did a fine job with the direction. The atmosphere of mounting dread and despair was very well realised. It was a brave choice to end the film like he did, as audiences often look for happy endings, but given the nature of the subject I think it was an absolutely correct move. Forbin himself realises at the end that he made the computer too well. All he can do is say, somewhat impotently, that he’ll never give in.
I would strongly recommend this film. It’s an oldie but a goody.