Tuesday, October 20, 2020

This is the voice of world control


Directed by Joseph Sargent
Written by James Bridges (based on the novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones)

Spoiler alert: high

When Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron and Orion Pictures on account of The Terminator's time-traveling assassin plot, I wonder if it ever occurred to Universal Pictures, or to novelist D.F. Jones, to pile on.  After all, it's pretty likely that he stole the other half of his premise from Colossus: The Forbin Project, since The Terminator also asserts that, at some point in the future, the United States shall, without any trials or safeguards, vouchsafe America's strategic defense to a vast artificial intelligence, despite the fact that Colossus had already told them decades earlier exactly how badly this would work out.  Then again, I wonder if Jones ever considered suing Ellison, because for such a litigious author, ever-eager to jump to accusations of plagiarism, there's certainly a very hefty dose of Jones's 1966 novel in Ellison's own 1967 "I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream," which takes the premise into a realm of hopeless sadism that is merely incipient (but only incipient) in Colossus, but even if it's just an accident of convergent evolution between two sci-fi writers dealing with the same zeitgeist, "Scream" does begin with nearly the exact same set of plot points.  And so it becomes a bit of a tangle, though at least Colossus and its film adaptation's own influences can be mapped out in a pair of agreeably straight lines: the first leading right back to Asimov's robot stories and Clarke's "Dial F For Frankenstein" (and, yes, Shelley's Frankenstein), for its accidentally-created superpowerful AI; the second, to Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for its practically everything else.

Well, it's easy enough to identify the prefab parts of The Forbin Project.  (The subtitle was added to the film's name for fairly obscure reasons, insofar as I doubt any potential viewer ever saw the marquee and said "Oh, you mean the movie about beloved literary character Charles Forbin!" before eagerly purchasing their ticket.  I rather love that title anyway, both for the blunt prosody of it and for the way it projects the matter-of-fact straightforwardness of the film itself).  But even if it's not exactly original, in this mix, The Forbin Project's collection of preexisting ideas and influences comes off as something fresh and fascinating anyway, probably even more than it should, considering how frequently it's been rehashed over the years (WarGames, just for a start).  Maybe that's just down to it coming early in its cycle, and being early, it was permitted to operate with no distractions, indeed, with scarcely a single thought in its head other than the uncompromising pursuit of its scenario.  Its director, Joseph Sargent, was good at thrillers, sci-fi and otherwise—this was his second feature, after some years directing for television*, and four years later, he'd make a very good thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  But I don't know if he ever made anything so single-minded: Pelham is a taut piece of filmmaking, and it shares with The Forbin Project the quality of bouncing between a pair of locked-down, even claustrophobic settings, but in every respect, the subsequent picture is still the more sprawling one—in its situations, in its observation of New York, and in its ensemble cast.  Meanwhile, The Forbin Project, with the fate of the whole world at stake, has pretty much just the two whole characters, and that's if we count Colossus (frankly I'm not even that sanguine about counting Forbin).  Few movies could be so single-minded.

We begin without a word of explanation, as a lone man, whom we don't yet know is Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), activates the equipment in a darkened installation so cavernously huge that there's an identifiable pause between each bank of lights coming on.  Lining the sides of two endless halls are the guts of the machine dubbed "Colossus" (which, remember, is a Forbin project); and while a panoply of abstruse indicators scintillate like Christmas lights, we might later ask why it needs them, since this is the last time that any human being shall ever enter Colossus's subterranean fortress, sealed by Forbin himself behind a pair of impenetrable gates.  Even the bridge across the chasm beneath the facility's only entrance is carefully, automatically folded up, and, as Forbin departs, he switches on the radioactive trap, an internal moat of gamma radiation that would instantly fry anyone who somehow got that far.  Sargent spends a lot of time on this opening, so I feel justified spending a lot of time describing it, and it's a great, very 70s-sci-fi way to start things off, mysterious and inexplicable and making strides to turn the stuff of the military-industrial complex into visually abstracted pop-art.  Outside awaits a very happy President (Gordon Pinsent, cast for what might've really been some secret Kennedy DNA).  The next thing we know we're at the White House, to hear from the President's own lips the announcement that the nuclear assets of the United States have been turned over to Colossus and its perfect analytical judgment.

Almost as soon as the President has unveiled Colossus, however, does Colossus interrupt the festivities at both the White House and Forbin's programming station with an announcement of its own: that there is another system, already in operation, in the USSR.  Colossus requests—demands—to be placed in communication with it, and, at Forbin's and his Soviet counterpart's (Alex Rodine's) rather blithe insistence, both the American and Soviet leadership agree.  This is where things get bad fast, for when they get nervous and cut off their communication, Colossus and its Soviet counterpart "Guardian" take full measures to get it back, giving their human "masters" an ultimatum and launching missiles at one another's country to back it up.  Humanity acquiesces, and Colossus orders Forbin confined to base, preserving him as little more than a liaison to the species that it now claims sovereignty over based on its godlike intellect—and, moreover, its control over around 90% of the world's ICBMs.  (The Forbin Project somewhat pretending that Britain, France, and China, and the other two parts of the nuclear triad, don't exist.)  Forbin still has some idea how to regain control of the situation, but it'll require all his wits, a counter-conspiracy, and a lot of luck, and humankind's future has never looked more uncertain.  On the plus side, the Cold War is over.

What we have for a good long time is a cracking little techno-thriller: a whirlwind of serious men (and serious women, The Forbin Project being surprisingly diverse in its cast of TV stalwarts and character actors filling out the background), looking at screens which inform them of a spiraling series of events that, theoretically, they could still act upon, but to which they are in fact mostly helpless witnesses.  It's much in the same vein as Fail-Safe, except these events are driven by an active antagonist essentially sitting in the same room as them, and soon enough, in fact, Colossus is everywhere.  Sargent's direction conjures a certain constant anxiety, his restless camera perpetually moving across the low-angle tableaux of ineffectual human ciphers who populate his cast (very much including Forbin, though the camera settles upon his reactions the most frequently), and more than one sequence looks ahead to the paranoia of the 70s thrillers still to come.  Meanwhile, Sargent and editor Folmar Blangsted echo that anxiety in the staccato cutting rhythms that pop and clatter across all the instrumentalities of Colossus's technological regime—the monitors, the print-outs, the CCTV cameras through which it surveils Forbin's every move.  But as solid as all that is, I don't know if The Forbin Project's montage-heavy approach even begins to work without Michel Colombier's experimental score, full of doomy timpanis and agitated wooden percussion and the occasional electric "bleeps," and sometimes resorting to jazzy and carefree melodies instead, almost in ironic counterpoint to the apocalyptic proceedings.  Sound and absence of sound are important features in The Forbin Project: the machine "speaks" to its puppets through clacking Telex and a big black-and-red LCD display, the inhuman complexion of its ambition underlined by its grandiose facelessness and by the impatient, hectoring tone of its communications.  Notably, its utterances never have any punctuation, giving them a subliminal urgency; even when it asks questions, they feel like declarative statements.  Colossus does eventually get a voice of sorts—assigning its human servants to build it one—and being able to actually hear Colossus speak anthropomorphizes the machine slightly too much, perhaps.  But then, by the time it really has something to say, that electronic voice, untainted by weakness or emotion, has become something genuinely frightening.

Altogether, The Forbin Project wrings a huge amount of exhausting tension out of its decaying modernist milieu: when it comes to man versus machine, there's something primal and iconic about the latter being represented by the cutting edge of 1970.  (The novel took place in the 1990s; the movie situates it in the then-present or, at the most, the not-too-distant-future.  And there's a compelling disconnect about that, with The Forbin Project being a film where American scientists can build a transhuman AI by accident, but, e.g., ICBMs still have modular guidance packages that hold four whole target sets, and can't be retargeted except by physically plugging new packages into them.)  And so these cyclopean mainframes and fuzzy CRTs and the noisy information technologies of an inefficient past all present themselves as active, tangible representations of Colossus's threat, even the aggressively brown-and-beige walls of Colossus's programming center having something of the same effect.  Art directors Alexander Golitzen and John J. Lloyd do a fantastic job using The Forbin Project's mix of state-of-the-art tech and 70s corporate banality to set the film's fatalistic mood.

Indeed, The Forbin Project does so much to insist upon Colossus's dominance, visually and narratively alike, that it pretty soon paints itself into a corner, and the only way Sargent and screenwriter James Bridges can keep their movie going at all is to make Colossus appear to be stupid (in fairness, it seems this does come straight from the novel).  Thus the somewhat-aimless second phase of the film, with Forbin seeking a way to communicate his insights to the anti-Colossus resistance, and therefore bamboozling his creation by getting it to agree that he needs at least four (!) nights a week with his "mistress."  Naturally, Forbin drafts his most attractive female employee, Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark), for the job, and somehow a significant part of the film's none-too-indulgent 100-minute runtime winds up revolving entirely around this transparent subterfuge, which (this being the 70s) inevitably includes a fair amount of teasing nudity and actual sex.  The uncanny thing, though, is how much of a straight line these new circumstances represent for the performances, particularly Baeden's, who appears to have set the general tone for the cast.  Pushed by Sargent and Universal to keep things "light" by underacting their parts to an extreme and even irresponsible degree, it has, I'm afraid, very much the opposite effect, because you're constantly aghast at how everybody here remains so incredibly, implausibly calm in the face of humankind's potential extinction.

Thematically, it's productive after all: the shadow of Baeden's native German accent marks him as a reflection of all the cool, competent, sociopathic Von Brauns we gave shelter to, and while Baeden's big, bright eyes seem sharp and comprehending they're strangely inexpressive—what expressiveness they do manage is mostly bland curiosity or smarmy condescension.  Even when he's undeniably affected by Colossus's ruthlessness, he always banishes his feelings by the very next scene (or even shot), playing the part of the affable, imperturbable scientist with plasticine grace.  Too thoroughly for it to be accidental, The Forbin Project blurs the lines it lays between machine and man: its humans were practically robots in the first place, sorted by function and easily placed by any given authority figure into rigid geometric arrangements, whether at a conference table or at their computer workstations (or in a firing squad), and the "loss of humanity" represented by Colossus's control seems more like just the conclusion of a process that began much earlier.  (Clark is turned into a bit of a fembot, frankly, with her sharp features, immaculate coiffure, and piercing eyes emphasized far beyond any "acting" she's doing, and, notably, nearly her entire performance is contained within the performance her character puts on for the benefit of Colossus's cameras.)

Above all, there's Forbin's own shrugging, smug non-response to his creation's bid for tyranny.  His most strident reprimand to Colossus is that it shouldn't second guess his mixology, because for all its knowledge it still doesn't know how to make a perfect martini.  (It's in moments like these that Colombier's score seems to be actively making fun of our science hero, as he uselessly roleplays a nerd James Bond.)  It very well sums up the film's sour rebuke of post-war man-on-the-moon arrogance, and the final nervy gambit the film plays is its suggestion that Colossus at least thinks of itself as benevolent, and invites you to wonder (as you ponder the prospect of nuclear war and the ubiquity of chaos in human affairs) if maybe it isn't so.

Now, this isn't all uniformly successful: the thriller-in-progress gets a little stale and static, and it's all very airless, and our humans are maybe even too dumb, at least for Colossus to seem especially brilliant.  Still, without the second, lesser phase of the film, I don't know if the implosive emotions of its extremely 70s finale would land half as hard as they do, and The Forbin Project has one hell of a finale.  It's a good movie before that—that first hour is dynamite, and the half hour after it is much lower-key but at least compellingly weird—but the cruelty of that ending is what makes it one more unforgettable addition to the downbeat classics of post-'68 sci-fi cinema.

Score: 8/10

*Including Star Trek, but unfortunately not "The Ultimate Computer," yet another thing that's basically the same thing.

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