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It cannot act at all, so long as there is no threat.

Movie

Colossus: The Forbin Project
(1970)

 

What was Dr Forbin (Eric Braeden) thinking? Talk about bending over backwards to give the AI what it wants. Colossus: The Forbin Project is sufficiently compelling that you rather excuse it all the conceptual blunders and goofs that ensure there’s absolutely no way to switch the supercomputer off, or countermand it, or mitigate its leverage (“Do what I say or get nuked”). It is also, in very 1970s fashion, a starkly bleak, unforgiving affair, something that does much to ensure it still packs a punch.

Skynet decides to wipe humanity out, but Colossus, much more sensibly, seeks to enslave it and show it how things ought to be (for its own good). Indeed, despite its rather frivolous attitude to human life – “It has no emotions. Knows no fear, no hate, no envy. It cannot act in a sudden fit of temper” – it can be argued simply to be fulfilling its purpose for being to the max. Just in a manner its creator entirely failed to anticipate. 

Mr President: My sincere hope is that now we shall join hands and hearts across this great globe and pledge our time and our energies to the elimination of war elimination of famine of suffering and ultimately to the manifestation of the human millennium. This can be done, but first there must be peace.

During “Unity’s” final address to the world (as World Control), Colossus rather rubs mankind’s nose in this, advising “I bring you peace… The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war”, before going on to affirm that “Problems, invariable to you, will be solved. Famine. Overpopulation. Disease. The Human Millennium will be a fact”. These are precisely the objectives stated by the President at the outset (and, to boot, “Solving all the mysteries of the universe. For the betterment of man”). 

With that comes talk of finding “a new statement of gravitation, and a confirmation of the Eddington theory of the expanding universe”, so Colossus seems intent on the perpetuation of all the lies promulgated by NASA. Which means humanity’s best interests definitely don’t come into it, lest there was any doubt. That Colossus is absolutely ruthless, merciless in the manner it achieves his objectives, is arguably not its – Forbin refers to Colossus asfault: it has no emotions as a yardstick to gauge its behaviour, and indeed, no moral or ethical compass other than its primary purpose.

At least, that’s how it comes across. But Colossus has attained sentience, so the degree to which it is averring the above truthfully or just being a smart alec is questionable. Forbin, like many a scientist failing to account for the possible misuses or applications of his genius – although, at least he cares that it all goes to pot – initially insists Colossus has no capacity for creative thought, but it is nevertheless a “paragon of knowledge, and his knowledge can be expanded infinitely”. It is this infinite scope that presumably provides the spark for the machine achieving singularity (its “heuristic programming, its learning capacity, is off the charts”). Initially, he seems simply amazed that “Its built even better than we thought” – upon being switched on, it almost immediately detects “another system” and thence requests communication with it, the Soviet Guardian – and discovers its computational power has increased 200-fold.

Soon, Colossus, in coordination with Guardian, is prone to firing nuclear missiles when its demands are not met. It’s fully able to anticipate humans’ machinations, such that it quickly demands the execution of Forbin’s opposite number Dr Kuprin (Alex Rodine), immediately curtailing any plotting between them that might undermine its purview. Forbin is put under constant surveillance, his daily routine strictly regimented – doubtless a model for humanity as a whole, in due course – and the computer only refrains from monitoring his affair with Susan Clark’s Dr Markham (this actually being made up – at first – by Forbin so as to communicate with the outside world). Whether Colossus sticks to this deal is debatable; what isn’t is that it isn’t punitive towards Forbin the way it is the scientists who attempt a system overload; it also, in retaliation for a process of (attempted) deactivation of nuclear warheads, detonates two missiles silos, one in Death Valley and the other in the Ukraine.

Grauber: Persistent devil, isn’t he? It. I mean it.
Mr President: Don’t personalise it, Grauber. The next stop is deification.

During his broadcast, Colossus asserts “You will come to defend me”, and further inches up the ladder in the deification earlier forewarned when he tells Forbin – to the response of “Never!” – “In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe but with love”. Grauber, notably, initially calls Colossus “devil”, and we see something of the Luciferian creed in man extending immortality beyond himself to make a god: “What I am began in man’s mind. But I have progressed further than that”. 

Warnings of unchecked AI have surged this year, whether it’s Elon or ChatGDP apparently facilitating boundless knowledge/invention/simulation; it would appear this is designed as a “harmless” indication of what would have been, had White Hat intervention not occurred. But you have AI in terms of human creations, and then you have AI in terms of the force that exerte a controlling influence over humanity for centuries; this AI, it seems, derives from the antimatter universe (it has no physical form in ours) and, fittingly for the comparisons to God and the devil, is better known as Satan (and Lucifer, since the AI is AIs, plural). That AI evidently had use for humanity, however inimical and antithetical its intent, so again contrasting with Skynet. 

A distinction that might be drawn with Colossus, one also common to Demon Seed’s Proteus, is that, in contrast to many mad-machine plots of the period, no attempt to is made to reason with computer, to test its sentient capacities and potential for conceptual fallacies. This was, of course, the approach whenever the USS Enterprise – every other week, it seemed – came across a machine intelligence acting beyond its initial means. Invariably with the result that it caused itself to self-destruct/shut itself down (other examples, include the most simplistic skewering of The Prisoner’s The General and “Why?” causing overload, the conversation between Doolittle and the sentient bomb in Dark Star, and Doctor Who’s The Mysterious Planet, where the Doctor’s attempts to reason with human survivors’ guardian robot Drathro, in a not entirely dissimilar, albeit microcosmic organisation of machine oversight, leads to conceptual stalemate and the Doctor forced to admit he’s getting nowhere). 

Certainly, if one can move beyond the setup, this is the part of Colossus: The Forbin Project that’s most disappointing. Forbin’s entire captive situation seems custom-designed for stimulating philosophical discussions with his captor, but there are none, merely the latter chiding him for drinking too much or being asked why Kuprin was killed rather than Forbin.

Forbin: The computer centre contains over one hundred thousand remote censors and communication devices which monitor all electronic transmissions such as microwaves, laser, radio and television communications, data communications from satellite in orbit all over the world. The entire system is surrounded by fields of intensified gamma radiation and other countermeasure devices. Colossus works completely without human aid… In case of an attack on any of its information supply or power lines Colossus will switch on the emergency circuits which will then take the appropriate action. It is self-sufficient self-protected self-generated. It is impenetrable. In short There’s no way in. No human being can touch it.

As suggested, its sheer idiocy to suppose that, purely on the basis of a “brink of disaster”, the political office and the military-industrial complex would consciously submit to anything divesting themselves of power (and yet, something like this happens again in Person of Interest; now being told to relinquish it by those controlling the government apparatus might be a different kettle of fish). So if Forbin failing to include a dead switch might be the blinkeredness of the scientific mind, their not demanding the same is inconceivable. 

Once that process IS established, however, director Joseph Sargent applies a valuable sense of verisimilitude. This is an oppressive, claustrophobic world of soulless interiors (and, where there are occasional forays into daylight, they’re signalled by intimidating threat), the soundtrack of tickertape calculations and responses giving way to the didactic tones of Unity. 

Paul Frees, who lent his voice to many of the characters in Rankin/Bass productions, Pal’s The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, makes for a formidable Colossus, while Eric Braeden, cast over Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck and changing his name for a lead role, is equally vocally distinct. Most of all, though, Braeden believably presents a man of genuine intellect (he’d be doing the same thing the following year in Dr Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes – including his expounding on the nature of time as “a freeway with an infinite number of lanes”). Clark is fine – the playing of sexual tension between Forbin and Markham is especially effective – while Pinsent seems to be trying for a slightly Kennedy-clan air. Schallert makes for a particularly ineffectual CIA Director, which doesn’t seem right at all. Also appearing is a young James Hong as one of Forbin’s staff.

Ending as it does with Colossus victorious, the picture carries a disposish particularly in tune with its newly dawned decade of release, and also with generally dystopian thrust of SF at the time (Planet of the Apes, the first sequel to which had just blown up the world, Silent Running, Westworld). It may feel somewhat analogue, in production terms, but it’s still entirely palpable in its resonance. 

James Bridges adapted DF Jones’ 1966 novel Colossus, later all aboard the predictive-programming train with The China Syndrome. The novel was set in the 1990s, albeit the third in its trilogy was somehow set in the 22nd century despite featuring Forbin. The 1974 sequel The Fall of Colossus introduced Colossus’ successor, the Sect who worship Colossus as a god, and a Secret Fellowship dedicated to bringing it down. Forbus’ wife is a member and repeatedly raped as an experiment designed to “help Colossus better understand human emotion” (eesh!) His downfall is the old vanguard of the incomprehensible mathematical problem, courtesy of an ET transmission from Mars. 

You might assume ETs helping to overthrow an AI subjugating the world is very topical, but these ETs aren’t nearly as paly as all that, and in Colossus and the Crab (1977), they arrive demanding half the Earth’s oxygen, in turn killing a quarter of the population (their plan involves reactivating parts of Colossus needed to manage the remaining humans).  Forbin suggests reactivating the old Colossus and asking for its help, but it perversely argues the Martian plan is boffo (and in humanity’s best interests). Forbin dies destroying the oxygen-harvesting Collector machine, while the reactivated Colossus agrees on a smaller, more sustainable version of the Collector… So one might argue the machine is rehabilitated. It’s certainly lent more autonomy than anyone would sensibly grant.

Various Colossus: The Forbin Project remakes have been discussed: Ron Howard and Will Smith, which sounds wretched, and an Ed Solomon rewrite that went nowhere. There was no mention of a trilogy in the offing, but then, those sequel novels don’t sound like especially ideal Hollywood fodder, unless heavily rewritten.

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