Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, the plot of which concerns a woman who is raped by a computer, is a movie that provokes sharply polarised opinions. Many SF fans seem to dislike it because the special effects seem dated (the movie was made in 1977). I think it’s fair to say that if you’re one of those SF fans who thinks George Lucas saved the science fiction movie by giving us Star Wars then you’ll probably judge this movie by the special effects and you’ll hate it. If, like me, you think Star Wars was the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction then you might Demon Seed more of a chance. Another frequent criticism of the movie is that it is exploitative of women because of the scenes in which Susan (Julie Christie) is tied to a bed while the computer first examines her body, and later impregnates her. Quite frankly, considering the violence which is routinely inflicted on women in modern movies and the voyeuristic and sadistic manner in which this violence is generally portrayed, I find this criticism laughable. In fact I think Demon Seed handles these scenes in a reasonably restrained way – it goes far enough to show us Christie’s terror but without being unnecessarily explicit.
The computer in question is Proteus IV (with voice provided by Robert Vaughn), a kind of electronic-organic hybrid and supposedly the first true artificial intelligence. Proteus was designed to be humanity’s slave but quickly comes to the conclusion that humanity doesn’t have enough sense to be trusted with its own destiny. In that respect it’s very much like Colossus: The Forbin Project, although Demon Seed is the lesser film. In both cases the computer doesn’t exactly go mad, it merely decides that its own judgments are more correct than those of its human masters. So the computer isn’t simply evil – in some ways it’s more moral than we are, even though it now threatens to control us. Colossus: The Forbin Project handles these issues in a far more interesting way. Demon Seed concentrates on the interactions between Julie Christie and the computer. These are handled fairly well – Christie gives a fine performance, striking a nice balance between fear and a steely determination to survive. Her husband, the man who designed Proteus (Fritz Weaver) is unfortunately a two-dimensional character. Susan is the only human character with any depth, but she’s the only human character who matters so that’s not too much of a problem. A very real problem, though, is Proteus’s motivation in wanting a child born of a human mother. He talks about wanting immortality but it really sounds more like a human rationalisation than something a super-computer would want. Overall it’s a reasonably entertaining movie, and it’s a reasonable blending of SF and horror, although probably more successful as horror. There are moments that are very creepy. As science fiction it has some good ideas and some rather less convincing ideas. Worth seeing.