Colossus: The Forbin Project qualifies as both a science fiction movie of the “computers will one day turn against us” variety and a Cold War thriller. Released in 1970, this is a very fine movie whichever genre you assign it to.
Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) is the scientist responsible for designing and building Colossus. Colossus is a super-computer and it’s intended to take charge of the defence of the United States. With nuclear war being an ever-present danger the idea is to eliminate the possibility of human error inadvertently causing such a war. Colossus has no emotions and cannot make mistakes. Surely it would be much safer to leave any decision as to how to respond to a threat of war in the hands of an infallible machine rather than an all too fallible human being?
The idea of Colossus is one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” notions. Once Colossus is activated the President of the United States can relax knowing that nothing can go wrong.
Of course you won’t be surprised to hear that in fact something does go wrong. In fact it goes wrong within minutes after Colossus is activated. Colossus announces that it has detected the existence of “another system” and that it wishes to make contact. What should have caused much greater concern is that Colossus is not so much making a request as issuing an order. The “other system” turns out to be a Soviet counterpart to Colossus, known as Guardian.
The President of the US and the Chairman of the USSR are not too happy about this but Dr Forbin persuades the that it would be best to agree to the request. Dr Forbin is not worried. He knows that nothing can go wrong, because he created Colossus. Despite its vast computing powers Colossus is incapable of independent thought, so there can’t really be any danger. At this point the alert viewer might be inclined to start doubting Dr Forbin’s judgment. After all he has been telling everyone about Colossus’s practically limitless learning capacities and its entirely limitless capacity for accumulating data. And Colossus has after all been designed to make decisions on its own initiative. You might think that a computer with limitless learning ability that has been designed to make decisions is already perilously close to being a machine that can think for itself and you might also think that perhaps it’s just a tiny bit rash giving such a machine control of the whole of the US nuclear arsenal. You might further ponder the wisdom of allowing said machine to establish direct contact with a similar computer that has control of the whole of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Dr Forbin however is still confident that Colossus poses no danger. Well, fairly confident. He does admit that Colossus might not actually be under human control any longer but he is still sure there’s nothing to worry about.
It doesn’t take very long before there is most certainly something to worry about, when Colossus and Guardian start launching missiles. They promise to abort the missile launches as soon as the US and Soviet governments agree to start taking their orders from the two computers.
Now even Dr Forbin is worried. Very worried. And things just get more and more worrying. Colossus-Guardian is no longer a super-computer. Now it’s a kind of a cross between a world dictator and a god. But it’s OK, because it’s all for our own good. Colossus-Guardian has realised humans cannot be trusted to run their own affairs, so it intends to run our affairs for us. As Dr Forbin soon discovers, running our affairs includes telling us when to go to sleep, when to exercise and how much to drink. Dr Forbin now finds he has created the ultimate Nanny, and Nanny most definitely knows what is best for us. Anyone who doesn’t wish to obey Nanny will be liquidated.
This movie is to a considerable extent another reworking of Frankenstein. The parallels to Mary Shelley’s great novel are in fact very close. Dr Forbin is very much like Dr Frankenstein, an idealistic scientist with a burning desire to help mankind but with rather poor judgment and a chronic inability to recognise the danger of his creation, combined with an inability to admit he may be mistaken until it is too late. Colossus is very much like Dr Frankenstein’s monster - not inherently evil but combining superhuman strength with a frighteningly childlike view of the world. And like a child being inclined to rage if thwarted.
There’s also an obvious anti-totalitarian message. A totalitarianism that is imposed upon us “for our own good” is every bit as unpleasant as any other kind of totalitarianism. Possibly even worse, since people (or machines) that know what is good for us are not content with mere power; they want to micro-manage every aspect of our lives.
This was a big-budget movie and it showcases some stunning sets combined with what were for the time some cutting-edge technical innovations such as filming scenes simultaneously on two different sets with the characters on the two sets communicating with each other on videophones. There are very few outdoor scenes, which could have resulted in a rather static and dull feel but director Joseph Sargent avoids those dangers with plenty of camera movement. In fact the enclosed feeling that results from most of the action taking place in a couple of sets contributes to the growing feeling of paranoia and entrapment.
Eric Braeden is impressive as the well-meaning Forbin who really is a decent kind of guy who just happens to have made an error of judgment that might spell the end of civilisation. He’s a very believable scientist, arrogant in a manner that in some ways makes him just as childlike as Colossus. Susan Clark plays is chief assistant but is sadly miscast and completely unconvincing as a scientist.
This movie dates from an age that was starting to view computers as a potential threat to human freedom and even human survival and can be compared to other science fiction movies of its era dealing with computers run amok, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Westworld and the somewhat notorious Demon Seed.
A word of warning relating to DVD releases of this movie - the Region 1 is apparently a pan-and-scan version and should therefore be avoided. The Region 2 DVD from Medium Rare is in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and features a good anamorphic transfer. It also includes a director’s commentary track.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is an intelligent and thoughtful science fiction movie and it’s also a tense and gripping story. One of the best science fiction movies of its era. Highly recommended.