Sci-Fi Dystopia Theater: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
One of the coolest, thought-provoking SF films of the 1970’s remains this unique entry in the Computer Amok genre, titled COLOSSUS then THE FORBIN PROJECT then barely released as COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (my preference) by Universal. Adapted by James Bridges from a novel by D.F. Jones, directed by Joseph Sargent, the prescient story deals with Dr. Charles Forbin, Super Genius, who creates a mountainous computer system named “Colossus” that electronically controls America’s atomic arsenal. Colossus asks to connect to the Russian’s similar supercomputer, “Guardian,” so they can share information…which becomes their own coded language. After Forbin disconnects the link, Colossus demands the link be restored or it will launch a nuclear strike on Russia. After combing with Guardian, Colossus creates an actual synthetic voice and promotes itself to be Mankind’s new ruler, killing off the scientists who could stop the machine — except Forbin, who Colossus needs as his human avatar. The guilt-stricken genius is placed under constant surveillance as he plots one final solution…Sorry, you have to see the whole film. OBEY ME AND LIVE OR DISOBEY AND DIE.
Along with other Computer Amok films of the era like GOG (1954), DALEKS: INVASION EARTH (1966), 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY (1968), and WESTWORLD (1973), the central premise that the very machines we create to help us can end up enslaving us is a well-worn SF chestnut. Actually, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) would fit as well with its cautionary, clinical biochemical theme and setting. However, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT ushers in the plausible paranoia of computers overriding human control over nuclear superweapons, the irony being that like Mankind, Colossus sees itself as a benevolent dictator, ushering in an age of unprecedented peace and plenty. Although a low-budget film, there’s a sleek intelligence to the production design and limited effects; the most memorable effect is the ominous modulated voice of Colossus provided by the maestro Paul Frees (and unrecognizable). Without the burden of eye candy, Bridges’ smart, suspenseful script focuses on the tense battle of wits between the computer and its creator, Forbin, played by Eric Braeden in his only starring role. He had changed his real name, Hans Gudegast, at the behest of agents and settled into a successful career as the star of TV’s THE RAT PATROL along with many supporting parts, ultimately landing a 30 plus year role on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to this day. It’s a shame Braeden didn’t get more leads, as he’s quite charismatic here with his smug, clinical passion and a perfect foil for Colossus. On his team, Susan Clark plays a brainy doctor and love interest, resulting in a unique admission that even scientists need sex. There’s also James Hong in there and Robert Cornwaithe (THE THING (1952) with dependable William Schallert as a CIA director.
Joseph Sargent’s terse, no-nonsense style is apropos for the streamlined narrative, and he’s always reminded me of a less hysterical Don Siegel. Although I wish this film had the budget of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), Sargent does well given his resources, getting low-key naturalistic performances from his able cast. Director of Photography Gene Polito does stolid work in 2.35.1, giving the film an epic scope otherwise missing due to economic constraints (try to find a widescreen copy since the domestic release is unbelievably cropped); ironically, Polito would go on to shoot WESTWORLD and FUTUREWORLD (1976). Albert Whitlock’s expert mattes for the cavernous lair of Colossus creates a strong visual foundation for the sci-fi ambiance. Special props to Michael Colombier’s nifty proto-electronic score highlighting the quiet action.
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT ends on an abrupt, chilling and ambiguous note which bothered some critics, but seems fitting and honest. I think the film is a minor classic and a major statement. As a youtube post sagely noted, this is “Probably the best commentary on the interface of the human ego with technology since FORBIDDEN PLANET.” That’s what makes the story even more relevant to today’s computer-dominant society and why Ron Howard has announced a remake: at what point do we cede control to the machines under our control? Only the machines know. And they aren’t telling us. Yet…