Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Dir. Joseph Sargent
Eric Braeden, Susan Clark and Gordon Pinsent.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
Can it really be as simple as "I never got around to it"? Because that's the case here. No amusing anecdotes for you!
You know that classic science fiction trope of the supercomputer that grows too smart for its own good and starts to devise various schemes to conquer the world in one way or another? We can all trace that back to Colossus: The Forbin Project, where the titular device outsmarts his creators and decides to destroy world. Sure, HAL 9000 may be the more famous evil computer, but Colossus is the one you see in your mind's eye.
Colossus is a small, tense thriller that feels ahead of its time. You can see the seeds of The Matrix and The Terminator hidden here, waiting to grow into bigger, more bombastic franchises. This is a film that doesn't need explosions and chases to thrill, though. In fact, it's a better companion for Cold War era thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Fail-Safe than anything else. Like those films, it refuses to paint the USA-Soviet conflict in black and white, existing in bizarre shades of gray, suggesting that everything we build to protect ourselves and ensure our enemy's defeat, in this case, a super-smart supercomputer, will backfire and take control of the government and doom civilization as we know it.
You can tell by the release date that the technology on display in Colossus: The Forbin Project will be laughable by modern standards, but once you get past that speed bump, the film develops into a borderline perfect science fiction suspense movie, a story that combines big ideas with exciting, if somewhat low key, thrills.
Of course, this is all conjecture. I really don't know a friggin' thing about Colossus: The Forbin Project.
I was literally grasping blindly in the dark while writing the pre-viewing section of this week's column and I thought the phrase "borderline perfect science fiction suspense movie" was pretty nifty, hence it's inclusion.
Oh, how I love being right when I make arbitrary predictions about movies I haven't watched yet.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is a fantastic film, one of the best science fiction movies of the 1970s and quite possibly one of my all time favorite looks at the Cold War. Pardon my gushing, but this movie ripped my movie-loving heart right open and unleashed a tidal wave of bloody love in its direction. I'm going to limit my fanboy-esque hyperbole to this paragraph and this paragraph alone (because I'm something resembling a professional, damn it!), but let me say that if you haven't seen this film yet and you consider yourself a fan of intelligent, inventive and dryly humorous science fiction, you owe it to yourself to track this one down and give it two hours of your life.
Okay. With that said, what makes Colossus: The Forbin Project such a great film?
That's a tougher question to answer than you'd think. There's nothing particularly edgy on display here and the basic concept ("evil supercomputer turns on its creator and attempts to dominate the world") is something we've seen a thousand times before. Perhaps this is why the film has floundered in relative obscurity in recent years...it lacks instantly iconic imagery. It doesn't have a HAL 9000 or stunning opening spaceship battle. It's a story about a bunch of scientists and bureaucrat types standing around a remorseless, nuke-controlling machine and worrying about the future of mankind. With a few minor changes, this could be a stage play.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is a great movie because it treats its audience with respect. Pure and simple. Most science fiction movies, no matter how intelligent, thoughtful, creative or what-have-you, have the nasty habit of playing the the groundlings, feeling the compulsive need to explain every detail ad nauseum. When a movie actually attempts to go above and beyond the call of duty, when it tries to re-invent the genre, certain sacrifices occur. Take Blade Runner, an undisputed masterpiece in its director's cut form, but severely impaired by its theatrical format, which used a terrible voice over to hold the audience's hand as it navigated a unique and challenging world.
Now, I'm not saying Colossus: The Forbin Project is at the same level of complexity as Blade Runner (not even close, actually), but I think the comparison works. It never feels the need to chime with a voice over, filling in all the blanks for us. Even though the film contains a great deal of exposition, it's all worked seamlessly into dialogue and clever reveals, trusting that each and every viewer is not a moron. Calling this film "stunningly competent" sounds like weak praise, but think it suits the film just fine. Director Joseph Sargent may not bring those instantly iconic moments to the table, but he brings the best meat and potatoes you'll ever have the pleasure of tasting.
This respect for the audience allows the film to get down to business quickly and efficiently. Colossus is a new supercomputer built by a government scientist that will control the United States' nuclear arsenal and prevent human error. Things get strange. Colossus grows so smart that it starts to invent new mathematical equations, potentially catapulting human technology hundreds of years into the future. But before champagne corks can be popped, Colossus threatens nuclear war, secretly takes over the United States government and blackmails the president, the military and his team of creators into assisting with its plans for world domination.
Eric Braeden brings intelligence, strength and even humor to Dr. Forbin, keeping him relatable and even likable when his life's work threatens the world with nuclear armageddon. Gordon Pinsent's President is equally effective, not only because Pinsent oozes that well-read tough guy tenacity that all great movie presidents have, but because his eery resemblance to John F. Kennedy automatically makes us trust him. It's a good thing these characters work, since we spend the entire movie watching them talk and fret and try to outsmart a computer that's possibly the most intelligent thing in the history of the universe. The movie loves its characters and treats them like real people rather than husks waiting to get bumped off by an insane bundle of circuitry means that when they do get bumped off by an insane bundle of circuitry, we actually feel something for them.
That leads to what I find most remarkable about Colossus: The Forbin Project: the purveying sense of doom. Every time one of our heroes thinks they have found a solution, they hit brick wall. Every time we're allowed to get our hopes up, they're quickly slashed down. The best reference point I can think of is Alan Moore's Watchmen, which twisted Cold War anxiety into a profoundly despairing superhero story that reaches many of the same conclusions that Colossus: The Forbin Project does.
It doesn't come as a surprise when the film's incredibly cynical ending (which I would describe as Nihilistic if the whole thing didn't feel so creepily right about humanity in general) rolls around and ends things not on a note of triumph, but on a note of desperation and defeat. The film's final message seems to be "You've gotten yourselves into this petty little Cold War. You've earned this, you morons."
Thank our Computer Master for the film's wry sense of humor, which helps to balance out the doom and gloom. It's a good feeling to laugh in the face of total annihilation.
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