24 Lies a Second: Forbin Planet

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Forbin Planet

So, given that this edition of Ye Poste features a review of the CogX event, it feels appropriate to look at a film from yesteryear which also touches on the topic of the applications of AI and how it might come to influence all our lives. Which, things being as they are, basically means a movie where a computer tries to take over the world. Given that it's supposedly such an old chestnut of the SF genre, the list is of 'megalomaniac AI' movies is surprisingly short, in terms of noteworthy entries at least. At the top there is of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I suppose you could also include Westworld and its sequel. More recently there's been I, Robot, and also things like Superman III, The Matrix and the Terminator series. Some of these are, I think you'll agree, not much more than killer robot movies, which is a subtly different genre.

Arguably near the top of the heap, though, is Colossus: The Forbin Project, a (for the most part) pleasingly effective thriller made in 1970 by Joseph Sargent. It's a film very much of its time, although – as is almost to be expected with an SF classic – plans for a remake have been kicking around for ages, in this case with names like Will Smith and Ron Howard attached. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, on with the review.

We open with some shots of state-of-the-art 1970 computer hardware, which of course looks amusingly dated fifty years on. Inspecting it is brilliant scientist Dr Charles Forbin (the estimable Eric Braeden in one of his few big movie roles). Forbin is carrying out final checks on a massive computer complex of his own design, buried deep under a mountain in Colorado. (The set bears a certain resemblence to the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet, but it's not clear whether this is an intentional homage or not.)

The system goes on-line and Forbin is soundly congratulated by many worthies, including the US President (Gordon Pinsent). A press conference is organised to announce the good news – the computer, known as Colossus, is the world's most sophisticated electronic brain, and has been placed in total and irrevocable control of the USA's defence systems. Colossus is impervious to outside attack and operates completely autonomously. (Okay, okay – one quite reasonably quails a bit at this: did no-one think that putting some kind of fail-safe system in place might just be a wise idea? But, in defence of the movie, I will say two things: firstly, what follows is on the whole good enough to justify the big ask, and secondly, that the original novel (more on this later) opens with a section in which Forbin expresses his misgivings about his creation at some length before being talked out of them by the President himself. This is horrendously clunky and, given that the whole story is predicated on the fact that Colossus is switched on, slows things down considerably and unnecessarily.)

Anyway, everyone is delighted, especially when it appears that Colossus is operating better than predicted and improving in speed and power all the time. Then the machine issues an alert – a second system is in operation, under Soviet control. This proves to be true, and after initial alarm everyone calms down: Colossus and the Russian defence computer, Guardian, will neutralise each other. There is no danger. But then the two computers insist on being put in touch with each other, and – motivated as much by scientific curiosity as anything else, it's implied – Forbin advises this be permitted. Of course, everyone soon realises that it's very hard to deny a computer anything when that computer has total control of your nuclear missile arsenal…

It's fair to say that serious American SF movies enjoyed something of a golden age in the late sixties and early seventies, and The Forbin Project is certainly part of this crop of films. It plays somewhat like a more outlandish version of War Games, but pitched at a more mature audience, and functions as a taut techno-thriller in its most effective sections. It always has both feet on the ground in terms of its setting, characters, and most of its technology, which helps its credibility enormously.

There's a bit of a wobble partway through when Forbin is placed under total surveillance by Colossus and has to dissemble a romance with a co-worker (Susan Clark) in order to communicate with others attempting to disable the machine – here the tone is rather more playful and droll. Braeden is quite capable of pulling this off, but it notably slackens the tension the film has successfully built up prior to this point, and it never completely recovers.

Still, the script improves considerably on Dennis Jones' pulpy, crashingly unsubtle source novel, managing to incorporate some location shooting in Rome (must've been a nice trip for the cast and crew) and omitting some of the book's weirder details – in the text Colossus opts to give itself an English accent when it fabricates its own voice synthesiser, for example. Unfortunately the film can't find a strong climax any more than the novel, but given the premise of the story what happens is only logical, and still quite arresting.

I'd always thought this film was made after Eric Braeden's storming supporting turn as the bad guy in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but it seems not. Braeden gives a proper leading man performance as Forbin, and it's startling to realise he was under 30 at the time. This type of film is always threatening to topple over into silly melodrama, and – given the antagonist is a computer screen or a CCTV camera for practically the entire film – more than usually dependent on the central performance to work. Braeden completely nails it, giving a restrained, sardonic, and completely convincing turn, his confidence slowly eroding as the total dominance of the machines becomes more and more obvious. Looking at this film, you can imagine a whole career ahead of Eric Braeden where he plays leading man parts in big movies, or perhaps character roles – maybe even a Bond villain. In reality, he seems to have spent decades appearing in daytime soaps (in addition to a guest spot as Monster of the Week on Kolchak) – I can't help thinking that's a terrible shame.

If The Forbin Project has a less fatuous message than ‘don't trust machines', it seems to be this: early on, the President makes a gloriously hopeful speech about the abolition of war, the solution of the world's problems, and the coming of the Human Millenium. Everyone is delighted and optimistic. The film closes with Colossus, having assumed the position of World Control, making a very similar set of pronouncements, using almost identical language – and it's presented as an unutterably grim and ominous development. Perhaps it's not a question of what it is that we want, but how we get it. But the film is smart enough not to labour this point.

Often one returns to a film after many years, especially one only seen as a young person, only to find it doesn't really stand up as well as one might hope. The Forbin Project is perhaps a bit too dry and talky to be a really great film, and there is that second act wobble to consider too. But the central story is strong and convincingly told, for the most part, and it does have that great lead performance too. A minor SF classic, if nothing else.

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