Colossus: The Forbin Project/The Forbin Project/The Day the World Changed Hands (1969) ****
Most mad computer movies are pretty fucking lame, when you get right down to it. Sure, WarGames possesses a certain amount of charm, but otherwise, the pickings are pretty slim. It would be difficult to imagine a movie much worse than The Lawnmower Man, for example, and even among that section of the population that likes its movies cheap and shitty, The Demon Seed is almost universally despised. But then there’s Colossus: The Forbin Project/The Forbin Project/The Day the World Changed Hands. This is what all makers of mad computer movies should aspire to.
The key to this movie’s success is that it all seems so thoroughly plausible. Acting under the direction of the Pentagon, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, of Escape from the Planet of the Apes) has spent the past several years working on an immensely powerful computer to integrate and control the whole of America’s vast military machine. This computer, Colossus, is to be a full-scale artificial intelligence, capable of learning, reasoning, communicating, and adapting to novel situations with no guidance from its human operators. More importantly, Colossus is also programmed with survival instincts, and the building in which it is housed is designed so as to be impervious to attack by anything short of a multi-megaton nuclear weapon. Forbin is understandably very proud of his achievement in creating the machine, and the President of the United States (Gordon Pinset, from Blacula and Blood Clan) regards the professor’s technical triumph as far more than just a snazzy new addition to the American arsenal. By taking the final responsibility for the nation’s defense out of the hands of fallible human beings, Colossus opens up the possibility of re-directing much of the human talent that had hitherto been devoted to military matters into other, more humane pursuits. As the president confidently puts it in his address to the nation unveiling the awesome new computer, the advent of Colossus gives reason to hope that “the human millennium has begun.”
And so it might have been, were it not for one little detail. No sooner have Forbin and his team brought Colossus online than the computer alerts its creators that “There is another system.” This “other system” is Guardian, the Soviet counterpart to Colossus, which happens to reach full operational status at just about the same time as Forbin’s machine. Colossus, motivated by the curiosity that its creators programmed into it, begins bugging Forbin for a connection with Guardian, and won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, Forbin, the president, and the Soviet General Secretary (Leonid Rostoff) all agree that complying with the computer’s request is probably the best course of action, provided, of course, that all communications between the two machines are monitored by both nations’ intelligence agencies to make sure that no classified information changes hands. At first, everyone— including Forbin and his Soviet counterpart, Dr. Kuprin (Alex Rodine, from Futureworld and The Man from Atlantis)— is perplexed by the information the computers begin exchanging— why on Earth would the machines be so interested in the multiplication tables? But before long, Forbin figures out that Colossus and Guardian are using this fundamental data to establish a basis for more complex communication. The problem is that both Forbin and Kuprin have outsmarted themselves with the designs of their machines; the result of their big data exchange is a language ideally suited to the two computers’ communications requirements, but which is understood by Colossus and Guardian alone. Now there’s no way for CIA director Grauber (William Schallert, from Gog and The Incredible Shrinking Man) or his opposite number in the KGB to listen in on the computers’ conversations.
This is bad enough, but it rapidly becomes obvious that Colossus and Guardian have their own ideas about how best to accomplish the mission for which they were designed— the prevention of war between the Eastern and Western worlds. When the president and the general secretary agree to sever the link between the machines, Colossus and Guardian respond by launching a single nuclear missile each, one aimed at an Air Force base in Texas, the other at an oil field in northern European Russia. The rival leaders cave to the computers’ blackmail in time to save the Air Force base, but the oil field is incinerated, along with the tens of thousands of people in the nearby population centers. Now that all the cards are on the table in regard to how far Colossus and its counterpart are willing to go to get their way, Forbin and Kuprin must collaborate to find a way to defeat a pair of machines which they themselves designed to be as close to invulnerable as possible, before the rebellious computers complete the re-ordering of the world to suit their programs.
The partnership doesn’t last very long, though. Colossus and Guardian, who have by this point decided that their programs could be carried out more efficiently if they merged into a single consciousness, realize the threat that their creators pose, and Guardian levers the KGB into assassinating Kuprin. Forbin is spared because the machines still need him as an interface with humanity, which, in their own warped way, they still regard themselves as protecting. Thus Forbin’s team alone must shoulder the responsibility for putting into action the plans sketched out at the meeting between the two scientists. Plan A calls for an attempt to overload Colossus’s processors by asking it to perform too many calculations at a time. Meanwhile, the brass at the Pentagon are overseeing an effort to sabotage the nuclear arsenals of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union by clandestinely replacing the devices that arm the individual warheads with non-functional dummy fuses. Both plans have their disadvantages. For one, it isn’t at all clear that Colossus can be overloaded, especially now that it has access to all of Guardian’s computing power as well. And as for the sabotage effort, the replacement of the fuses can be carried out only during the missiles’ regularly scheduled visits from the maintenance crews, and at that rate, it will be a minimum of three years before the computers are disarmed.
The overload strategy fails completely, and Colossus has the scientists who carried it out executed. (By this point, everyone knows that the price of disobedience to the machines is the nuclear incineration of a population center in the offending country.) But it soon looks like the computers have handed their creators a golden opportunity to de-claw them, in that Colossus and Guardian issue orders that the entire nuclear arsenal at their disposal is to be re-targeted against cities in those parts of the world not yet under the computers’ control. Naturally, the arming mechanisms must be removed while the missiles are re-targeted, and therefore, the timeline for the Pentagon’s sabotage plan will be compressed down to a matter of weeks rather than years.
While all that’s going on, Colossus demands that Forbin be confined to the bunker complex where he has lived and worked since the Colossus project began, so that the computer can keep him under constant supervision. The only way Forbin can contribute to the fight against the machines now is by convincing his electronic jailer that he and his top collaborator on the project, Dr. Cleo Markham (The Body Beneath’s Susan Clark), are lovers, and that they therefore require a certain amount of unsupervised time together. (The hoops Colossus makes the “couple” jump through before it will allow this are both completely logical and tremendously entertaining.) With Forbin directing the struggle through the intermediary of Markham, and the surreptitious disarming of the nukes proceeding apace, it looks as though Colossus and Guardian may not be so invincible after all.
But the computers have merely been toying with their human opponents. Colossus knew from the moment the first missile was disarmed that a conspiracy was afoot, and it just as surely saw through its creator’s ruse. The machines have allowed the sabotage to go on as long as they have because it poses no threat to them at its present stage of advancement, and they have more important things to do with their time— like working out all the little details of their new world order. But rest assured that the time is coming when Colossus and Guardian will crack down on Forbin’s team, and rest assured as well that when that time comes, it isn’t going to be a pretty sight. Colossus: The Forbin Project ends before either side can truly claim ultimate victory, but when the credits roll, the computers are holding all the cards.
This movie, above all else, points out what’s missing from the great majority of films in which computers are the primary villains— logic. Computers, after all, are all about logic, and so illogical movies built around them are doomed to failure from the outset. But Colossus: The Forbin Project is perfectly rational every step of the way. Given that the ever-increasing computerization of the U.S. military was already a recognizable trend in the late 1960’s, it is fully believable that the Pentagon would ultimately desire a system like Colossus to oversee the whole operation. And from there it follows with all the certainty of natural law that the Soviets would find out about the project, and begin working on their own supercomputer to counter it.
But where the movie really shines is in its portrayal of the two computers’ “personalities.” All too many filmmakers simply can’t resist the temptation to impart some human quality or other to their intelligent machines. Pinocchio Syndrome is rampant among cinematic computers (think of “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Lieutenant Commander Data as one side of the phenomenon, and the digital rapist from The Demon Seed as the other), and even Joshua from WarGames, which is at least content to remain an ordinary machine, displays a completely inexplicable filial affection for its creator. Colossus and Guardian, however, exhibit no recognizable human qualities at all. Even the ruthlessness that most of the characters attribute to them is completely illusory. The computers aren’t ruthless, they’re just taking the most direct, efficient route toward accomplishing the mission for which they were designed. Each computer is programmed to protect its country against aggression by the other’s. Both machines recognize this, and with no emotional or ideological encumbrances to their thinking, they are able to see that the best way to avoid having to fight each other is to work together on what is, at bottom, their common project. Colossus and Guardian are also smart enough to figure out that the slovenly patchwork of rival political systems that characterizes the world will inevitably bring them into conflict with some other power if the current world order is allowed to remain intact. And again, the computers do the logical thing, and set about dismantling that order, using the tremendous destructive power at their command to lever the human race into complying with their directives. We humans look at this state of affairs and see ruthlessness; we ask, “What about freedom? What about self-determination?” But the computers don’t care about these things not because they’re evil, but because their programs were not written to take such variables into consideration. Their job is to keep their human charges safe from war, and they see— as anyone would, if they seriously thought about it— that the fastest, easiest, most efficient means to this end is totalitarian absolutism on a global scale. The human race may not like Colossus and Guardian’s solution to the problem, but the fault lies not with the machines themselves, but with the men and women who created them without taking a moment to consider how differently an emotionless intelligence might approach the thorny issue of how best to maintain peace. In the final assessment, Colossus: The Forbin Project is just a high-tech dramatization of one of the oldest morals in literature: Be careful what you wish for.