Still one of the few films to make computer science exciting, The Forbin Project is an underrated and little seen science fiction treasure from the 1970s – very much a creation of its time, but with a lot to say. The underrated Eric Braeden plays Dr Charles Forbin, the cold creator of a giant computer, which, at the start, is just assuming sole responsibility for the military defence of the USA. Colossus, as this mega computer is called, is sealed within the Rocky Mountains. Once booted up, it cannot be tampered with or overridden, and offers such a deterrent that it “puts the Pentagon in mothballs.” To those familiar with the genre, of course, such arrangements bode evil. As Forbin steps out of Colossus and into a meeting with the President (a Kennedy-like Gordon Pinsent), his misplaced confidence in super technology invites a fall. Sure enough, it is quickly revealed that the Soviets have their own version of a super-computer, also just coming online, called Guardian. Soon the two mighty brains are chums conversing in their own impenetrable language, blackmailing their creators, revealing their own dastardly plans for mankind…
Joseph Sargent directed this, as well as another notable film The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974), before disappearing off into television. By all accounts The Forbin Project, intended in some way to capitalise on the recent success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was not a success at the box office – due perhaps to the bleak ending, as well as the plot’s relatively cerebral nature. Like Kubrick’s masterpiece, Sargant’s film also features a deadly computer, and is ultimately concerned with what makes men, men. However unlike HAL, Colossus is not malfunctioning; it is programmed to end war and to make its own exponential judgements to further that aim, being “self-sufficient, self protecting, self-generating,” a mechanical genius which “no human can touch.” What Colossus offers mankind has none of HAL’s self-centredness, more a ruthless determination to make us do what is better for all whether we like it or not. And where Kubrick’s film suggests the reformation of a species though mind-blowing optics and some enigmatic symbolism, Forbin’s project is one where ultimately it is one man who is ‘reworked,’ not all – though the fate of millions remains in the balance.
As Forbin emerges from the tomb-like Colossus processing installation within the Rockies, (scenes vaguely reminiscent of the final sealing of the pyramid in Hawk’s Land Of The Pharaohs, 1955) we feel that he has leaving a part of himself behind. And as we learn more about our central character, it is clear that in fact he lacks a good deal – most specifically any sign of real emotion. Forbin, “world expert on computer systems,” is as cold and as calm as the machines he idolises, a characteristic emphasised by the excellent performance of Braeden. This aloofness is emphasised by the actor’s slight German accent, helped incidentally by the fact that he was obliged to re-dub his part after shooting had finished. By the end of the film he will be transformed by events he has initiated, and Forbin’s impending change gives the film added interest.
Colossus’ startling announcement that “There is another system” is what precipitates the main crisis, a bald statement open to a number of intriguing interpretations. First and foremost, the participants take it literally as the discovery of Guardian, Colossus’ Soviet equivalent. This film was made at the height of the Cold War, which makes the relatively liberal treatment of the Russians struggling with their own dilemma, as well as the cordial nature between the two heads of state, slightly surprising. Apart from the abrupt elimination of their chief scientist (and this ordered by Guardian) the Russians emerge just as perplexed, honest and concerned as the Americans. This reminds us that the ‘other system’ can also be taken as political rather than mechanical. It’s the abrupt reminder of another social order, announced aptly in midst of a smug Presidential reference to Roosevelt. Finally, and most intriguing, is what the Colossus’ announcement slyly suggests in personal terms. As previously observed, Forbin’s own emotional ‘system’ is essentially passionless (his surname even suggests that of Fortran, a genuine computer language). By the end of the film, the two super computers will have united, using their own newly developed machine language to communicate. Moreover the world will be (presumably) united too by the dire threat facing it. And, dominated by his creation, Forbin will have rejoined humanity, a process indicated through his increasing displays of belated emotion.
Once Colossus and Guardian have joined forces, they soon start making demands of the world, enforcing orders by punitive missile launches. Mankind is forced to comply. Forbin, as creator of Colossus, is granted a unique status by the machine, liaising between it and the world. But Colossus fears he may conspire, so in scenes that recall those in Demon Seed (1977), the doctor is placed under 24/7 surveillance, leading to the most interesting part of the film. For Forbin decides to convince the machine that he needs all human comforts to function properly – including time alone with a newly invented mistress, fellow scientist Doctor Cleo Markham (Susan Clarke). The plan is then to utilise their time together to plot. Forbin’s sheepish admittal to the machine that he needs sex four times a week, as well as his inevitable romance with his ‘mistress’ are the first real sign of his humanity. More amusingly, the following dialogue ensues as the two are tucked up in bed together, Dr Markham making her initial report, the air filled with sexual static: “The hardware problem is negative… (we) are still studying a way to get into the thing.” In a film singularly bereft of real humour, this double entendre is particularly striking – and is in stark contrast to Forbin’s previous concern to get his language exactly accurate for communicating with his machine properly. Meanwhile, Colossus has become the “first electronic peeping tom,” seemingly just as concerned with the love life of its creator as in world domination. Until Forbin’s final, shocking outburst of “You Bastard!” so is the viewer. This is when, after bedding Dr Markham for real, he throws a stool at a computer screen in a rage at Colossus’ repressive agenda. It’s confirmed then that he’s finally rejoined the (doomed?) human race with a vengeance, and has acquired traits of stubbornness and yes, perhaps heroism along the way.
The Forbin Project benefits greatly from a cool style and restrained performances – entirely apt given the subject matter. It also has a standout score, one that frequently mimics the clatter of electronic activity, adding greatly to the atmosphere. As one would expect, the computer hardware on show is dated, (no doubt most of Colossus’ vaunted brain would fit in a hatbox these days), but modern viewers, used to the concepts of ‘cross-platforming’, the Internet and so on, will find interesting echoes of these developments here.
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Add in an unfashionably downbeat ending, as well as the working out of Forbin’s folly, and it emerges as considerably more than the SF curio one might expect.