Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)


          Offering an imaginative sci-fi spin on Fail Safe (1964)—the chilling drama about the risks of nuclear brinksmanship between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War—this brisk but overly talky thriller imagines what might happen if the U.S. relinquished control over its nuclear arsenal to a supercomputer. Setting aside the kitsch factor of a now-dated movie in which the supercomputer is depicted as a gigantic structure requiring the entirety of a hollowed-out mountain for storage space, Colossus has, well, colossal logic problems. The movie assumes that none of the geniuses who built the computer anticipated its likely evolution; that nobody bothered to check if other systems were being built by other countries; and that the entire U.S. government okayed a system lacking an “off” switch.
          As with most “speculative” fiction, however, the point here is not so much the nitty-gritty logic but the underlying concepts, and in this case the central theme is that nuclear weapons are too inherently dangerous for any person or thing to control. As for the more superficial machines-take-over-the-world stuff, that was already old hat by the time Colossus was made, because TV shows like The Outer Limits and Star Trek explored the idea repeatedly in the ’60s.
          When viewed as nothing more than a paranoid thriller about the nuclear threat, Colossus is pleasant enough. Under the reliable directorial hand of journeyman Joseph Sargent, Colossus zips along with a fair amount of momentum, and the movie boasts a handful of genuinely clever narrative touches like the scheme that scientist Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) comes up with for slipping information out of the Colossus facility without the pesky computer noticing. The movie also benefits greatly from an exciting music score by Michael Colombier, which ratchets up the tension in key scenes and lends grandeur throughout. Even better, the dialogue is consistently smart. This was the first picture scripted by James Bridges, who later wrote and directed the more believable cautionary tale The China Syndrome (1979).
          Unfortunately, the linchpin performance in Colossus, by the actor playing the titular Dr. Forbin, is a dud. While supporting players including Georg Sanford Brown, Susan Clark, James Hong, and William Schallert are strong, leading man Braeden is so wooden that whenever he tries to depict anything more than mild derision or suave charm, he’s woefully out of his depth. Braeden’s stiff acting doesn’t doom the picture any more than the logic problems, but these flaws keep Colossus from earning much more than also-ran status in the ’70s sci-fi pantheon.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: FUNKY

5 comments:

The Mutt said...

I must totally disagree about Breaden. I thought he was perfect. Of, course I was already a fan of his from Rat Patrol.

I love this movie. I first saw it as a teen. IIRC it was a Sunday Night Movie of the Week. The ending absolutely floored me. I can quote the final speech to this day.

Dale said...

i agree with the mutt. CTFP is by no means a masterpiece but it captured my imagination at a young age. The story has holes in it,but I enjoy it and find Eric Breaden quite effective. I like his restraint that barely conceals rage. Another actor might have been histrionic.

Grant said...

I have to agree with the first two comments. I don't see what ISN'T grown-up about COLOSSUS.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Colossus has, well, colossal logic problems. The movie assumes that none of the geniuses who built the computer ran models predicting its likely evolution; that nobody bothered to check if other systems were being built by other countries; and that the entire U.S. government okayed a system lacking an “off” switch.'

First, Forbin's first name is Charles, not Jonathon. Now, on to the supposed flaws in the film's logic. I must disagree. The filmmakers make it very clear why Colossus has no off switch. If it did, an enemy saboteur could disable the system, leaving the U.S. defenseless. The CIA detected increased activity in an area of the Soviet Union, if not Guardian. The Soviets were very skilled concealing revolutionary technological developments until they were ready to reveal them, as with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's pioneering orbital space flight. The size of Colossus is congruent with the computers of the times, where a mainframe computer could occupy an entire floor of a building. The premise of a sentient computer had been done in sf movies -- Forbidden Planet and 2001 are notable examples, but Colossus, given its basic premise, proceeds to extrapolate from it with relentless logic, with one exception -- the murder of Kuprin, Forbin's Soviet counterpart. Colossus should have recognized that Forbin could die from a disease or in an accident. BTW, I like the casting of Eric Braeden, whose German accent may have put viewers in mind of Wernher von Braun. As for why Forbin didn't run computer models that would have predicted Colossus developing intelligence, I don't think the concept of modeling or computers powerful enough to manage it existed in the late '60s, though I'm not a scholar of computer history and could easily be mistaken.

By Peter Hanson said...

Thanks for pointing out my glitch on the character name, Peter. I've fixed that. Chances are the error arose from my general disengagement with the movie; I had seen it once prior to watching it again for this review and found it dull both times. Interesting that several readers see more in Braeden's performance than I do. It's possible that because I was familiar with his unimpressive later work in schlock TV before I first saw "Colossus," I failed to view his performance with an open mind. If so, my bad. However, I doubt that I'll ever find the will to watch "Colossus" a third time for reappraisal. And finally, regarding your logic points, fair enough. I've often found myself in the position of defending aspects of pictures I admire that others find flawed. Specifically regarding the "off" switch, you're correct that the film offers an explanation. My point (in the review) is that I don't buy the explanation, which feels too much like a convenient narrative contrivance to me. In any event, thanks as always for the detailed observations, and especially for alerting me to the character-name mistake.