Colossus: The Forbin Project Review
1970 was a good year for intelligent science-fiction movies from Universal Pictures. Robert Wise gave us The Andromeda Strain, that understated but terrifying movie about an extra-terrestrial virus, filmed with minute detail and total conviction. Meanwhile, Joseph Sargent, making only his second theatrical feature, offered Colossus: The Forbin Project, an equally credible thriller about a super-computer going wildly out of control. The two movies make a good double-bill and both have aged well, despite vast advances in technology since they were made. Colossus in particular is impressive for managing to be terrifying despite looking positively antediluvian in its portrayal of near-future technology.
Super-computers have been a staple of genre fiction since the 1940s with the eminent writers Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick creating particularly memorable examples in the shapes of Cosmic AC and Vulcan 3. They've been assuming control of mankind's affairs since the days of John W. Campbell's magazine Astounding Science Fiction and taking rather more upon themselves than their creators intended since Fredric Brown's legendary short-story Answer - in which a giant computer answers the question, "Is there a God?" by answering, "There is now..." Colossus, created to autonomously control the defence of the United States, begins by establishing contact with a hitherto unsuspected Soviet counterpart - Guardian - and gradually grows in intelligence until it begins to think for itself and assume control of the country. The designer of Colossus, Dr. Charles Forbin, attempts to sabotage his creation but manages only to place himself under its total control.
The film looks quite magnificent with Colossus introduced in the opening scenes as inhabiting the space of a small Cathedral. It's easy to laugh at this but there's no reason why anyone would have known that technology would get smaller rather than bigger as it became more powerful. The method of input and cumbersome display unit are also dated but they work to establish the computer as the central character of the movie; rather more so than Charles Forbin, played by Eric Braeden as a rather remote figure who doesn't appear to have considered the implications of his invention. Colossus is a genuinely scary monster; initially devoid of emotion or sentiment and operating on pure logic but gradually becoming paranoid and megalomaniacal. To put it simply, it develops a life of its own and in this sense, the story is a re-run of the Frankenstein myth with Forbin as the scientist who pushes boundaries because he can without ever questioning whether or not he should.
Interestingly enough, the thing which should be dated - the Cold War political paranoia which is the nub of the story - doesn't seem so because the narrative depends on a rapprochement between the powers in the face of an overwhelming threat - Colossus as a kind of uncontrollable terrorist menace who isn't above destroying an oil-field and 6000 innocent people if necessary. There's also a very vital sense of the way that science is constantly working beyond its knowledge and accepts the possibility that what scientists discover or invent may in fact be better than they could have imagined. Technology in a constant state of flux is a part of our everyday lives but the idea seems quite prescient for 1970. On the other hand, what does place the film as very much part of its time is the basic technophobia which inspires it - born of an era when computers were not a part of everyday life and very few people really understood them. One does have to sympathise with such an attitude to some extent in this case - who on earth would think that taking the human input out of the loop would be a good idea? One is reminded of a later attempt to do the same thing in WarGames, and look where that ended up.
The vision of Colossus is grim and even though it ends on a note of human defiance, the future it conjures up doesn't really offer much hope. But along the way, the film is peppered with wry comedy; notably a scene in which Forbin persuades his digital nemesis that he must be allowed to see fellow scientist Cleo Markham (Clark) for sexual gratification - a ruse which initially works, despite Colossus's scepticism about the number of times a week such contact is required. Joseph Sargent's direction of the film is urgent and suspenseful but never so slick as to miss an opportunity for some human diversion. He's aided by James Bridges' beautifully constructed script, taken from the novel by D.F.Jones, and some quite phenomenal effects from Albert Whitlock and Whitey McMahon. The production design of the film is quite something too, although I'm not so keen on Michel Colombier's self-consciously 'futuristic' music score.
Colossus: The Forbin Project was released on R1 by Universal in 2004. The long-awaited disc proved to be a huge disappointment owing to its use of a truly appalling pan and scan transfer. Thankfully, this Region 2 release from MediumRare and Fremantle is a considerable improvement on that score.
The film is presented in its full Panavision ratio and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced. It's not sourced from a perfect print and some scratches are evident throughout. There's also rather more grain than I would expect and some examples of aliasing. But the colours are strong and accurate, and there's an abundance of detail throughout. On the whole, this is as good as I've seen the film look for home viewing. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is a two-channel mono mix which presents the sound effects very strongly and renders the dialogue clearly over the sometimes irksomely loud music score.
The main extra feature is a commentary track from the 82 year old Joseph Sargent - one of the oldest working directors in the world. Although his talk peters out somewhat towards the middle of the film, he has some enjoyable observations to make about the design of the film and the intentions behind it. The commentary is accompanied by a photo gallery and, for those with DVD drives, some original promotional material from Universal's archives.
The biggest drawback of the disc is the lack of subtitles.
Colossus: The Forbin Project is a superbly crisp and economical SF thriller which is still potent enough to provoke a nightmare or two. This DVD presents it well and is certainly worth buying.