Thanks to “The Gates” and “The Jobs,” we have a little A.I. in our life.
But before Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and fired up the first Web server and browser at CERN in 1991. Before Benoit Mandelbrot discovered fractal geometry and unleashed the M-Set on the world and made your selfie-self a reality. Before Robert Cailliau. Before Larry Page. Before Vint Cerf. Before then Senator Al Gore first proposed the High Performance Computing Act of 1991. Before there was HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . there was The Interocitor in This Island Earth (1955), the built-inside-the-planet-thought-manifesting The Great Machine in Forbidden Planet (1956), the computer-with-its-human-private-army The Brain in Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the subterranean OMM 0910 from THX 1138 (1971), the The Tabernacle from Zardoz (1974), Zero from Rollerball (1975), The MCP from Tron (1982), SkyNet from The Terminator, and WOPR (aka Joshua) in WarGames (1983).
Those are the A.I.’s most sci-fi cinephiles know.
For this latest installment of our “Exploring” featurettes at B&S About Movies, as we discuss the “Ancient Future” of computers and information technology on film, we’ll discuss the lesser known “brains” that are NOVAC, Alpha 60, Proteus IV, and Colossus, as well as the early humanoid A.I.s the Clickers and the Roboti.
Let’s download those analog sprockets!
Gog is the third and final feature in a loose film trilogy chronicling the exploits of the OSI, the “Office of Scientific Investigation.” While The Magnetic Monster (1953) dealt with a radioactive-magnetism experiment gone wrong and Riders to the Stars (1954) dealt with a meteor-retrieval gone wrong, Gog dealt with a rogue A.I. gone bad in an underground military bunker.
The A.I. in this case is NOVAC (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer) with a “physical extension” of its self: two multi-armed half-tracked, biblical-dubbed robots Gog and Magog. And when a series of unaccountable malfunctions begin to plague the facility, the OSI dispatches Dr. David Sheppard and Joanna Merritt to get to the bottom of the A.I. tomfoolery.
Shot in 15 days at the cost of $250,000 ($2.4 million in today’s money) and released in 3D color, Gog is the best of the three “OSI” films produced by United Artists. Sadly Ivan Tovar’s scientifically accurate screenplay and decent direction by Herbert L. Strock (1957’s Blood of Dracula and 1963’s The Crawling Hand) is undermined by its utter failure of the Bechdel Test.
As with Ib Melchoir’s later and better known Angry Red Planet (1960), we have one red-rinsed female among all the men (Ivan Tovar’s soon-to-be-wife Constance Dowling) who must faint and be fireman-carried through the complex to safety. Of course, while all the men wear standard military issue, baggy flight suits and clunky G.I boots, the women’s flight suits are tailor cut to accentuate their breast lines and pegged to show off some ankle. And, instead of Naura Hayden’s smart n’ sassy ballet flats in Angry Red Planet, Dowling runs around the complex in a sensible pair of open-toe wedge mules. And you thought the women in Project Moonbase has it rough.
So much for the “Ancient Future” of the 1950s.
Jean-Luc Godard’s neo-noir Alphaville, like Elio Petri’s pop-art romp The 10th Victim (1965), and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1967), are each the prefect combinations of film noir and dystopian fiction. (Toss the later made Docteur M and Kamikaze ’89 on that list.)
The lead character in the film, Lemmy Caution (American actor Eddie Constantine), is a private detective-government operative that came from the mind of British writer Peter Cheney and served as the source of 15 Euro films released between 1952 to 1991. While all of those films were straight noir-detective films, Godard penned his own Cheney-script that placed the Caution character in a dystopian set, technocratic dictatorship.
Caution, aka Agent 003, is dispatched from “the Outlands” to the futuristic city of Alphaville overlorded by a sentient computer, Alpha 60 — which has outlawed the human concepts of emotion, free thought, and individuality. Caution’s mission: find a missing agent, kill Professor von Braun, and free the citizens of Alphaville by destroying Alpha 60.
As with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Alex Cox’s Walker, Godard’s world is rife with anachronisms: for example, Caution arrives in town driving a then “futuristic” ’65 Ford Galaxie. As a result of budgetary limits, Godard uses no special props or any “futuristic” builds; everything is shot in real locations — with the newly built and elegant, Frank Lloyd Wright-modernist glass and concrete structures popping up around ’60s Paris doubling for the city of “Alphaville.”
Then there’s Godard creation of Alpha 60: Just one watch of this clip of an “interview scene” and you can see the brilliance of Godard. With a simple use of an electrolarynx (on his own voice) and the finger-like movement of overhead recording studio microphones and a spinning cooling fan as the “physical extention” of Alpha 60 . . . just wow. Low budget filmmaking at its finest that’s effectively chilling and creepy.
There’s no online freebies for Alphaville, but you can easily stream it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and You Tube Movies. As of September 2020, the fine folks at Kino Lorber now offer Alphaville on Blu-ray and DVD, the new 4K restoration features both the Original French (with optional subtitles) and English Versions of the Film.
Demon Seed (1977)
Take a soupçon of the multi-armed robots from Gog and a dash of the narcissistic A.I. from Alphaville and you get a horny supercomputer (voiced to creepy perfection by Robert Vaughn) that kidnap and rapes, oh, excuse me, “imprisons and forcibly impregnants” a woman (movie semantics) with the help of its “physical extension” known as Joshua — a robot consisting of a mechanical arm attached to a motorized wheelchair (an admittedly lame effect; where’s Gog when you need ’em?).
When Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver of Jaws of Satan, Creepshow), the computer-obsessed developer of Proteus IV, the world’s most advanced form of organic-artificial intelligence, demands “new terminals” and to be “let out of this box,” he realizes Proteus is more powerful than he imagined — too late.
Of course, any computer-obsessed scientist, complete with a fully equipped “mad scientist” basement laboratory, would have his home conveniently wired — via his home security system ALFRED — into his “Frankenstein,” making it easy to kidnap his wife (Julie Christie), construct itself a new modular polyedron body (an awesome, in-camera special effect; listen for the repurposed Star Trek “door swoosh” sfx), and an incubator to create a clone of the Harris’s late daughter — with the “mind” of Proteus itself.
Critics across the board hated this debut book-to-screen adaptation of Dean Koontz’s 1973 novel (Watchers, Servants of the Twilight) of the same name, which was written off as a sci-fi version of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby — only with a “satanic” computer (the book was a best seller; when the movie came out in ’77, the book was reissued; Waldenbooks promoted the book/film via an advertisement on its carryout paper bags). Released during the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Demon Seed, sadly, wilted at the box office. The director, Donald Cammell, was a protégé of Nicolas Roeg (the big budget American Giallo Don’t Look Now, also starring Julie Christie); the duo worked together on the Mick Jagger-starring Performance (completed in 1968, released in 1970). Cammell faired better with the pre-Basic Instinct psycho-thriller White of the Eye (1987) starring David Keith.
A film “classic” is always in the eye of the beholder: so you may think I’m a bit celluloid blind on this one. But there’s worst things to blow an hour and a half on, which you can do for free over on TubiTV. But if you prefer an ad-free experience, you can stream it on Amazon Prime and iTunes. I rank Demon Seed as essential sci-fi viewing alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Silent Running, and the next film on this evening’s program.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Opinions are mixed on this granddaddy of sentient computer thrillers, which served as the second writing project by James Bridges (wrote and directed the back-to-back hits The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy) after 1966’s The Appaloosa. And as with that Marlon Brando-starring film, this tale about a 1990s-era American Defense System computer becoming aware was also adapted from a novel, in this case, the 1966 science fiction novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones — which was followed with two novel sequels: The Fall of Colossus (1974) and Colossus and the Crab (1977). And would you believe this was helmed by the director from the 1955 Frank Sinatra-starring wartime romance flick From Here to Eternity? True story. And while James Sargent also directed Burt Reynolds in the influential hicksploitation classic White Lightning, he also racked up a Razzie nod for Jaws: The Revenge.
As with Dr. Alex Harris and Proteus IV in our previous entry, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, aka Dr. Otto Hasslein in 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes), underestimates the intelligence of his own “Frankenstein” and Colossus starts to refuse orders and making its own demands. Of course, double agents leaked “The Forbin Project” and Colossus discovers the Russians have constructed their own sentient defense system, known as Guardian. The now two merged supercomputers, which now identify as Colossus, come to realize that man is a wasteful, warring creature and subjugate the world to do their bidding.
A remake has been in development hell since 2007 at Universal Studios (who released the original) through Imagine Entertainment to be directed by Ron Howard — and Will Smith attached to star as Dr. Charles Forbin. The last word on the remake dates back to 2013, with Will Smith bringing on Ed Solomon, who wrote Smith’s Men in Black, to do rewrites. The poor critical and box office showings of Smith’s sci-fi forays I Am Legend (2007) and After Earth (2013) once again stalled the production. And the since poor showings of Smith’s Bright (2017) and Gemini Man (2019) only piled more dirt on the development grave. (You can read up on the last word of the remake in detail with this 2013 Screen Rant article.)
Courtesy of the fine folks at Shout Factory, a remastered high-definition widescreen Blu-ray was released in 2018 — and that remaster is not currently offered as an online stream? Anywhere? How is that possible? Ah, we found a freebee over on Vimeo.
Creation of the Humanoids (1962)
Prior to Phillip K. Dick’s dreams of androids dreaming of electric sheep, dreams that later birthed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Roger Corman associate Wesley Barry and his Genie Studios gave U.S. audiences their first vision of “fleshed-out” humanoid androids not aware that they’re androids. In addition: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published six years after Creation hit drive-in screens. And Barry’s vision, while not an adaptation of, brazenly pinches elements from Jack Williamson’s 1948 novel, The Humanoids.
Barry’s post-apocalypse tale concerns itself with the themes of racism and man’s loss of humanity against the scornfully-referred “Clickers,” a man-made race of bald, blue-gray, synthetic-skinned, silver-eyed humans (read: blacks) whose population is increasing, while humanity—who’ve developed a technological codependency on their robot slaves—sees their own birth rate decreasing. This triggers the creation of the human-terrorist paranoia-organization (read: the ‘50s “Red Scare”) “The Order of Flesh and Blood” (read: the Klu Klux Klan).
Amid the sociopolitical upheaval, a scientist faces resistance in expanding the “labor force” Clickers’ programming for emotions—going as far as to transform them into human replicas (read: Ash from Alien). Dr. Raven, with mad-scientist tenacity, intends to “thalamic transplant” the personality and memories of recently deceased humans into a robot-replica of that person. However, the human-humanoids have one flaw: like their “Clicker” brethren, they must go to “temple” (recharging stations), which also serves as information exchange terminals with the “father-mother” central computer (read: cyber-theology/church).
Courtesy of its financial shortcomings, instead of a sci-fi classic in the vein of the groundbreaking black-and-white post-apocs Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936), which it seems Wesley was attempting to achieve, we’re instead left with the ambitious, cardboard incompetence of a stale, Aldous Huxley-vision of a not-so-Brave New World of humanoids wearing latex bald-wigs and matching-color rubber gloves, along with a military topped-off with Confederate Army caps left over from Gone with the Wind.
All of this robot, genetic-biological engineering exposition of the “Ancient Future” films we’ve enjoyed this week can be credited to one man—who really did “create” the humanoids: Nobel Prize-nominated and award-winning Czech writer Karel Čapek. His 1920 stage play/book R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the word “robot” and many of the concepts used in today’s science fiction. You can read the free eBook online at Gutenberg.org or buy a copy at Amazon. A new version of the film—in the wake of two English-language television versions (1938/30 minutes; 1948/60 minutes) and a feature-length Hungarian telefilm (1976)—a new English-language version is currently languishing in development hell.
. . . And we wait with binary-coded breath for that remake.
Update: June 20, 2021: Courtesy of one of our readers, Tereza Sklenářová, we’ve come to know that Karel Čapek was born in 1890, when the Czech Republic was not independent, yet (in 1918), and was a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire; Čapek was born to Czech parents, and spent his entire life working in the Czech Republic (called Czechoslovakia then) and writing in the Czech language. Čapek was Nobel Prize-nominated seven (!) times. When he was to finally receive the prize (nominated in the autumn of 1938), it came too late: Čapek died in the winter of 1938 caused by complicated pneumonia. On the other hand, it was his luck: the Nazis wanted to send Čapek to a concentration camp, but the order came soon after his death. Who died, then, in the camp, was his brother: painter and poet-writer Josef Čapek.
Our many thanks to Tereza for her continued readership and her positive contribution to make B&S About Movies even better, with her assistance in helping the B&S staff honor the writers and filmmakers behind our favorite books and films.
As you can see, Karel Čapek is a (well-deserved) national treasure in his homeland. Let’s hope the newest film planned on R.U.R. serves in his honor.
Here’s the complete list of our reviews for our “Ancient Future Week.” Enjoy!
The Brain (1988)*
Brain Twisters (1991)*
Circuitry Man (1990)*
Circuitry Man II (1993)*
The Colors of Infinity (1995)*
Defense Play (1988)*
Hide and Seek (1984)*
Johnny Mnemomic (1995)
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace 2 (1996)
The Lawnmower Man: A Surburban Nightmamre (1987)
Music of the Spheres (1984)*
The Net (1995)
Overdrawn and the Memory Bank (1984)
Prime Risk (1985)*
Robocop 3 (1993)
Skyggen, aka Webmaster (1998)*
Terminal Entry (1987)*
WarGames: The Dead Code (2008)
Y2K (1999) – Yes, there’s two films*
* Reviewed by R.D Francis; all others by Sam Panico.