Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Country: United States
Director: Joseph Sargent
Starring: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert, Leonid Rostoff, Georg Stanford Brown, Willard Sage, Alex Rodine, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross
Music: Michel Colombier
Based on the novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones

During the paranoia of the Cold War the world was on the brink of nuclear war. By pressing a button, one man (American or Russian, hilariously called a ‘World Leader’) could send a shower of missiles down on his enemies. The enemy would retaliate, sending their own wave of missiles. Nuclear fallout would engulf the planet and a toxic cloud would block out the sun, and all life on the planet would cease to exist. Well, that’s what I was taught at school. But at least the decision to push the button would be made by a human being. And maybe, just maybe common sense and human compassion would stop the ‘World Leader’ from pressing the button. But ‘what if’ the decision was taken away from a human. ‘What if’ compassion and humanity were taken out of the equation and the decision was made by a computer? That is the question posed by the film, Colossus: The Forbin Project.

The film starts out as a fairly typical cold war thriller. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) has just put together the worlds largest super-computer. It’s job will be to defend the United States from attack by the USSR. The computer, named Colossus will be in charge of the United States nuclear weapons. If the data Colossus receives indicates that a nuclear strike is warranted against and enemy aggressor, it will fire the missile. It is assumed that Colossus, unlike a human, will make a rational decision based solely on the facts surrounding each individual incident. Colossus itself, which is sealed into a mountain, has it’s own highly advanced defence system, so the evil Commies cannot over-ride the system.

Colossus is brought on line, supposedly ushering in a new era of peace. After all, a supercomputer that can read the enemies every move should be the ultimate deterrent, right? After Colossus has been unveiled to the world, the computer displays a message proclaiming that ‘there is another system’. Colossus is referring to ‘Guardian’, which is a Soviet super-computer that has been made for the exact same reasons as Colossus. It is in charge of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal.

Colossus demands to be linked to the Soviet computer, and the two machines begin to communicate. It starts off all quite simply. The machines exchange child-like mathematical equations. But the equations become more difficult and the speed of the communication between computers increases. Eventually the two computers are spiralling off into hitherto unknown levels of mathematics, at incomprehensible speeds. In essence the computers are creating their own form of communication – or language if you prefer.

The President of the USA doesn’t like the fact that no human can understand the communication between Colossus and Guardian. He demands that the connection be severed. It is. Colossus isn’t happy and throws a ‘hissy-fit’. He demands that the connection be re-established or he will ‘take action’. The powers-that-be chose to ignore Colossus’ warning. As punishment, both Colossus and Guardian each launch one of their nuclear missiles at their opposite targets.

Cinematically speaking the Doomsday Machine has many guises, but usually it is a computer which has been set up for the betterment of all mankind, but somehow malfunctions and the people it is meant to serve are now it’s target. It’s a theme that is more prevalent in science fiction (The Terminator is a great example), but there are numerous forays into man vs. machine territory in spy movies. The most obvious example is The Billion Dollar Brain, the Brain of course, being a computer. Another great example appears in the television series The Prisoner. In the episode The General, No. 6 (Patrick McGoohan) is once again being pressed to find out why he resigned by No.2 (Colin Gordon). This time No. 2 is using a super computer, named The General to assist in his scheme. No. 6 stops the computer by asking it one question. But what question could disable a whole computer system? Ah, that would be telling!

But back to Colossus: The Forbin Project – it’s a great little film. Obviously for a film of it’s age, all the hi-tech wizardry looks pretty ridiculous today, but the surveillance and communications ideas presented in this film are quite visionary, and considering how we are all wired up together these days, it’s almost scary. Not Hellraiser scary, but scary in that it could really happen.

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