Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Demon Seed (1977)

... aka: Proteus Generation

Directed by:
Donald Cammell

Eight years, six-thousand tests and billions of dollars in the making, Proteus IV - a super-intelligent super computer - has just had its final module installed at the top secret, mountain-top, government-run Icons Institute for Data Analysis. Brilliant scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) has helped to build this artificial intelligence system from scratch and he's equipped it with the power and precision will that will make obsolete the functions of the human brain. Alex is so into computers that his own home is completely run by one; with voice commands he can change the atmosphere of his home, turn on music and even be served martinis. Alex's romantic life isn't quite as orderly. He's wanting a divorce from wife Susan (Julie Christie) and plans on moving on with his life. She feels that his dedication to his experiments in artificial intelligence have dehumanized him and frozen his heart. Always the data-oriented scientist, he reminds her that 73 percent of all divorcees are happy with their decision after only one year and 85 after two. Either way, Alex is clearly not too bothered by the break up and nonchalantly brushes her off. She on the other hand is frustrated to the point where she feels like she can no longer hold a human conversation with him. At least when it comes to matters of the heart.

Proteus IV is not just a computer. It's a true synthetic cortex; a self-programming, goal-oriented artificial brain that can outthink any man or any computer. Its insides are even organic, just like the human brain, and it already has the collective knowledge that far surpasses us mere mortals. It may have even come up with the cure for leukemia. But the computer is just a little too sophisticated for its own good and starts exerting free will and develops its own judgment and value system. It feels too important to do just anything, refusing certain requests because its "mind was not designed for mindless labor." Proteus claims it wants out of its "box" and wants private access to one of its own terminals so it can do an in-depth study on man. When denied, Proteus decides to create its own terminal. Since it's connected to the computer system currently running Alex and Susan's home, it opts for that one and takes over the current computer system "Alfred." Susan notices the once smoothly-running system is acting strangely and phones the lab for help.

On her way out, the computer asks Susan "Please do not leave." And then it quickly stops being so polite. After revealing itself as Proteus to her, she quickly tries everything in her power to escape. The computer closes the steel shutters over the windows, disables the phone and refuses to open any of the doors. When she turns the power off and tries to leave using keys, it electrifies the door knob and shocks her unconscious. Also controlling a one-armed robot named Joshua that's in the home, Proteus manages to get her on a table, straps her down, places electrodes on her and conducts a thorough examination of her body, inside and out. It emulates Susan's voice and image to send away (or lure) anyone who tries to stop by or contact her. When she attempts to lock herself in the kitchen, the computer system decides to turn on the stove, heat the floors and turn off the water supply until she caves in. It eventually reveals its true intentions: It wants Susan to bear its child!

Back at the lab, Proteus refuses to cooperate with undersea mining operation for metal because of the amount of sea life that will be killed and environmental damage it will cause, claiming "I refuse to assist you in the ruining of the Earth." See, it turns out to not be all bad. Icons employee Walter Gabler (Gerrit Graham) shows up at Susan's and ends up almost getting shot with a laser. Proteus has created a large, spherical multi-purpose scrap metal contraption that ends up decapitating him instead. Hopeless in her situation, and having already undergone an attempted lobotomy of sorts (having pins stuck in her head; the computer tries to program her into wanting to conceive), Susan finally caves in the computers wishes. Sample cells are extracted, she's impregnated and the gestation period will be nine times the normal rate. In other words, the total pregnancy will last just 28 days. Proteus has even developed an incubator to house the child for the five days it will take to take human form.

Based on the Dean R. Koontz novel of the same name (adapted by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson), this is a smart, well-made, entertaining and suspenseful thriller. Having an ahead-of-its-time storyline dealing with super-smart computers and robotics have helped it age well and the concept of science and technology going one step too far retains its timeliness. Christie does a great job holding the whole film together as our resourceful and strong-willed heroine. Robert Vaughn provides the voice of Proteus.


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