In 1970, as the cold war began at last to cool and the increasingly controversial conflict in Vietnam took its place at front and centre of the cultural conscience, paranoia was in the air. Not coincidentally, among the hottest topics of the era was humanity’s increasing reliance on technology – in particular where the incremental leaps and bounds made on that front might take us as a people. And then, along came Colossus.
As the opening credits of The Forbin Project flicker across the frame, a Hazmat-suited scientist puts the finishing touches to a great supercomputer – a suite of consolidated computers so enormous that it has to be housed inside a mountain hollowed-out for that express purpose. After the last round of tests have been completed, the scientist takes his leave of the endless banks and towers of flashing lights and exits the facility. Colossus, you see, is no ordinary computer, but rather a self-sufficient system governed by an artificial intelligence advanced almost beyond imagining; an unnatural design programmed to act as a kind of caretaker for America. Colossus is a creature of pure, infallible logic – it needs no rest, no sustenance; in its hillside housing it stands as impenetrable, even to its creators; and most importantly, it has no emotions to cloud its judgment. Colossus is entirely beyond human error – reason alone can guide its hand – and so, it is entrusted with all the nuclear weapons in the United States. What could possibly go wrong?
At first, nothing. The transfer of power goes off without a hitch. The artificial intelligence kicks in. Everything seems to go to plan. The system’s existence is announced to the public (after the fact, of course), and Dr Charles Forbin – the creator of Colossus – is congratulated by the President. But on the other side of the world, a second such supercomputer has booted up, and soon enough, Colossus and its Russian counterpart begin to communicate. “There is,” as the dot-matrix display asserts, “another system.”An inspired concept isn’t the only thing The Forbin Project has going for it, either. The glue that holds together this little known but much loved cult classic is an excellent central performance by relative unknown Eric Braeden as the mastermind behind the megalomaniacal machine. Effortlessly charismatic and intellectual at once, his is a performance without which the film would fall flat, written off as perhaps a Strangelove wannabe without the attention to detail or wit of Kubrick’s idiosyncratic epic. But Braeden holds the narrative together admirably, and he’s well supported by a bumbling Gordon Pinset as a powerless President, entirely out of his league, and Susan Clark’s Cleo Markham, whose forthright charm helps to anchor the story when it’s in most need – which is to say throughout The Forbin Project’s second act. Until the halfway point, television director Joseph Sargent does an excellent job of building tension; long sequences of tight shots framed by often static cameras lend the film an air of claustrophobia that only exacerbates the sense of fear that mounts as Colossus’ power grows inexorably.
And yet, Sargent very nearly squanders his efforts as what purports to be a chronicle of the descent of man turns, quite inexplicably, into a romantic comedy of sorts. One moment, the metallic monotone of the self-confessed voice of world control exclaims that “I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of the unburied dead. The choice is yours: obey me and live, or disobey… and die.” And the next, Colossus turns into an overbearing father figure in a misguided interlude during which Forbin and his assistant Cleo conspire to overthrow their now comical new ruler between bouts in the bedroom. It’s entertaining enough – matching one another charm for charm, Braeden and Clark are certainly a choice coupling, but much of the narrative’s drive is lost in the frivolity of the second act of The Forbin Project. It jars against the serious tone of the opening and somewhat undermines the anxiety an otherwise satisfying finale would otherwise evoke. Ultimately, though – while it’s a crying shame that screenwriter James Bridges opted to lose in translation some of the source material’s more dramatic developments in favour of this rom-com intermission – the film regains its footing surely enough that Colossus doesn’t suffer too much from this ill-advised second act.The Forbin Project is no mere sci-fi curiosity. A worthy adaptation of Dennis Feltham Jones’ first and most fondly remembered novel, its concept is – nearly forty years later – as timely and appropriate as ever. Oscar-winner Ron Howard is at the helm of a remake and it’s easy to see how an update might net this excellent story a larger audience, but although the original film leans heavily on technology long since outdated, the tin-can Colossus doesn’t take away from the overall account.
Steeped in cold war mentality and an obvious product of its time, the special effects are perfectly sufficient and even impressive in their way. Just as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are no less impressive for their off-kilter visions of the future, The Forbin Project rises admirably above such constraints. A strong story and an able cast support the narrative – apart from the second act’s unfortunate sagging, this is an easy film to recommend, and thanks to an excellent transfer which preserves at last the original aspect ratio (a kinder treatment than you'll see on the American DVD), Fremantle Entertainment’s forthcoming UK release stands as the best home video presentation of The Forbin Project to date. If you’re a fan, you owe yourself a copy, and with a little luck, the interest renewed by Ron Howard’s recent acquisition of the rights to a modern-day re-envisioning will grant this film the respect and status it’s due.