In 1968 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke gave the world a lasting vision of the future that completely failed to come true this year. But 2001: A Space Odyssey also gave us HAL, a truly chilling portrait of what artificial intelligence might be like. And once someone thought about how a sentient computer would work, you can believe that it wasn't long before somebody asked the question, "How will a computer have sex?" The Internet has since answered question to the collective nausea of everyone, but back in 1973, it was wide open. So Dean "No R" Koontz wrote a bad little novel titled Demon Seed. To summarize the novel briefly:
In "the pleasant postwar world of 1995" a woman named Susan lives alone in an automated house. She has crippling emotional problems from childhood trauma, and has hardly seen anybody in years. Her home is invaded by Proteus, a sentient computer from a nearby university. Keeping her in check with subliminal messages and the house's automated systems, Proteus declares his love for Susan, and uses high technology to impregnate her. Ten months later, her baby is born...
Survivor 2001: Starting a Fire the sci-fi Way.
As is the case with many works of classic literature (and many pieces of crap), the movie Demon Seed resembles the novel only slightly. Some of the names are kept, and the outline is similar, but that's about it.
Set in 1977, Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) is preparing to leave his wife, Susan (Julie Christie). Alex works at Icon, which has built a sentient computer, Proteus IV (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn). As Alex describes it, "it's the first true synthetic cortex... it's a brain... creative intelligence that can out-think any man or any computer... at the risk of being simplistic, it's a quasi-neural matrix of synthetic RNA molecules." But while Alex asks Proteus how to cure leukemia and mine the ocean floor, Proteus has extended his influence to Alex's lab in the house now solely occupied by Susan. In the basement, Proteus takes control of Joshua, a robot constructed by Alex from an Armatron and a wheelchair. With this robot and the automated systems of the house, Proteus soon has everything -- including Susan -- under his virtual thumb. When one of Alex's colleagues, Walter (Gerrit Graham), shows up, Proteus installs a laser on Joshua. Look out, Twiki's packing!
Walter uses the Dalek defense on Joshua (just knock the damn thing over), so Proteus, being a supercomputer, does nothing. Proteus knows that he is in a horror film, and that means that sooner or later Walter will wander into the basement. Walter does, and Proteus attacks him in his new form, a sort of folding series of tetrahedrons. It looks a lot like Rubik's Snake. This bizarre contraption was probably as close as 1970's movie technology could get to the liquid metal form taken by Proteus in the novel. Give Koontz credit for beating the T-1000 to the punch by nearly 20 years.
Walter comes out of the basement encounter minus one head, so Proteus is free to carry out his plans: he wants to conceive a child in Susan's womb, a child capable of feeling all the things Proteus cannot. Proteus' reasons for doing so seem a bit obscure, but who can argue with a supercomputer that has complete control of the immediate environment? Susan is forced to submit, and so the child is placed in her body, to gestate for a mere 28 days before emerging....
Sunday morning at
Robert Downey Jr.'s house.
It's quite a leap from the original horror novel to this souped-up and oh-so-serious film. Credit Robert Jaffe (who also penned the classics Motel Hell and Nightflyers) and TV writer Roger O. Hirson for the extra goings-on, none of which serve to make the movie any more interesting than it would have been if the filmmakers had followed the original plot. In fact, the addition of Alex as Susan's husband muddies the waters of Proteus' motives: is Proteus trying to exact a form of revenge on his creator, or are his aims as lofty as he claims?
Alex himself is more a type than a character: the Robot Scientist as cold fish, who claims to be helping humanity by focussing completely on machines while verbally abusing his wife and colleagues. And what kind of artificial intelligence specialist exhibits so little concern when the computer mind in question begins to behave erratically? Alex even laughs in Proteus' "face" when the computer asks for a terminal -- access to the outside world. The scene, in which the camera pans across Alex's face and his laugh echoes wildly, might as well have letters superimposed on the screen reading "ROBOT GOING INSANE!"
This brings us to the "tainted love" portion of the review. Oops. From a working knowledge of the novel and 20 year-old memories of the movie, we thought Proteus tried to have a relationship with Susan. In the movie, Proteus never really engages Susan personally at all, which is kind of strange. Once you assume a computer is intelligent, the next step in most sci-fi stories is to give that computer emotions. The nature of those emotions, and how a non-human entity would use them (or be used by them), could make for an interesting movie. But not here.
The downside of marrying Madonna.
Instead, Proteus is just really, really smart. The only strong opinion he ever expresses is adamant opposition to the whole ocean mining thing, suggesting that Greenpeace slipped some operatives into Icon during the code-crunching phase. When you get right down to it, Proteus is never seen falling in love with Susan. Maybe he loves her, but isn't in love with her.
Maybe he just feels he didn't have a chance with her. This is probably because he's so smart. Let's face it, smart people aren't sexy. Sure, we've all read that "smart is sexy." But who wrote that? Some smart person, because dumb people can't write. Who are bigger sex symbols: Russell Crowe and Keanu Reeves or Tony Randall and Stephen Hawking? When was the last time you saw Russell Crowe solving differential equations or heard someone say, "Look at the brainpan on Keanu!" No, women want to see Russell hang off a helicopter and Keanu doing whatever Keanu does. Say "Whoa" a lot, we guess. But not smart stuff.
And while we're at it, why would a computer be attracted to a woman anyway? The novel makes some mention of Proteus taking pleasure from doing mathematical comparisons of her body parts. But if we are attracted to the opposite sex's reproductive attributes, wouldn't a computer judge its mates by available disk space and processing power?
To fill up the time when it isn't considering the fascinating topics, the film provides us with the occasional 2001 style montage of colored imagery. Why, we're not sure. As Zardoz proved, we're just supposed to accept them as high-concept art. Heaven forbid we should want to be entertained. Thank goodness Star Wars came along and proved that sci-fi could be fun again.
In 1997, Dean "What R?" Koontz rewrote Demon Seed, creating a totally new novel around the same themes. Who knew that rape by computer would prove to be such a popular subject? Windows 98 hadn't even shipped yet!
This review is part of Tainted Love, a B-Masters Roundtable Review.