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Posts Tagged ‘Demon Seed’

Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

 

Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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