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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Braeden’

If we’re going to talk about machines-trying-to-take-over movies, then – given that it’s supposedly such an old chestnut of the SF genre – the list is surprisingly short, when it comes to noteworthy movies at least. At the top there is of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I suppose you could also include Westworld. More recently there’s been I, Robot, and also things like Superman III, The Matrix and the Terminator series. Some of these are, I think you’ll agree, not much more than killer robot movies, which is a subtly different area.

Arguably near the top of the heap, though, is Colossus: The Forbin Project, a (for the most part) pleasingly effective thriller made in 1970 by Joseph Sargent. It’s the kind of movie you can’t really imagine anyone making nowadays, although – as is almost to be expected with an SF classic – plans for a remake have been kicking around for ages, in this case with names like Will Smith and Ron Howard attached. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, on with the review.

We open with some shots of state-of-the-art 1970 computer hardware, which of course looks amusingly dated 42 years on. Inspecting it is brilliant scientist Dr Charles Forbin (the estimable Eric Braeden in one of his few big movie roles). Forbin is carrying out final checks on a massive computer complex of his own design, buried deep under a mountain in Colorado. (The set bears a certain resemblence to the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet, but it’s not clear whether this is an intentional homage or not.)

The system goes on-line and Forbin is soundly congratulated by many worthies, including the US President (Gordon Pinsent). A press conference is organised to announce the good news – the computer, known as Colossus, is the world’s most sophisticated electronic brain, and has been placed in total and irrevocable control of the USA’s defence systems. Colossus is impervious to outside attack and operates completely autonomously. (Okay, okay – one quite reasonably quails a bit at this: did no-one think that putting some kind of fail-safe system in place might just be a wise idea? But, in defence of the movie, I will say two things: firstly, what follows is on the whole good enough to justify the big ask, and secondly, that the original novel (more on this later) opens with a section in which Forbin expresses his misgivings about his creation at some length before being talked out of them by the President himself. This is horrendously clunky and, given that the whole story is predicated on the fact that Colossus is switched on, slows things down considerably and unnecessarily.)

Anyway, everyone is delighted, especially when it appears that Colossus is operating better than predicted and improving in speed and power all the time. Then the machine issues an alert – a second system is in operation, under Soviet control. This proves to be true, and after initial alarm everyone calms down: Colossus and the Russian defence computer, Guardian, will neutralise each other. There is no danger. But then the two computers insist on being put in touch with each other, and – motivated as much by scientific curiosity as anything else, it’s implied – Forbin advises this be permitted. Of course, everyone soon realises that it’s very hard to deny a computer anything when that computer has total control of your nuclear missile arsenal…

It’s fair to say that serious American SF movies enjoyed something of a golden age in the late sixties and early seventies, and The Forbin Project is certainly part of this crop of films. It plays somewhat like a more outlandish version of War Games, but pitched at a more mature audience, and functions as a taut techno-thriller in its most effective sections. It always has both feet on the ground in terms of its setting, characters, and most of its technology, which helps its credibility enormously.

There’s a bit of a wobble partway through when Forbin is placed under total surveillance by Colossus and has to dissemble a romance with a co-worker (Susan Clark) in order to communicate with others attempting to disable the machine – here the tone is rather more playful and droll. Braeden is quite capable of pulling this off, but it notably slackens the tension the film has successfully built up prior to this point, and it never completely recovers.

Still, the script improves considerably on Dennis Jones’ pulpy, crashingly unsubtle novel, managing to incorporate some location shooting in Rome (must’ve been a nice trip for the cast and crew) and omitting some of the book’s weirder details – in the text Colossus opts to give itself an English accent when it fabricates its own voice synthesiser, for example. Unfortunately the film can’t find a strong climax any more than the novel, but given the premise of the story what happens is only logical, and still quite arresting.

I’d always thought this film was made after Eric Braeden’s storming supporting turn as the bad guy in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but it seems not. Braeden gives a proper leading man performance as Forbin, and it’s startling to realise he was under 30 at the time. This type of film is always threatening to topple over into silly melodrama, and – given the antagonist is a computer screen or a CCTV camera for practically the entire film – more than usually dependent on the central performance to work. Braeden completely nails it, giving a restrained, sardonic, and completely convincing turn, his confidence slowly eroding as the total dominance of the machines becomes more and more obvious. Looking at this film, you can imagine a whole career ahead of Eric Braeden where he plays leading man parts in big movies, or perhaps character roles – maybe even a Bond villain. In reality, he seems to have spent decades appearing in daytime soaps (in addition to a guest spot as Monster of the Week on Kolchak) – I can’t help thinking that’s a terrible shame.

If The Forbin Project has a less fatuous message than ‘don’t trust machines’, it seems to be this: early on, the President makes a gloriously hopeful speech about the abolition of war, the solution of the world’s problems, and the coming of the Human Millenium. Everyone is delighted and optimistic. The film closes with Colossus, having assumed the position of World Control, making a very similar set of pronouncements, using almost identical language – and it’s presented as an unutterably grim and ominous development. Perhaps it’s not a question of what it is that we want, but how we get it. But the film is smart enough not to labour this point.

Often one returns to a film after many years, especially one only seen as a young person, only to find it doesn’t really stand up as well as one might hope. The Forbin Project is perhaps a bit too dry and talky to be a really great film, and there is that second act wobble to consider too. But the central story is strong and convincingly told, for the most part, and it does have that great lead performance too. A minor SF classic, if nothing else.

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Watching Don Taylor’s 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes these days, I find myself becoming intellectually aware that to a young audience with a modern sensibility this movie might seem incredibly kitsch and almost impossible to take seriously. Personally I have no such problems – and for this I suppose I have the unusual scheduling policy of UK TV networks in the early 1980s to thank. This is a movie which ultimately goes into some very dark and thoughtful places, and concludes with violence sufficiently graphic to earn it a 12 rating under the modern system, and yet I first saw it in the early 80s as a Saturday tea-time movie. I found it interesting and affecting even then, while my sister was utterly traumatised and left in floods of tears at the ending – which, in an odd way, I would say was a sign the movie really worked.

Anyway. Following the literally earth-shattering conclusion of the previous movie, this second sequel opens with a neat visual joke – the first scene depicts a barren beach with the tide rolling in. This was how the first film ended and the second began, but the nature of this latest installment is instantly signposted when a contemporary helicopter flies into the frame.

For the ongoing story has, for reasons both narrative and budgetary, relocated to present-day California. A spacecraft has landed in the Pacific and is dragged ashore, and the assembled military are startled to find it is crewed by a trio of chimpanzees. Two of them should be familiar to viewers of the previous films, as they are Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who befriended Charlton Heston’s character, and who have been thrown back in time by the catastrophe at the end of the second film. The third character is basically there as a plot device – a chimp genius (Sal Mineo) responsible for salvaging and relaunching the spaceship despite the numerous and massive implausibilities involved – and, role completed, he is rapidly killed off.  

The wider American public is startled when the intelligence and power of speech possessed by the apes becomes known, but their wit, warmth, and benevolence result in their soon becoming celebrities and feted as such. Elements in the government, however, are rather less well-disposed towards the time travellers. In particular, the President’s scientific advisor, Hasslein (Eric Braeden), develops his own suspicions about the destiny of the planet and the nature and origins of the ape society they have come from. Becoming convinced that Cornelius and Zira’s very existence poses a threat to the human race, Hasslein sets about removing that threat as rapidly and completely as possible…

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a movie that finished very strongly but was, overall, rather uneven: to my mind, Escape from the Planet of the Apes surpasses it on every level except that of hyperbolic weirdness. Producer Arthur Jacobs’ original plan for the Apes sequels was that they should be built around a succession of startling visual incongruities and innovations, but this movie really abandons that principle – beyond the moment near the beginning where astronauts remove their helmets to reveal they are actually apes, this movie is told in a very straightforward but nevertheless effective (and affecting) way.

About the only thing it has in common with its immediate predecessor is the fact that it’s almost impossible to tell from the first twenty minutes exactly how the climax will play out. The first half of the film is a combination of relatively thoughtful SF and gentle social satire, in some ways mirroring the original movie – we see the apes’ responses to the human society which is as alien to them as the ape society was to Heston’s character in the first movie. That said, Heston’s stoic philosophising is entirely absent, replaced by something milder and more engaging.

As the film goes on the tone grows much darker, with the stakes both personal and epic, and the movie becomes more of an action thriller. All the indignities the apes inflicted on Heston are repaid in full and the protagonists are forced to go on the run from the government. (Ricardo Montalban pops up briefly in this section and turns in another rather operatic performance as a circus owner.) The climax is neither so uncompromising nor so bleak as in the previous film but somehow just as unsettling.

(I suppose you could argue that Escape does share one other thing with Beneath; namely, dodgy continuity. Once again we are told that Taylor’s craft was lost in space due to some kind of accident, which certainly doesn’t tally with the original film. Also, in the first two episodes the origins of the ape civilisation are a mystery to the majority of the population, but here we are told that the anniversary of the overthrow of the human race by their ape slaves is a public holiday for the ape civilisation. Sigh.)

While Beneath the Planet of the Apes these days appears to be a fairly obvious anti-war jeremiad, Escape is a story which functions on a more personal level and is perhaps more involving as a result. That said, it’s arguably just as much a film of its time, with a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the establishment – and given the repeated significance to the plot of various tape recordings, one has to keep reminding oneself this is a pre-Watergate movie.

If the movie does have a wider theme, it’s about destiny and the perils of trying to influence it. Mostly this is articulated through the heavy of the piece, Hasslein, who’s brought to life via a very good performance by Eric Braeden (in his pre-soap opera days). One of the things which raise this film well above the level of a routine runaround is Braeden as Hasslein: he’s clearly the bad guy, inasmuch as he wants to kill Cornelius and Zira, but Braeden (aided by Paul Dehn’s excellent script) brings enough grace notes of thoughtfulness and intelligence to the character to make his motivations entirely understandable. Hasslein is clearly motivated by deeply humane concerns; it’s just that he acts on them with a detachment and dispassion that crosses the line into outright ruthlessness (the novelisation of the film goes even further to make him sympathetic, making him the father of a disabled child). When I watch the film now, I always find myself wondering what I would do if I were in Hasslein’s position: from a certain point of view, he is very clearly in the right throughout.

There are so many good things about Escape from the Planet of the Apes – I haven’t even touched upon Jerry Goldsmith’s funky and groovy score – that I was not surprised, a few years ago, to discover a review somewhere online which rated it more highly than the original film. It doesn’t have the visual ambition or quite the narrative or intellectual strength of the first film, but where it does score heavily is in its breadth and depth of emotional content, and in the strength of the performances throughout. Nothing else bearing the Planet of the Apes name since has come anywhere close to the quality of this film.

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