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Colossus - The Forbin Project (DVD)

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Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy - Science Fiction / Theatrical Release: 1970 / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Joseph Sargent / Actors: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent, William Schallert, George Stanford Brown ... / DVD released 2008-05-26 at Fabulous Films Ltd. / Features of the DVD: PAL

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    2 Reviews
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    • More +
      20.04.2009 11:45
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      Recommended as an off-beat engaging late night movie.

      Starring:

      Eric Braeden as Dr. Charles Forbin
      Susan Clark as Dr. Cleo Markham
      Gordon Pinsent as The President
      William Schallert as CIA Director Grauber

      This is an interesting 1970 take on the concept of 'mad supercomputer runs amok and takes over the world'. It takes place in the days when diplomatic relations between the Western world and Russia/the former USSR were still very strained and the possibility of nuclear war between the Superpowers was an underlying fear.

      It's the tale of a big powerful new computer system (back in the days when such things took up the whole of an enormous room and looked really impressive with lots of flashing lights everywhere), the brainchild of technical genius Dr Charles Forbin, and created for the purpose of controlling the United States' defence systems. In some ways it's a bit reminiscent of the later film 'War Games' (1983) in that it's again about a national defence supercomputer system gone wrong and has a similar look and feel.

      Being an IT engineer myself, I always enjoy these computer-related films and also have fun picking them apart technically. I've seen some pretty risible stuff, even as recently as an episode of CSI the other week, so even new films/TV shows get things wrong. This system was rather before my time, as I started in IT in the late 1980s, but still soon realized I was going to have to suspend my disbelief quite a lot.

      We start off with Dr Forbin being congratulated by the United States President, who has somewhat of a passing resemblance to President John Kennedy. The President gives a formal speech to the Press: 'As of 3:00a.m. Eastern Standard Time the defence of this nation, and with it the defence of the free world, has been the responsibility of a machine, a system we call Colossus. Far more advanced than anything we have previously built, capable of studying intelligence and data fed through it - and, on the basis of those facts only, deciding whether an attack is about to be launched on it. If it did decide that an attack was imminent, Colossus would then act immediately. It controls all its own weapons, and can select whatever it thinks appropriate.'

      Well, that sounds like a real recipe for disaster if ever I heard one. By 2009, we've seen a few celluloid examples of how this sort of thing can all end in tears, but in 1970 this was still relatively new ground, so we have to try to imagine ourselves back in those relatively innocent and trusting days.

      The President introduces Dr Charles Forbin, as 'The Father of Colossus'. He's a very handsome, dapper and likeably charismatic guy with a nice German accent and I found him rather sweet. This is followed by a big fun celebratory party for the President and all the Colossus staff. But, while everyone whoops it up, a series of beeps suddenly emanates from Colossus's terminal screen. In big red letters appears the text, 'THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM'.

      This causes mass freakout. After some phone calls, we hear that the Russians have just brought online a similar defence system called Guardian, which they had also been keeping a secret, and this is the 'other system'. Colossus and Guardian now communicate with each other, sending each other information and mathematical formulae, increasing each other's intelligence by what Dr Forbin measures as two hundred fold. Everyone marvels at all this, finding it fascinating.

      However, it turns out that Colossus very much has a mind of its own, and now enhanced with the massive increase in its AI, it gets too big for its own britches and starts making unreasonable demands. Attempts to override or re-program the system no longer have any effect, and Colossus begins making potentially fatal threats. When it carries one of these out by blowing up a Russian town, things quickly take a turn for the very worse for world safety.

      So we're now faced with a 'your worst nightmare' scenario of technology gone mad, bad and dangerous. It falls to Dr Forbin to try to deal with the monster he has created - but can he?

      My one big quibble with this story is, as an IT engineer, all I kept jadedly thinking was why didn't they just pull out the plug? Or if, as is of course more likely, the power supply was hard-wired in several places and/or in a tamper-proof vault as a failsafe, why not arrange an electrical blackout/powercut of the local area? Then wait for their emergency generator systems to run out of juice, and cut the relevant wiring and/or pull the relevant processor chips? They begin to talk about wanting to try to take the computer down via some sort of data overload - but really, pouring a big bucket of water into its CPU unit(s) would do the trick quicker and easier.

      There is also somewhat of a feeling of incredulity at some of the later measures Dr Forbin feels forced to take in order to deceive Colossus into stopping its surveillance of him for specific periods of time so that he can try to devise a way to bring it down. If you watch this you'll see what I mean and you'll probably find it pretty hilarious - and it's not even IT-related this time. (Hint: it's to do with sex - OK, that's probably given you a bit more interest in this film now.)

      But if you can suspend disbelief for a while, this is an intriguing film that is less dry than it probably sounds on paper. Overall, it's a good fun watch as a technological action movie in the days before glitzy special effects and CGI, where the human interest element is to the fore rather than big impressive explosions and whatnot.

      The characters are likeable and identifiable-with and are presented in a quite 'natural' way, with the cinematography being of a slightly cinema-verite style that makes it appear almost documentary-like, but combined also with a semi-artsy use of quirky camera angles.

      The musical score is of a perky avant-garde type with an almost computer-generated feel to it, complementing the 1970 concept of the 'computer age' subject matter well.

      The 'Colossus computer system' was actually made up of real computer kit supplied by Control Data Corporation as a method of self-promotion, as opposed to props of mocked-up boxes with flashing lights as would usually be the case, thereby adding convincing realism by way of authentic then-current state-of-the-art computer hardware.

      Also on ciao.co.uk as thereddragon.

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      • More +
        17.12.2008 07:11
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        As a computer named Colossus it certainly earns its moniker as you see how seriously huge the thing is in the opening scenes in its cavernous type home that looks a bit like the laboratory scenes out of Forbidden Planet", the opening scene shows the level of security protecting Colossus and includes 2 steel blast doors and a radiation shield. From the exterior shots Colossus is clearly kept in some sort of Cheyenne Mountain style complex and it made me wonder if this is where Wargames got a lot of its ideas from.

        The way The President talks about how intelligent it is but without any emotion makes you also think of Skynet so it seems Terminator also stole ideas from this movie. Dr Charles Forbin (whom the project is named after) is the worlds foremost authority on computers explains the workings and location of Colossus (in Colorado, where Cheyenne Mountain is. He also explains Colossus will defend itself if attacked (kind of reminds me of that computer in Superman 3 as well!) and also debunks the idea that it may be an artificial intelligence but he does not use that term.

        The Russians also have a machine they are going to activate called "Guardian" looking after Soviet defence.

        Forbin returns to the human run Colossus programming centre in California where he and his staff investigate the system (2 of his staff turning out to be Miss Fields played by Marion Ross better known from Happy Days and Dr. Chin played by sci-fi stalwart James Hong best known as Choo from Blade Runner) and a rather interesting answer to the question "How long does this usually take" (1100 CPU seconds nicely dating the film by that measurement of processing time).

        Briefing The President Forbin says everything is OK apart from the Heuristic Programming Section (possibly reflecting the fact the script writer may have read 2001: A Space Odyssey and was thinking about HAL 9000), Colossus is given permission to contact Guardian under the condition the connection can be broken if it starts to exchange classified information.

        They also discover Colossus is making new scientific discoveries previously unknown to man then Guardians calculations catch up and synchronize with Colossus and a few moments later they both stop. Colossus informs them that inter system language has been established (shocking, 2 such powerful computers unaware of binary or hexadecimal!) and then the 2 computers start to communicate on screen in binary (I had to laugh at the female member of Forbin's staff who described it as a "new inter system language" with a man on the staff saying it was "a language only those machines can understand", rather stupid as binary code has been in use since 1946 and this film was made in 1970).

        The Russian Premier calls The President, afraid their machine may reveal defence secrets and the 2 men agree to turn both computers off at the same time.

        Colossus responds by threatening them by saying if the link is not restored action will be taken immediately. The President tells Colossus they won't reconnect it and it then launches a missile at Russia, obviously Guardian retaliates with a counter launch against America. Unfortunately Guardian screws up by launching on an Air Force Base where Colossus had only fired on an oil field. If they were exactly as intelligent they would have both targeted identically strategic targets proving one of them is dumber than a mule).

        When asked to used countermeasures against the Russian missile Colossus refuses unless the link is restored forcing them to restore the link between the 2 computers but when asked if the Russian missile will be shot down Colossus says nothing but the missile is confirmed as destroyed however the Russians were unable to restore Guardians link and their oil field and its associated town were wiped out. The President covers the whole thing up with a fake story about a test fire and The Russian Premier issues a cover story about a meteorite hit.

        Colossus demands Forbin be ready to speak to him after communicating to Guardian stating "action will be taken" if Forbin isn't there. It appears Guardian ordered the execution of its Russian creator stating Moscow would be vaporised if the meeting between the 2 computers creators wasn't stopped. After returning Colossus orders that Forbin has video and audio surveillance to cover him at all times (very Big Brother!) stating it will launch on Washington if not obeyed and Forbin is forced to comply. Forbin asks one of the female staff to pretend to be his mistress so he can secretly pass information to his staff. Forbin then shows Colossus the complex and how it is covered by cameras (it appears Forbin was the subject of the very 1st 24 hour reality show!).

        The following Forbin gets his 1st visit with his "mistress" which is chaperoned by Colossus,but finally gives them privacy when they are in bed together allowing them to plan the overload. The American & Russian military also discuss how to sabotage their own missiles to render them useless.

        When Colossus decides it will aim all its missiles at countries not under its control its interesting to see it thinks both London, Copenhagen, Paris and Italy aren't under Allied control (especially as the UK, Rome, Denmark & France have been Nato members since 1948) and rather stupidly The President openly talks about the plan to sabotage the missiles (did he forget there was a Colossus terminal only a few feet away from him?) as does the Colonel in charge (stating exactly where they were planning to start whilst standing right next to an operational Colossus screen communicating in binary). I'm not exactly sure how the top brass thought a simple piece of misdirection and sleight of hand would fool a self aware supercomputer but you do clearly see them try it and it does appear to be successful.

        The attempt to overload Colossus fails and the men responsible are executed. Colossus addresses the world on TV and proclaims itself absolute ruler and explains it knew about the missile sabotage and then detonates them as an example to prevent further attempts at sabotage against it (so the fake detonators planted inside the missiles were somehow forced into operation? how was that done then?) stating it will rule the planet.

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