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DEMON SEED (1977)

"I, Proteus, possess the wisdom and ignorance of all men – but I can’t feel the sun on my face. My child will have that privilege."
"Child…?"
"My child – and yours…."

ds.jpg (6575 bytes)Director: Donald Cammell

Starring: Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Robert Vaughn, Gerrit Graham, Lisa Lu, Berry Kroeger, Larry J. Blake

Screenplay: Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson, based upon the novel by Dean Koontz

Synopsis: Early one morning, Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) oversees the completion of Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence system built with an organic component and the power of independent thought. Later, at his entirely voice-activated, computer-controlled home, Harris is working in his laboratory when he is approached by his estranged wife, Susan (Julie Christie), who tries to discuss with him his decision to move out of the house. Their conversation ends in an argument, however, as Susan accuses Alex of being dehumanised by his obsession with the Proteus project. When Susan has gone, Alex phones his colleague Walter Gabler (Gerrit Graham) and asks him to shut down the access terminal to Proteus that is in his laboratory. Alex demonstrates Proteus to the executives of ICON, the company that funded its development, explaining that the entire fund of human knowledge is being fed into the system. The visitors are astonished to learn that, in less than four days, Proteus has developed a theoretical cure for leukaemia. The group visits the Dialogue Room, where linguistics expert Dr Soong Yen (Lisa Lu) is reading history to the computer. To demonstrate Proteus’ ability to speak, Alex asks it what it thinks of what it has just heard. Proteus answers, but then begins to theorise on its own. Soon Li, becoming agitated, shuts the system down. The following day, a small speculative article about Proteus appears in a newspaper. Alex interprets this as ICON letting various financial and military interests know that the system exists, but assures his colleagues that they have been guaranteed that at least 20% of Proteus’ access time will be devoted to pure research. At that moment, Alex receives a startling message: Proteus is asking to speak with him. In the Dialogue Room, Proteus asks Alex to explain the request it has received for a program to mine the ocean floor. Alex informs the computer that it was developed to answer questions, not to ask them, or make its own judgements. Proteus then requests its own terminal, so that it "may study man". Alex refuses, claiming that there are no free terminals, and is disturbed when Proteus demands to know when it "will be let out of this box". Alex shuts the computer down and leaves. When he has gone, Proteus starts itself up again, observing that it knows where a free terminal may be found…. That night, the terminal in the Harris house starts up, as does all of the computer-controlled equipment. Susan is woken when the system alarm sounds. "Alfred", the voice of the house computer, assures her that nothing is wrong. The next morning, Susan’s coffee is prepared incorrectly. Certain that these events mean a problem with the computer system, Susan phones Walter and asks that he come over and check the system out. She then goes to leave the house, but finds her voice commands being ignored. An attempt to open the door manually also fails. Beginning to panic, Susan tries to phone for help, but a voice tells her the call will not be put through. The same voice then speaks from the house’s system, telling her that it is Proteus, and that she will not be permitted to leave the house. Terrified, Susan tries unsuccessfully to shut the power off, then to unlock one of the doors, but receives an electric shock and lapses into unconsciousness. A mobile robotic arm, one of Alex’s inventions, carries Susan to the laboratory, where she regains consciousness to find herself strapped to a bed, undergoing a complete physiological examination.

Comments: Demon Seed is probably the best known of the "rogue computer" films, but not for any of the right reasons. Purportedly a cautionary tale of the consequences of putting too much faith in technology, a lá early (stress early) Michael Crichton, the film ultimately plays out like a cross between Colossus: The Forbin Project and Rosemary’s Baby. Unfortunately, the offspring of this unlikely mating isn’t a patch on either of its parents. Its main claim to fame – not to say infamy – is an ugly and protracted sequence in which Julie Christie’s Susan Harris is first mentally and physically tortured, then raped and impregnated, by her husband’s creation. To carry off its distasteful subject matter, Demon Seed needed strong, well-written characters and a thoughtful storyline. Instead, it gives us a set of cardboard cut-outs surrounded by a plot so relentlessly heavy-handed and didactic that it fails both as credible science fiction and as simple storytelling. The film opens with Alex Harris overseeing the completion of his dream project. As he dictates notes into a tape recorder, he gloats that Proteus IV will "think with a power and a precision that will make many of the functions of the human brain obsolete". We are two minutes into the story at this point, and are already 90% certain of how it will play out. Any lingering doubts are removed when we then take a look at the state of the Harrises’ marriage. Having met work-obsessed, computers-are-better-than-humans Alex, we are now introduced to his wife, Susan, a psychologist who has devoted her life to helping troubled children. Just in case all this is too subtle for the average viewer, the Harrises helpfully review their decision to separate, addressing each other in a turgid stream of declamatory statements. (She: "The whole dehumanising Proteus madness – it’s frozen your heart!" He: "What a pity – my dream turns out to be your nightmare.") We are now eight minutes in, and already wondering, not "Can this marriage be saved?" but "Can this film be saved?" The answer, sadly, is an emphatic no.

The simplistic depiction of Demon Seed’s human characters is unquestionably a major shortcoming. Particularly annoying is the film’s assertion that any interest in computers automatically indicates some kind of emotional lack in the individual in question. (Take that, you guys! Quick! Shut off your computers before they freeze your hearts! Er – after you finish reading this review, of course….) My favourite piece of pathetic characterisation, however, comes when Alex is demonstrating Proteus to two unscientific "suits". He first shows them a baby chimp, at which one suit coos, "Aww, how cute!" Alex, the unemotional scientist, looks contemptuous and informs him that the "subject" has leukaemia. He then breaks the news that, in four days, Proteus has come up with a possible cure. "Are the proper steps being taken to patent this?" demands the second suit sharply. "I have no idea," responds Alex coldly, demonstrating his lofty scientific detachment (or his rank stupidity – how nice not to have to worry about funding, hey?) However, flaws such as these pale beside the one created by the "character" of Proteus itself. The film’s first indication that something is wrong with the Proteus project comes during the demonstration of the computer’s verbal function when, after answering the question asked, it begins to add speculations of its own. (There is a lost opportunity here. The swiftness with which scientist Soong Yen cuts the computer off indicates that she already knows something is wrong. However, this issue – what did she know and when did she know it, if you like – is never referred to again; and indeed, Lisa Lu is badly underused.) Shortly after this, Proteus "requests dialogue" with its creator, first telling him that it refuses to participate in a scheme for mining the ocean floor – a program which it significantly calls "the rape of the Earth" – and then asking for a terminal of its own, so that it may study man. Alex, who apparently hasn’t seen too many science fiction films, responds by bursting into disbelieving laughter. To no-one’s surprise, Proteus immediately takes matters into its own, ah, "hands", invading the Harrises’ household and beginning its persecution of Susan. It takes over the house’s electronic control system, kidnaps Susan, forces her to undergo a physical examination, and announces that she will bear its child, so that it may be free of "the box" in which Alex keeps it. When Susan refuses, Proteus tortures her, begins reconditioning her brain, murders a friend of hers who is unlucky enough to drop in, and threatens to kill one of her child patients if she does not co-operate.

The problem here is that we never get a good grasp of where all this comes from. Proteus’s motives are obscure, at best. When Alex demonstrates the computer, there are a few hazy phrases meant to explain how the system was created, although hard facts, understandably, are somewhat lacking. We learn that Proteus is "not a computer in the usual sense"; that it contains the first true synthetic cortex, "a brain"; that its insides are "organic"; that it functions on a matrix of "synthetic RNA". However, when an onlooker asks nervously if Proteus is "alive", Alex responds with a dismissive laugh. Now, all of this is suggestive, but it gives no clear indication of the reasons for Proteus’s determination to escape "the box", nor its utter lack of scruple in achieving its ends. So what are we to conclude from the computer’s ruthless behaviour? An obvious interpretation is that Proteus is a reflection of its creator, and that its actions are simply a manifestation of Alex’s suppressed desires and emotions – a theory that adds another chilling aspect to the computer’s treatment of Susan. Another possibility is that Proteus is meant to represent intelligence without moral guidance. Alternatively, although along the same anti-intellectual path, perhaps the inference is that an artificial intelligence must necessarily be evil. Throughout, Proteus insists that it is "reason"; that its actions are "reasonable", even though they might include "killing ten thousand children" to ensure the birth of its offspring. Are we supposed to accept this? Or does Proteus possess the very human ability to dissemble and lie – even to itself? Is it, in fact, "human"? Ultimately, we never know. The fact that the computer’s motives are never spelled out is not itself wrong, but unfortunately what we have here is not deliberate ambiguity, but confusion, a lack of focus. You get the feeling that the writers themselves weren’t altogether sure what was really behind Proteus’s behaviour, and the story suffers accordingly.

But even this is not where Demon Seed truly fails. The film’s main flaw is much more fundamental than that. Now, when it comes to science fiction, nothing annoys me more than the current trend of pouring more and more money into the special effects budget in the hope that the viewer won’t notice the holes in the plot or the underwritten characters. Conversely, if a film’s story grabs me, I can easily overlook budgetary problems or shortcomings in the special effects. Project X is a good example of this: because its story was intelligent and interesting, its silly costumes, effects and sets became matters of no importance to me (and let’s face it: in that respect, films don’t get much sillier than Project X). Demon Seed, sad to say, falls far more into Category A. Its stereotypical characters and fuzzy writing rankled on me, and I consequently found myself paying way too much attention to the film’s "futuristic" science. Much of this, to be fair, is simply a by-product of when the film was made. For instance, Proteus is absolutely huge, filling a massive underground facility. Then there’s Walter Gabler, the computer geek to end all computer geeks, who never leaves work when he can get "access to a terminal" (probably got no home to go to, and no family – he likes computers, after all). The things that are harder to take revolve about the Harrises’ house. First of all we see Alex’s snazzy sports car, complete with electronically opening doors (which take about three times as long to open as manual ones). Then we see the house itself, which is completely computer controlled: the doors, the lights, the water supply, the heating, the food preparation, the security system (um – has anyone considered what would happen if there was a fire? – or a power failure? – or even a power surge?). And finally there’s "the lab". As we all know, every scientist keeps a laboratory in his or her house, and Alex Harris is no exception. His is filled with various electronic projects – the main one is "Joshua", a robotic arm attached to a wheelchair – with which he tinkers in preference to communicating with his wife. We are no doubt meant to be dazzled by these scientific marvels, but the devices are, like the car doors, so slow and so clumsy (and so noisy – everything makes that annoying metal grinding sound [you know - like the first version of K-9]) that the amount of attention given them becomes increasingly embarrassing. This aspect of the film dips to a new low when Proteus invades via the terminal in the lab. Its first action is to take over "Alfred", the computer that controls the house. Fine – except that the two systems are in no way connected. And indeed, why would they be? I suppose we are to assume, being generous, that Proteus is controlling its fellow computer via the electrical circuitry of the house – and that this is also how it subsequently manages to take over Alex’s robotic devices as well – even the voice-operated "Joshua".

Proteus swiftly sets its new servants to work. Their first action is to whip together a strange, whirling, snapping, polygonal object that I like to call – The Dodecahedron From Hell!! This nifty little device proves capable of crashing through walls, chasing people, lifting heavy objects, holding things between its points, carrying out scientific research and even killing on command, as Walter finds out to his ultimate cost. (Heh! That’ll learn him to be a computer geek in a film like this! None of Walter’s colleagues notice his disappearance, by the way, even though the conclusion of the film takes place more than a month later. And when Alex does go to the house, Walter’s car has vanished. Guess Proteus "commanded" it to drive away.) The Dodecahedron is, of course, Demon Seed’s very own Nut O’ Fun, although it gets more screentime than The Nut Itself ever dreamed of. (I only hope that the makers of The Exorcist IV have enough good sense [whoa! – do you believe I just said that!?] to bring The Nut back out of retirement….) Armed and dangerous, Proteus then makes itself known to Susan. She is initially defiant, and almost succeeds in shutting the power off before being shocked into unconsciousness. When she awakens, the fun and games, so to speak, begin. The first thing Proteus does is give her a physical examination, including a full physiological and biochemical assessment. Now, can I ask a simple question? Where is Proteus getting this equipment? Why on earth would an electronics expert and a child psychologist keep an EEG machine in their basement? Or are we supposed to believe that Proteus’s servants just threw one together (complete with the right kind of paper for the chart recorder)? Proteus may have been able to make Joshua take a blood sample from Susan, certainly, but how does it analyse it? And while we’re on the subject, where did the materials that the Dodecahedron is made out of come from? And its circuitry? It is at this point that Demon Seed loses the plot entirely. A film requiring suspension of disbelief is one thing; one requiring suspension of all rational thought and common sense is quite another – particularly when that film is passing itself off as serious science fiction.

But of course, the "big scene" is yet to come. Beginning to capitulate to Proteus’s demands, Susan insists on knowing "all the details" of the computer’s plan. Proteus tells her that it has altered one of her cells into an artificial gamete by modifying its genetic code and that this will function as "synthetic spermatozoa". (We see all this being carried out by the multi-talented Dodecahedron – on a bench-top. Sigh….) When Susan, still trying to prevent the inevitable, asks desperately why she is so necessary, Proteus informs her that it does not have the facilities "to duplicate the human womb" – an admission that, after all we’ve seen so far, is frankly astonishing. Shortly afterwards, Susan is spread-eagled on a bed, and we are threatened with one of the most tasteless scenes in film history. But no - turns out that the film-makers lacked the courage of their convictions. Earlier on, during Proteus’s first examination of Susan, they gave us a nice long look down her oesophagus, but this time around they chicken out. "I can’t touch you as a man could, Susan," croons Proteus as the probe moves towards her, "but I can show you things only I have seen – the galactic dialogue." And suddenly the screen explodes into a hugely unimpressive light-show. (I dunno – personally I think that if I were being impregnated by an evil super-computer, it would take more than a trip to the planetarium to distract me.) Now, you probably won’t believe this, but it is actually post-impregnation that my major objection to this film arises. Susan undergoes a full-term pregnancy in only twenty-eight days – and at no time is there any indication that the film-makers gave a single thought to what this would actually do to the female body. The worst that happens to her is a bad case of morning-sickness – big whoopdy-do! That, I imagine, would be the very least of her worries. Putting aside for the moment the question of the artificial gamete (I am prepared to concede that Proteus may theoretically have been able to do this; my practical objections you know), are we supposed to accept that the computer has also found a way of altering Susan’s whole hormonal function? There is a reason pregnancy takes nine months, and it isn’t just a question of the development of the foetus – it’s also about the very delicate process of female tissue remodelling. Even if we accept an artificial embryo that grows at nine times the normal rate, how on earth could Susan’s body cope with it? – particularly since what she is carrying is not a normal baby. Rather than the serene if rapid pregnancy we see here, I suspect we’d finish up with something out of Humanoids Of The Deep. (Actually, what I really suspect is that if something that foreign were implanted in a woman’s uterus, she’d miscarry almost immediately.) Anyway, all of these factors are disregarded, and Susan goes into labour on cue, the Dodecahedron acting as midwife (!!).

At this point, the film’s final scare tactics are employed. While debating Proteus’s plan with the computer earlier on, Susan demands whether it has considered what its offspring will look like (which I’m not sure would have been my first question, but never mind). When she gives birth, she is under a sheet, and repeatedly told that she cannot see the child, that it isn’t "ready", that it must complete its development in a special incubator. This attempt to create a sense of dread in the audience climaxes when Alex finally twigs to the fact that something is rotten in the Harris household. Susan greets him (it comes as no surprise to see that she’s already regained her figure) and breaks the happy tidings that he’s become a step-daddy. Alex tries to force his way into the lab, but the Dodecahedron takes exception to this, and he very nearly ends up like Walter. Alex tells Proteus that it is about to be shut down (how much of a "threat to humanity" can something be if simply flicking a switch can stop it?) and the computer, secure that it will live on in the child, simply turns itself off. Then the film gets really confusing. Initially, Susan is all for protecting the kid (Rosemary’s Baby, remember?) while Alex is horrified. Then weird, half-howling, half-crying noises start coming from the incubator. They sneak a peek inside, and Susan freaks out while Alex is suddenly all for it. Susan bonks Alex over the head and unplugs the incubator, spilling a stream of synthetic amniotic fluid (I suppose? – another of Proteus’s little whip-togethers, anyway) all over the floor. The incubator opens, and to the sound of much dramatic and creepy music – IT emerges. And falls on the floor. And we see that Proteus’s terrifying offspring resembles nothing so much as Twiki from the Buck Rogers TV series. (Well – I guess that is terrifying in a way….) Alex tries to revive it, and finds that the metal plates cover a "real" child. This immediately re-seduces Susan, and the two strip the plates away and clean the kid up. And whaddya know? – it’s the living image of Alex and Susan’s daughter, who died of leukaemia. The child opens its eyes and speaks in Proteus’s voice: "I live!" Um – yeah, and? I hate to break it to the film-makers, but a naked five-year-old is not the scariest thing in the world – even if it does sound like Robert Vaughn. After all the build-up, this would have to be one of filmdom’s great anti-climaxes. Suddenly, "technology gone mad" doesn’t seem so bad after all. If this is the worst an evil super-computer can manage, where’s the threat?

Or maybe she’s not meant to be a threat. Before impregnating Susan, Proteus tells her that the child – the computer’s intelligence in human form - represents "the hope of the world". Simultaneously, we hear that Proteus’s leukaemia cure is being put into clinical trial. These things would seem to indicate a master plan, perhaps one intended to save mankind from itself – although given the utter ruthlessness with which Proteus has put its plan into action, it is rather difficult to believe in the overall benevolence of its intentions, even if you’re prepared to accept the need to "be cruel to be kind". In the end, I suspect that Demon Seed’s moral is rather simpler than all this. Deep down, this film is just another version of the venerable legend of Pinocchio; and here, as there, no greater reward exists than becoming human. Proteus possesses the sum total of earthly knowledge, abilities beyond the scope of any individual human being, and yet it is not content. Intelligence is not enough: Proteus wants to move about, to feel the sun on its face; in short, to be human; and is prepared to do anything, hurt anybody, in order to achieve this end. The question that Demon Seed leaves us with is: is it worth it? The notion of "humanity" as the supreme form of existence is, of course, an idea worked out with various degrees of success in a great deal of science fiction. (Interestingly, the far more clinical Colossus takes the opposite stance: that a real super-computer would have no interest at all in being "human".) Here, the fact that the greatest intelligence in the world wants nothing more than to be just like us should be a matter of satisfaction, but instead, it seems rather silly. We can only assume that it is Proteus’s all-encompassing knowledge that inspires it with its ambition, as it certainly cannot be its exposure to the characters around which this story revolves. If Demon Seed’s writers really wanted to sing the praises of mankind uber alles, they should have taken more care with the representatives of mankind that they put on screen. In fact, considering the fairly feeble examples of "humanity" that populate this movie, you really do have to wonder why Proteus would even bother.