Retro Ramblings

Reports from the dusty corners of filmland

This is why you should always install anti-virus software

Aah, the seventies. You can have anything you want, so long as it’s brown. I love seventies horror, sci-fi, comedy, all that stuff. And the more I see the more I think of the decade in shades of brown.

There were a whole rash of films during the sixties and seventies about evil children or unwanted, other-worldly pregnancies, such as Children of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist. Anxieties about the responsibilities that come with settling down and having a family no doubt helped propel these films to the top of the box office charts. The poster for Demon Seed leads you to believe that this is another of such films. It features a naked Julie Christie in a rather unusual position, with the tagline “Fear for her” in red writing underneath. This combined with the title suggests that she is having the lovechild of an evil denizen from the dark pits of hell.

The original movie poster

 

This impression is however entirely wrong. Never has a film title and poster conspired more to mislead its audience. For Demon Seed contains no trace of a demon of any kind, and very little in the way of seed. It’s actually about artifical insemination by super-computer. Now computers can be difficult at times, but nothing that Ctrl-Alt-Delete can’t usually fix.

So this movie actually fits into the series of films about rogue computers, and possibly rogue robots. There have been a few I can think of, including 2001 (1963), Dark Star (1974, but it is kind of a spoof of 2001 so probably doesn’t count), WarGames (1983) and Saturn 3 (1980). I watched WarGames loads when I was growing up, and really believed that I could also hack into mainframes and control the world’s defense systems through my Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k.

However, getting back to Demon Seed, as I watched it I felt suprised that I had never seen it before. It’s got Julie Christie, who was, and still is, one of Britain’s finest actresses, known for taking daring and unusual roles alongside more mainstream fair. She was also not afraid to take her clothes off should the role demand it (see Don’t Look Now (1973) for proof if you don’t believe me). The film also features a fine performance from Robert “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Vaughn, as the voice of the bizarre sentient computer Proteus IV. This is a computer so large it fills a vast subterranean cavern, designed to learn and think for itself in order to solve all the world’s problems, cure all known diseases and devise ingenious ways to extract fossil fuels. These days you could fit all that into a Blackberry, but in the seventies your average PC had to be the size of a medium-size family car just to play Pong.

Imagine it: you’re the world’s largest brain, a computer that is so complex it is part organic and can develop its own neural pathways. You have read all of man’s philosophy. You can solve the mysteries of the universe. You can find a cure for leukemia in less than a week. You are in a sense close to becoming a deity. What are you going to do with all that intelligence, insight and brain-power? Terrorising Julie Christie is obviously top on anyone’s list. Which is precisely what Proteus sets out to do.

The majority of the film is set solely inside Christie’s fully automated, computerised home. Her estranged husband built Proteus, and after leaving her forgets to switch off his network terminal in the basement, allowing the computer to take over, courtesy of security cameras, electronic doors and a robotic wheelchair with an arm. Christie is put through all manner of tortures as Proteus attempts to seduce, cajole and finally force her to give birth to his child. Yes, he wants to get it on. The worlds first union between man and machine. But not before she is sent almost to the brink of madness as he plays tricks on her mind, destroys parts of the house and uses his control of a rather too efficient heating system to almost fry her. There were many similarities  to the recent John Cusack horror film 1408 (2007). Indeed, on more than one occasion Christie looked exactly like this:

will this film never end?

I suspect that Cusack had seen Demon Seed at some point, as it involves being trapped alone and haunted/ messed with by a malign spirit/ computer. Then again, perhaps not. Either way, there is a striking likeness between the two. At one point Proteus appears to kill a young girl visiting the house, sending Christie into despair. She is then shown again fine and healthy, leaving Christie unsure as to which was reality.

Proteus proves that PCs can run more than one task at once. As well as terrorising, he can also generate groovy 2001 trip sequence-style visuals, generate spermatoza using Christie’s own DNA and build a rather odd bronze robot out of huge spinning diamond-shape metal structures, which link together like a Rubick’s puzzle and snake around the house to remind Christie who’s boss. It also provides a rather unique decapitation scene when it captures Christie’s would-be rescuer and wraps around him like a python.

I could go on describing this movie, but you might as well just watch it. It has a lot of really interesting stuff, and despite the silly premise and the fact that Christie has the world’s fastest pregnancy (28 days! What is she, a sea monkey?), it’s actually a really serious film. It deals with all sorts of issues, such as the dangers inherent in automation and relinquishing power to technology. It also addresses relationship problems and dealing with grief. All that and very subtly shot artifical impregnation. It’s certainly a far cry from the graphic and unintentionally amusing alien insemination scene from Inseminoid (1980). Proteus may be evil and pervy, but he’s still a gentleman. He sees having a child as the only way to become truly whole. As a parent that’s a sentiment I can agree with, although I’m grateful I didn’t have to strike up a relationship with a Commodore 64.

6 Responses to “Demon Seed (1977)”

  1. The increasing tension that builds up throughout the film I think is rather good and Christie’s desperation is tangible. Putting aside any derogatory opinions regarding the technological developments portrayed in the film, opinions that can only have arisen from our retrospective point of view, this is a great attempt at outlining the potential threat of machine to man long before The Matrix (et al.) came about.

    paulwjm

  2. I agree entirely. And it’s incredible to think that scientists are still trying to build computers and robots with AI. Don’t they watch movies?

    Adrian Smith

  3. Professor Frink
    You’ve got to listen to me. Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and the kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving.

    harveyobrien

  4. AI realisation is probably closer than it was thirty years ago. incidentally, I was reading about Philip K Dick (the deceased sci-fi author) and an ‘android’ that was built in respect to him and his work. It’s voice was synthesised to sound like Dick and it was programmed with many of his phrases, etc., then encased in a shell with extremely lifelike skin (with accompanying facial movements). The robot was put on display at various conventions over the US a few years back and it was reportedly possible to hold a reasonable but basic conversation with the thing, it’s eyes even following and focusing on the speaker with an ability to recognise human faces, etc. The likeness to the author was supposed to be a touch spooky. Quite a fascinating taster of what might be possible in years to come…

    paulwjm

  5. I have to say that it’s a good job they got someone as serious and gifted as Julie Christie to play the lead. Imagine what a mess this film might have been with a lesser actress in the part.

    Mike

  6. This film could so easily have turned into a camp comedy, but because of her taking it so seriously it manages to work. To see where this film could have gone, watch Saturn 3!

    Adrian Smith

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