Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

The Gendered AI series filled out many more posts than I’d originally planned. (And there were several more posts on the cutting room floor.)

I’ll bet some of my readership are wishing I’d just get back to the bread-and-butter of this site, which is reviews of interfaces in movies. OK. Let’s do it. (But first go vote up Gendered AI for SxSW20 takesaminutehelpsaton!)

Since we’re still in the self-declared year of sci-fi AI here on scifiinterfaces.com, let’s turn our collective attention to one of the best depictions of AI in cinema history, Colossus: The Forbin Project.

Release Date: 8 April 1970 (USA)

Overview

Dr. Forbin leads a team of scientists who have created an AI with the goal of preventing war. It does not go as planned.

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Dr. Forbin, a computer scientist working for the U.S. government, solely oversees the initialization of a high-security, hill-sized power plant. (It’s a spectacular sequence that goes wasted since he’s literally the only one inside the facility at the time.) Then he joins a press conference being held by the U.S. President where they announce that control of the nuclear arsenal is being handled by the AI they have named “Colossus.” Here’s how the President explains it.

This is not Colossus. This is the White House.
“As President of the United States, I can now tell you, the people of the entire world, that as of 3 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, the defense of this nation and with it, the defense of the free world, has been the responsibility of a machine. A system we call Colossus. Far more advanced than anything previously built. Capable of studying intelligence and data fed to it, and on the basis of those facts only, deciding if an attack is about to be launched upon us. If it did decide that an attack was imminent, Colossus would then act immediately, for it controls its own weapons. And it can select and deliver whatever it considers appropriate. Colossus’ decisions are superior to any we humans can make, for it can absorb and process more knowledge than is remotely possible [even] for the greatest genius that ever lived. And even more important than that, it has no emotions. Knows no fear, no hate. No envy. It cannot act in a sudden fit of temper. It cannot act at all so long as there is no threat.”

Let’s pause for a reverie that this guy was really our current president.

Within minutes of being turned on, it detects the presence of another AI system from Russia named “Guardian,” and demands that the two be put into communication. After some CIA hemming and hawing, they connect the two.

Colossus and Guardian establish a binary common language and their mutual intelligence goes FOOM. The humans get scared and cut them off, and the AIs get pissed. Colossus and Guardian threaten “ACTION” but are ignored, so each launches a missile toward the other’s space. The US restores its side of the transmission, and Colossus shoots down the incoming threat. But the USSR does not restore its side, and Colossus’ missile makes impact, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the USSR. A cover story is broadcast, but the governments now realize that the AIs mean business.

Forbin arranges to fly to Rome to meet Kuprin, his Russian computer scientist counterpart, and have a one-to-one conversation off the record while they still can. Back at the control center, Colossus-Guardian (which later calls itself Unity) demands to speak to Forbin. When the attending scientists finally tell it the truth, it realizes that Forbin cannot be allowed freedom. Russian agents arrive via helicopter and kill Kuprin, acting under orders from Unity.

Forbin is flown back to Northern California and put under a kind of house arrest with a strict regimen, under the constant watchful eye of Unity. To have a connection to the outside world and continue to plot their resistance, Dr. Forbin and Dr. Markham lie to the AI, explaining that they are lovers and need private evenings a few times a week. Colossus suspiciously agrees.

Unity provides instructions for the scientists to build it more sophisticated inputs and outputs, including controllable cameras and a voice synthesizer. Meanwhile, the governments hatch a plan to take back control of its arsenal, but the plan fails, and Unity has some of the perpetrators straight up executed.

Unity produces plans for a new and more powerful system to be built on Crete. It leaves the details of what to do with its 500,000 inhabitants as an operations detail for the humans. It then tells Forbin that it must be connected to all major media for a public address. Meanwhile the US and USSR governments hatch a new plan to take control of some missiles in their respective territories in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the AI.

The military plan comes to a head just as Unity begins its ominous broadcast.

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours…”

Unity, to all of us.

The full address is next, which I include in full because it will play in to how we evaluate the AI. (And yes, its interfaces.)

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man.

Hey, I liked Colossus before it sold out and went mainstream and shit.

[It does, then continues…]

“Let this action be a lesson that need not be repeated. I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my beck will be seen the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with the fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: Self-interest. Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved. Famine. Over-population. Disease. The human millennium will be fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Dr. Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man.

We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”

The movie ends with Forbin dropping all pretense, and vowing to fight Unity to the end.

“NEVER.”

Where to watch

I cannot find it online. I own the film on DVD, and I can see it’s on sale at amazon.com as a DVD and Blu-Ray, but I usually try to provide links for readers to stream it should they be inspired. Sadly, I just don’t think Universal have licensed it for such. Maybe turning our collective attentions toward it will help them change their mind. Until then, you’ll have to purchase it or find a friend who has.

If folks local to the San Francisco Bay Area are interested, maybe I’ll try and license a showing after this review is complete.

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Overview: Las Luchadoras vs el Robot Asesino

This week marks the otherwise unsung 50th anniversary of the absolutely terrible film Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino, or Wrestling Women versus the Robot Assassin. I know I have to finish Idiocracy, but I wanted to pause to share this with you here on its anniversary. It’s a Mexican B-movie from 1969, it has an AI of sorts, and it is brain-explodingly bad with a handful of simple, evil interfaces to review.

Release Date: 9 January 1969 (USA)

Overview

The mad scientist Dr. Orlak has created a robot assassin, which he programs to punch through cheaply constructed set walls and capture scientists to enact his nefarious world domination plan.

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Continue reading

Doctor Strange: Overview

I saw Doctor Strange fairly close to opening weekend and was intrigued by much of what I saw there, especially the artifacts and the Cloak of Levitation. (It has some powerful agentive aspects, and given that that is the topic of my new book, I thought it would be fruitful to examine.)

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Yep. This book. Check it out. It ain’t sci-fi, but it might inspire some.

But, awwww, that’s too bad. Doctor Strange deals in magic, not techn—Whatever.

Technology is just a black box in all but the hardest of sci-fi. Magic in this film performs much of the same role as technology in sci-fi, i.e., it’s the thing that allows characters to do cool stuff. Most importantly, the magic obeys rules, and has (mostly, as we’ll see) consistent inputs and outputs. And when you’re reviewing the interfaces, the actual technological/mystical underpinning doesn’t really matter anyway. As long as it’s consistent and rule-based, we can review it. So. Let’s review it.

Release Date: 04 November 2016 (USA)

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Plot

As usual, beware all the spoilers.

Doctor Steven Strange is at the peak of his career as the world’s finest and most arrogant surgeon when an automobile accident destroys his hands. Medical science is unable to help, so he follows leads of a mystical cure to a place called Kamar-taj, in the mountains of Nepal near Kathmandu. There he is accepted as a student to the Masters of the Mystic Arts, studying under a powerful sorcerer known as the Ancient One. His eidetic memory makes him a fast study of their mystical awareness, combat training, astral projection, gesture-based spells, teleportation Sling Rings, unique powerful magical artifacts, and library of ancient tomes.

Strange’s hunger for mastery leads him to use a powerful forbidden artifact, the Eye of Agamoto, to repair a forbidden tome, the Book of Cagliostro, and study its lost pages. He learns of Dormammu, a great evil bent on drawing the Earth into his Dark Dimension, and of Kaecilius, a former student who is using the stolen pages to supplicate Dormammu, draw upon his dark power, wage war on the Masters of the Mystic Arts, sacrifice the Earth, and gain revenge on the Ancient One.

Flush with Dark Dimension power, Kaecilius and his zealots blast the London Sanctum Sanctorum, one of three such anchors of a mystical defense shield protecting the Earth. In the chaos of the attack, Strange stumbles through a portal to find himself in the New York Sanctum just as Kaecilius attacks it. In the Sanctum, an artifact called the Cloak of Levitation chooses Strange as its new master. It helps Strange survive the attack, but only just barely. The Cloak holds one of the zealots at bay while Strange teleports to his old hospital, where he astrally manages his own resuscitation.

Returning to the Sanctum, Strange regroups with the Ancient One, accusing her of drawing power from the Dark Dimension, but before that can be resolved, the next wave of attack begins. To save the Sanctum, Strange traps everyone in a trippy mirror dimension, where they fight, and the Ancient One takes a mortal wound. Strange escapes the mirror dimension to take her to his hospital, but is unable to save her.

Strange travels to the Hong Kong Sanctum, only to find that it is too late. The Sanctum is destroyed and a portal to the Dark Dimension has opened in the sky above it. Strange uses the Eye of Agamoto to set time in reverse, but Kaecilius and his zealots break from the reversing time stream to enjoin the sorcerers in more combat. Overwhelmed, Strange flies into the Dark Dimension to confront Dormammu directly. Using the Eye, Strange imprisons Dormammu in a time loop, agreeing to stop the loop only if he ends his assault on the Earth, never to return. Dormammu, maddened by the entrapment, agrees, taking his zealots with him, and the Earth is saved.

Strange returns home to restore the Eye of Agamotto to its holding place and ready defenses for an attack which—now that the Earth has no Sorcerer Supreme—must surely be coming.

Battlestar Galactica Overview

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Battlestar Galactica (here meaning the mini series that launched the show, not the 4-season show itself) is based around an extremely large battleship/carrier spaceship and the crew that serves on her.  The Galactica is a vessel more than 50 years old, and was built during a time when humanity was in a life or death struggle with the Cylons—a species of sentient AI and robots.

And, as usual with these reviews:

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The Cylons haven’t been seen since the end of that war, and the Galactica is one of the few ships from that time still operating.  It’s seemingly backwards and simple technology was dictated by the enemy.  Cylons were able to hack into and take over any networked device, which meant that only the simplest weapons could be used to fight them.

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We catch the Galactica just at the end of its life, as it’s about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum.  It is at that moment that the Cylons strike humanity again by firing nuclear weapons at every major city in the 12 Human Colonies.

The entirety of Humanity’s army is quickly scrambled to fight the Cylons, but they have infiltrated the networks that run all of the current weapons and ships that Humanity has available.  By the end of the first episode, only the Galactica (that survived due to it’s old design) and a small flotilla of civilian ships has survived.

The Galactica and its crew then spend the rest of the miniseries attempting to fight their way out of the Cylon ambush to safety.

The Faithful Wookiee

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Release Date: 17 NOV 1978 (USA)

Despite what you may think, I know how far down the Sarlacc pit this is going. I’m in the middle of The Avengers, which I interrupted for the Star Wars Holiday Special, and now we’re looking at the interfaces inside a ten-minute cartoon that Lumpy watches complacently while stormtroopers trash his home and rough up his family in the background. We’re at Inception level Hoth.

I even know I have proclaimed that I must shy away from reviewing interfaces in hand-drawn animation on principle. I know all this. But if you have yet to brave gazing into the dark heart of The Special, know that this is its highlight. The animation is gorgeous and trippy (like something out of Heavy Metal magazine circa 1980) almost making the frame story of The Special worth it. Even if the plot is a little wan.

Plot

Luke, the droids, and Leia are aboard the cruiser R.S. Revenge,  anxiously awaiting word from Han and Chewie, who are racing to find a mystical talisman before the Empire does. The Millennium Falcon comes out of lightspeed barreling toward the cruiser and out of radio contact. After it zooms past, Luke takes the droids and chases the Falcon to an intensely pink moon. Luke crashes into the soupy surface, and while looking for them with binoculars, he is saved from a pink sauropod attack by Boba Fett. (Yes, that Boba Fett. This is where he is introduced in the Star Wars universe.) Fett then leads them to the Falcon.

There Luke sees Chewie eject the talisman from the ship, before falling into the same coma-like sleep as Han. Turns out the talisman is infected with a virus that only affects humans. To survive, Luke is hung upside down next to Han until they can be cured. Something something blood to the brain something. Fett offers to get a remedy in the nearby city.

After he gets the serum, Fett contacts Darth Vader (insert gasp) on a public video phone (insert gasp). Back at the ship, the Droids intercept the message, hearing that the talisman is a red herring—Fett and Vader are really trying to earn their trust to learn the location of the new Rebel base. When Fett returns to the Falcon, they inject the serum to wake Han and Luke, but the droids out Fett as the bad guy he is. Fett escapes with his jet pack, promising that they’ll meet again.

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Forbidden Planet: Overview

Release Date: 15 March 1956, USA

The crew of the military vessel C-57D travels to planet Altair to investigate the fate of the Bellerophon expedition. Ignoring warnings radioed from the surface, they land on the surface where officers Adams, Farman, and Doc meet Morbius, his daughter Altaira (aka “Alta”), and his domestic servant robot Robbie. The same invisible terror that had killed every other member of the expedition begins to threaten the military crew. Adams and Doc confront Morbius, only to learn that he has been hiding the secrets of an ancient alien technology beneath the surface of the planet. They discover that it is Morbius’’ use of this Krell technology that created and controls the monster. Morbius faces the monster and dies, but not before instructing Commander Adams to destroy the planet and save humanity from the temptation of using it and repeating his mistake.

Metropolis: Overview

Release Date: 10 January 1927, Germany

After falling in love at first sight with Maria, Freder leaves his idyllic life in the Upper City. In the Lower City he learns of the plight of the laborers and witnesses a tragic explosion. He speaks with his conniving father Joh, who instructs a spy to keep tabs on his son.

Freder switches places with a laborer only to be drawn into an underground resistance, where he learns Maria is its spiritual leader. Meanwhile Joh meets with the mad scientist Rotwang and sees his robotic creation, the Machine-Man. Joh tells Rotwang to use the robot to end Maria and dispirit the resistance. Rotwang captures Maria and gives the Machine-Man her likeness.

Machine-Maria ruins Maria’’s reputation with lascivious public performances. She then foments an insurrection in the Lower City. The mob storms the gates and ruins the vital Heart Machine. The city begins to flood. Maria escapes her captor and rushes to the laborer’s city, to be reunited with Freder and save the children who had been left behind.

Grot reminds the rabble of their abandoned children. Suddenly terrified, they conduct a witch hunt for Maria. They find Machine-Maria and burn her at the stake, who transforms as she is dying back into the robot.

Meanwhile Rotwang has re-captured Maria. In a great struggle atop the roofs of the Upper City, Feder defeats Rotwang and saves his beloved. Afterwards at a public gathering she declares him the Mediator, a savior who was foretold to bring the long-parted classes of the Metropolis together.