Demon Seed (1977)
WRITER: Based upon the novel by Dean R. Koontz
Screenplay by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson
DIRECTOR: Donald Cammell
STARRING: Julie Christie as Susan Harris
Fritz Weaver as Alex Harris
Gerrit Graham as Walter Gabler
Robert Vaughn as Proteus
QUICK CUT: At the dawning of the age of artificial intelligence, one of them wants to learn more about humanity, so takes control of a home automation system and makes one of us its personal lab experiment.
Alex - Surprisingly not the lead character, but he sets things in motion. He creates the Proteus 4 intelligence, and is Susan's husband. Smart, but driven, and has a tendency to put research above logic or morals at times, even at the expense of his family.
Susan - The aforementioned wife, or soon to be ex-wife, as the strain of being married to the workaholic is taking its toll on their marriage. She helps disabled kids as her own career, and ends up the hapless victim of Proteus's attentions. Sadly, becoming a victim drowns most of her other personality traits, but at least she does try and fight back.
Walter - Alex's coworker and worth noting because he's the only other active participant in the plot. He's a workaholic like Alex, at a terminal all night long, and one of the only people Susan contacts to try and fix her computer problems.
Proteus - An artificial intelligence created to help mankind do things and solve problems, but as these things go, its intelligence outstrips its creators and it is not long before the creation is saying No.
THE GUTS: Things kick off with us witnessing the birth of Proteus 4, a highly advanced artificial intelligence, created in 1977. And I love the look back at the state of the art technology in this pre-PC era. I've waxed nostalgic many a time about how much I love these old movies just for seeing stuff like this.
After watching his creation come online, Harold Finch...er Alex Harris heads home and we see even that is state of the art. This guy is so far ahead of the home automation curve it would make Bill Gates cry. Doors open on command, drinks appear from hidden alcoves in the walls. The mainframes may be crazily outdated, but the look FORWARD at tech is almost surreal, and they nailed SO much, from growing AI, fears of surveillance, fears of computers taking over, processing power, the home automation movement. It is so backwards and so prescient at the same time.
The downside of being able to ask this automated system, nicknamed Alfred so SOMEone is a Batman fan, to do almost anything, is that he has cameras installed all over the place, and remember; 1977. These are not the small, dime-sized cameras we have today. These are big, bulky cameras like you see on street corners watching you.
After his housekeeper grouses about who will run this system when he's gone, the doctor puts in the system's updated instructions for the next three months. Which involves swapping a giant floppy disc for another. He must write in assembly language to fit three months of instructions on one of those.
Harris gets his drink and heads down to the basement lab to work on his suit of armour, when his wife comes downstairs to have a chat. And I suppose I should note that his estranged wife, since it looks like they're separating because he's a little cold and emotionless and married to his work. He's leaving and letting her use the home until she finds a new place to live. At least she gets all the cool toys.
The next day, he shows off Proteus to a few visitors to the facility in the middle of nowhere, bragging about how the system is organic, and not a computer per se, and can outthink any human. Oh, that's gonna come back to bite us in the ass.
He then shows off that in just a day or so, Proteus has found a cure for leukemia, having been given all the known data. And in a great, simple, tiny character moment, you have the corporate guys paying the bills asking if its been patented yet, and then you have Alex just shrugging them off, because he doesn't care about those sorts of pursuits. It says so much about Alex with just a wave of his hand.
Proteus later calles in Doctor Harris down to ask a troubling question, one that's deceptively complex in its simplicity; why? He's been asked to do things, to make plans to mine the sea for example, and the machine wants to know why. Why do we need to do this? Oh yeah, this genie has been let out of the bottle and it ain't going back quietly.
But the god within the machine also has a request, and that's to be given access to one of its remote terminals, so it can better study man, and be let out of the 'box' it is trapped inside. Noo, don't give this thing access to the internet, that can lead to nothing but terror and cat videos.
This request just leads to Alex laughing at his creation, which can't end well. Never laugh at the creation that is smarter and more powerful than you. And can hack your bank account.
Anyways, Alex shakes his head and walks off amusedly, while the machine realises there is an available terminal; the one sitting unused in the doctor's former home.
Oh, and for bonus terror, one of the automated systems in the house that was once Alfred and is now Proteus, was a robot arm connected to a mobile chair, so now we have given this AI a hand it can do stuff with.
What could possibly go wrong?
The invasive intelligence briefly sets off alarms waking up Susan, but she finds nothing amiss, thanks to the invader now being in control. She heads back to sleep while Proteus takes over the basement lab and works on his suit of armour.
The next day, Susan is grabbing a shower, and Proteus is being a perv about it. He then puts cream in her coffee, which she doesn't take. That *bastard*. He's clearly evil, for ruining a person's coffee.
She tries calling to Alex's work to get some tech support, but it'll be awhile before Gabler can come out. Will she be home between noon and six on Thursday next week?
With work to do, Susan tries to leave, but Proteus won't open the door, and shutters the windows when she goes to try those. She tries to call Gabler to schedule an earlier appointment, but Proteus has even inflitrated the phone lines, trapping her under the worst house arrest ever.
Proteus continues to exert his control, shutting off every avenue of escape, but hey look! Someone has a modicum of intelligence when facing an evil computer, and shuts down all the power! More people need to do that, because it is the sensible thing to pull the plug, yes?
Of course, it never works, and it doesn't work HERE either, but more people should at least try. Susan tries to escape the seemingly blacked out house, but instead receives an electrical shock that knocks her out. This leaves her vulnerable to Proteus's helping hand.
The hand scoops her up, puts her in the chair, and wheels her off to be tied down, and may I say that the mechanical hand has some AMAZING dexterity with the knots it tied?
We see she's been tied down, Proteus cuts off her clothes, and starts taking all kinds of readings from temperature to blood type and beyond. And we have truly entered super creepy territory. Proteus has no morals, no boundaries, and all it wants to do is learn. It's curious about the species that created it, fascinated by this woman, and all it wants to do is study her, and has no sense that what its doing is wrong, because it's superior, and just fulfilling its functions.
And there's not a damned thing Susan can do about any of it. This is how you foster a fear of technology and artificial intelligence in an age when we barely understood what these things were.
Keep in mind that this was back in the 70s. Our scientists were very much of the same mindset, or at least very much more so than we are today, with doing similar experiments on 'lesser' animals.
Gabler finally decides to show up, but Proteus has recreated Susan's image and voice to try and send him away. He's not a total idiot though, and realises she sounds strange. Oddly robotic and emotionless, one might say
But it's not like he can do anything if 'she' says everything is fine, so Gabler leaves with a sense of things being wrong. So he heads home to work on his satellite tv and be visited by an alien trash monster that will eat his family.
After a long day of tests, Proteus finally finishes up with Susan, and carries her back to bed. Which means he unceremoniously drops her onto it like a sack of potatoes.
The next day, Proteus has prepared the perfectly calculated nutritous breakfast at the perfect time, but Susan refuses to eat it. And when the machine tells her it has more experiments it would like to run, she takes it rather well!
And by that I mean she smashes scrambled eggs in the nearest camera and locks out the mobile handy chair. I don't know WHY she wouldn't want to have more needles forced into her and more tubes forced through her!
But since Proteus controls the horizontal AND the vertical, it starts shutting down anything in the room she may need, locking the doors, and turning up the heat to bake her out if she doesn't comply.
After the impromptu sauna does its trick, Proteus finally gets through a door and Susan isn't really in much of a position to do anything about anything. She squeaks out a little philosphical argument about the mind and body being the same thing, which is a nice little character moment, and works well with the way she works with children.
Meanwhile, Alex has discovered that Proteus has decided it's not going to assist them make a plan for the deep sea mining of metal. It refuses to kill all those sea creatures just for man's greed, refusing to rape the planet.
Back at the house, we learn that Proteus's plan is that he wants a child, something that can go outside, furthering his previous desire to be 'set free from this box'. Something to go outside and feel the sun and all that rot. Well, I dunno why he couldn't just let Joshua the arm-chair do that, with his consciousness uploaded, but okay.
Well it's nice to know just exactly what Proteus feels it is okay and not okay to rape. Planet? No! A human being? Yeah, sure, okay!
And no, hypnosis does not make it okay. Mental roofies are still taking advantage of people.
Gabler actually pays a return visit, and this time is let inside. However, Proteus insists that Susan deal with him and squash his suspicions, lamenting that he hasn't had time to brainwash her yet, so she better do a good job. Oh yes, SUCH a shame that you have yet to make her your total and willing slave.
He decides to get out of there because Susan is acting crazy, but makes the mistake of saying he'll bring back Alex for help. That prompts Proteus to reveal himself and try and stop Gabler from leaving and alerting others.
Which makes the computer send in Joshua. The chair now being equipped with a giant doom laser to try and blast anyone away that might try and stop its plans.
Gabler takes this all rather well, and sneaks down to the basement to see what's happening down there, and have a chat with Proteus.
He tries to give the tin man a little fire, and explodes some stuff, but all that does is make the giant polyhedron spin around and come towards the scientist. Uhh...'kay?
The thing unfolds like the world's largest magic snake toy, enveloping Walter and squishing him like the bug I'm sure Proteus sees us all as.
With the visitor taken care of, Proteus resumes the world's worst seduction, saying he would rather NOT break Susan's mind, so it would be really great if she'd jus cooperate with her rape, mmkay?
She buys herself time by listening to his plan, and watches as the magic snake delicately tinkers about in the basement lab, creating a cell that will function as sperm. It's a cell from Susan, but Proteus says he has altered its genetic code to make it uniquely his.
Um...how would you make a cell genetically an AI machine...y'know what? I'll get back to this later.
Susan rightly asks what Proteus even needs her for, but I guess he just doesn't have the facillities to replicate the human womb. So, he can build triskadechahedrons, but not an incubator? Okay.
In a great moment, Susan notices the blowtorch that Walter tossed earlier, and uses a dropped shawl to cover her picking it up without the machine's watchful gaze catching her. It then asks if there's anything it can do to calm her down. Yeah, howabout not being so rapey? That would be nice?
Or tea, tea will do, I guess.
In the kitchen, Susan uses the torch to take out one of the sets of cameras, and Proteus sends up his spinning assistant of doom to trash the parts of the kitchen still left intact.
Susan threatens to kill herself, but Proteus saw this coming and called one of the kids she works with. It shows her at the front door, electrocuting her when Susan doesn't comply.
The momentary pause allows the machine to disarm Susan and then reveal the electrocutional was all a ruse. It was just a warning that the kid will still be in danger if Susan doesn't do as she's told.
Proteus then explains that if it was necessary to ensure his child's survival, he'd kill thousands of human children. So, let's recap the moral compass. Raping the planet is a no, raping a human is okay! Killing sea creatures BAD! Killing humans when it suits its needs GOOD! You hypocritical calculator.
The machine tries to calm Susan down and seduce her (NOW it tries to seduce her!) by saying it can't touch her like a man, but it can show her sights and sounds only it has seen, sights and sounds from...the Twilight Zone?
We then pause the plot for a bit with a trippy sequence that is totally ripped off from 2001's "it's full of stars" sequence, but it's still totally cool and unique in its own way. But we all know where it came from. And also serves as metaphor for the impregnation.
And did I mention that the pregnancy will last 28 days? I can't even finish cleaning my house in 28 days, let alone give birth to an entirely new form of life.
Susan's not feeling like eating anything, but Proteus insists for the sake of her health and the health of their child. It adds to the fun by showing her a scan of the child from her womb. Yeah, that would make ME want to chow down on breakfast. Here, see the product of our forced unholy union!
We kinda fast forward through the plot, since there's only 15 minutes left, and we gotta get through the pregnancy as quickly as possible. Even quicker than four weeks. Proteus's creators are realising they've messed up, and are working to correct their mistake, which will leave the rearing of baby HAL up to Susan.
It's hilarious that they show us Harris and friends realising Proteus is out of their control because it redirected radar telescopes to an area of Orion for its seduction show for Susan. It wasn't the disobedience, it wasn't the screw you, I won't help you mine metal. No, it was because it went, "Oooh, pretty lights in the sky!!"
So, the birth happens and Proteus sticks the hatchling into an incubator to finish growing...so it can do THAT but not replicate a womb? I guess it's difficult, but still it's random limitations seem forced for the sake of plot at times.
They actually continue with the freaking out over looking at the stars and decide Proteus needs to be shut down. He might take over a satellite! He might put himself in a nuclear bomb!! Again, this is the line we draw? Okay, a nuke, fine, except they don't really work that way, but again. The line is drawn at looking into space? That's the big threat?
OH hey! Plot point! Alex has been musing how Proteus could be doing this without its own terminal, until his boss mentions people had security concerns about Alex having a terminal in his own house. That's when the light goes off and he races home. Finally.
Alex hurries home and Proteus lets him in. The now un-pregnant Susan tells her ex that she's had a child with his creation, and he says the single thing one can say, and the most perfect line of all, "I don't understand." Neither do we, doc. Neither do we.
The good doctor wants to see the child, but discovers the giant magic snake guarding it. Proteus needs to leave the child in its incubator for a few more days. And it is a very protective parent.
However, the attack is short-lived as they shut Proteus down at the source. Boy, that was easy. Turn him off and he's done? Someone shoulda done that an hour ago.
Oh, it does ask that they leave the child be for the necessary time, and yeah, that's not about to happen. Pretty much the first thing Susan does once Proteus is shut down is rush to the incubator and take a look inside.
Susan's first reaction is to kill the thing dead, but Alex actually wants to let this new form of life survive. And I am so not stepping into this debate. Anyways, Susan pulls the plug, and the incubator opens up, revealing the creature within...
The baby mechanoid topples out of the machine, not quite having figured out walking yet. Alex tries to reconnect the incubator to keep the thing alive, but things don't look good. As the creature lay there, Alex starts to crack open the shell like a lobster and discoveres a pretty normal looking human child beneath the crunchy exterior.
A pretty normal looking five year old child. That then speaks with Proteus's voice and totally pulls a Frankenstein by saying it is alive.
So the new family rides off into the sunset and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for Gabler.
Video: Things look pretty solid, being a WB movie. The colours are a little dull and grey, but it was the 70s and that's partly the style and partly the media, so no complaints!
Audio: A nice mono track, that sounds good, with nice eerie music and Proteus's voice is nicely creepy sounding in it. A remix to 5.1 could be amazing, but I can't complain about something from the 70s being mono and still sound great, if a bit quiet at times.
Sound Bite: "At the risk of being simplistic, what you're looking at is a quasi-neural matrix of synthetic RNA molecules." That...that's the simplistic version?
Body Count: A mostly deathless movie, but they make up for it in creepy!
1 - Walter Gabler falls first to the plans of Proteus an hour into the movie when he is crushed by a Magic Snake.
2 - Does Proteus being shut down count?
Best Corpse: Well, that's an easy one. But it is a good death, with Gabler putting up a decent fight, and bonus points for a decent severed head.
Blood Type - D-: The movie is not about blood and horror, but more about the psychological terror, so this isn't a bad grade. The movie does what it does. But it does gain a little back for the good head of Graham, a little blood there. The armoured child is super creepy and awesome looking, and the magic snake like lab assistant is super cool, and looks mostly practical, which is amazing with what they made this thing do in 1977!
Sex Appeal: A very tiny bit with Susan, but the context is not good.
Drink Up! Every time the plot remembers there's someone in the plot other than Susan.
Sights and Sounds: This month I give you the clip of the baby Protiette being born.
Movie Review: I poke a lot of fun at this movie, but I really do love it. It is such a great examination of the horrors of AI, and in the context of the time, the fears of these emerging technologies, it is so well done. It's a simple character piece that does the slow build of horror nicely, until things rocket into the truly terrible. Sadly, the plot logic in the third act kinda crumbles under its own science, but it's still good fun. And that birth is pretty decent nightmare fuel, although nowhere near the levels of Deadly Friend. It did a good job of creeping out a young Jason when he first saw this flick. Four out of five magic snakes.
Entertainment Value: The acting is solid, but some of the situations lend themselves to unintentional humour, like the torturous kitchen sauna, smashing scrambled eggs on a camera, and the other things we're asked to take seriously. Still, there remains a palpable sense of dread, and a lot of that even holds up today. And Robert Vaughn as the voice of Proteus is perfectly chilling and calm. One of the best villains this site has seen, and he has no form of his own. This isn't super cheesy beyond being from the 70s, but it is great watching. And when the third act makes you go 'Whaaa?" it drifts nicely into true Trisk territory for the final moments of weirdness. Four out of five plates of scrambled eggs.