Great Films You Need To See – Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context and is this month running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘technology’. This piece about 1970 sci-fi oddity Colossus: The Forbin Project was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

It may have been released back when computers were still the size of refrigerators, but the dire warnings this cautionary slice of Nixon-era paranoia expounds have only become louder.

Colossus: The Forbin Project - a one-off that has been allowed to slip through the cracks

Colossus: The Forbin Project – a one-off that has been allowed to slip through the cracks

Professor Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic exhortation that artificial intelligence could possibly spell the end of mankind if allowed to evolve unchecked will come as little surprise to anyone versed in science fiction’s fixation on our own destruction.

The poster bot for machine-led world domination is, of course, Skynet from the Terminator series, but James Cameron surely borrowed a thing or two from the supercomputer at the heart of the curious, fascinating 1970 flick Colossus: The Forbin Project.

Colossus makes its intentions clear in Colossus: The Forbin Project

Colossus makes its intentions clear in Colossus: The Forbin Project

Based on the novel of the same name published four years earlier, Colossus centres on the growing nightmare that unfolds following the activation of the titular machine; designed by egghead Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) to monitor worldwide missile systems and control America’s nuclear arsenal.

No sooner has the “perfect” mainframe been switched on, than Colossus dramatically announces via its ominous electronic ticker tape system that another, near identical system has been launched by the Soviet Union called Guardian – which it starts to communicate with. While Forbin and the other smartest guys in the room try to work out what to do next, Colossus coldly and logically begins to make the President (Gordon Pinsent) wish he hadn’t handed over his country’s entire defence system to an A.I system with a penchant for megalomania.

Dr Forbin (Eric Braeden) and Dr Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) embark on their 'affair' in Colossus: The Forbin Project

Dr Forbin (Eric Braeden) and Dr Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) embark on their ‘affair’ in Colossus: The Forbin Project

One can only imagine the special effects-laden actionfest that would undoubtedly constitute the long-mooted remake of Colossus: The Forbin Project should it ever see the light of day. Without a particularly generous budget to play with, director Joseph Sargent instead strips back the razzmatazz and focusses on the escalating human drama by largely setting the film in the crucible of the Colossus Control Centre (with exterior shots filmed at the coldly futuristic looking Lawrence Hall of Science).

The film isn’t afraid to take a few eyebrow-raising turns, notably an extended sequence in which the surveilled Forbin and fellow team member Dr Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) attempt to fool Colossus into believing they are lovers in order for clandestine information to be shared.

Saucy! Machine love in Colossus: The Forbin Project

Saucy! Machine love in Colossus: The Forbin Project

This is preceded by an amusingly deadpan exchange between Forbin and Colossus wherein the supercomputer, unable to understand the concept of love, negotiates with the increasingly tetchy scientist on what private time he is allowed to engage in carnal pleasure with Markham.

To say the film’s ending is abrupt, meanwhile, is putting it mildly as it reaches its conclusion with an admirable adherence to its internal narrative logic.

Colossus: The Forbin Project is a genuine oddity in the overladen sci-fi genre; a one-off that has been allowed to slip through the cracks, but nevertheless has something important to say about the inherent dangers of playing Dr Frankenstein and taking for granted our precarious presumption as the dominant force on this planet. Lest we forget, the machines are coming…

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Review – Godzilla

The King of the Monsters may have rediscovered his rrrrroar after Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster (pun intended), but Gareth Edwards’ creature feature follow-up to his micro-budget debut doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights you’d hope it would.

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn't have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn’t have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some

Trailers often fail to quicken the pulse, but the promos for Gojira’s latest big screen outing were a masterclass in wringing every last of drop of anticipation from an audience rubbing their hands at what the director of Monsters would bring to the table.

There are enough moments here to remind you of why Edwards is such an exciting talent. However, for a film that (correctly) chooses to spend so much of its time exploring the human story, it’s a shame too many of the characters fail to leap off the screen.

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) go in search of the truth in Godzilla

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) go in search of the truth in Godzilla

Godzilla‘s cracking opening credits sequence doffs its cap to Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Japanese original and runs with that film’s nuclear-inflected theme. Rather than a nuclear test, the hydrogen bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll by the US military was, we learn, aimed at destroying the gigantic ocean-dwelling Gojira.

All is quiet until 1999 when a Japanese nuclear power plant succumbs to what’s labelled a ‘natural disaster’, although plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is having none of it and believes something else is going on. Cut to 15 years later and Joe’s search for the truth lands him in hot water, forcing his estranged bomb disposal expert son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) to leave his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son behind in San Francisco to fly to Japan to bring him back to the US. Joe’s convinced the government is hiding something, although not even he can quite believe what it eventually turns out to be and soon enough all hell is breaking loose.

Scientists  Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate in Godzilla

Scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate in Godzilla

That Edwards’ Godzilla stomps all over Emmerich’s effort is pretty much a given (Ed Wood could have made a better film in all honesty). However, a cast full of stellar names are often reduced to delivering one-note performances that serve the story without adding any substance.

The strained father-son relationship between the Brody bunch is worthy of screen time and a driver of the film’s opening half, but Cranston and Taylor-Johnson never truly sell it to us.

The US military HALO jumps into the carnage in Godzilla

The US military HALO jumps into the carnage in Godzilla

Ken Watanabe spends almost the entire film as scientist Serizawa looking like he needs to go to the toilet, while the incredibly versatile Sally Hawkins never deviates from appearing ashen-faced as Seizawa’s colleague Graham. In fact, all the female roles are underwritten; with Juliette Binoche in a blink and you’ll miss it turn as Joe’s wife Sandra, while Olsen gets very little to do as Elle.

That being said, it’s admirable in this day and age for a blockbuster to even give a second’s thought to developing relationships and a narrative ahead of budget-sapping CGI. It’s an approach that worked well for Edwards in Monsters (although, with next-to-no funding it’s always easier to film talking heads rather than space creatures) and, with a little more finesse, will undoubtedly serve him well going forward.

A terrified Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son hope for the safe return of husband Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) in Godzilla

A terrified Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son hope for the safe return of husband Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) in Godzilla

Where Edwards really hits it out of the park is in the action scenes involving Godzilla and the massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) that are thrown into the mix. These aren’t just faceless CGI monsters; each of these creatures (Godzilla especially) are emotive forces of nature, whether it be the extended glance shared by ‘zilla and Ford or the moment of tenderness shared by the MUTOs amid the destruction. If this is indeed going to become a franchise (as looks likely) then it’s only right that you feel something for the King of the Monsters.

ROOOOAAARRR!!

ROOOOAAARRR!!

Other dramatic moments, including the Fukushima-inflected destruction of the Japanese nuclear power plant are deftly handled, while the film’s real highlight remains the awesome HALO jump sequence (a candidate for scene of the year), wherein Ford and a crack team of soldiers free-fall into a devastated San Francisco to the eerie strains of György Ligeti’s Requiem (a piece of music used to equally unnerving effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Edwards’ love for Spielberg’s Jaws is evident throughout, from the name Brody, to the long delay in showing the monster in all its titanic glory and the boat which Ford clambers onto in the film’s final act. Let’s hope the sequels fare better than the follow-ups to that franchise.

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn’t have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some.

Here’s that awesome trailer…

Great Films You Need To See – Fail Safe (1964)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Sidney Lumet’s Cold War thriller Fail Safe was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

No doubt frazzled by the Cold War running ever hotter, it’s perhaps not surprising audiences in 1964 preferred their nuclear scare movies to be in the mould of the scabrously satirical Dr Strangelove rather than the grimly portentous Fail Safe.

No film before or since has played out the nightmarish endgame of Mutually Assured Destruction to quite such a chilling and methodical degree

No film before or since has played out the nightmarish endgame of Mutually Assured Destruction to quite such a chilling and methodical degree

As the cold horror of what is unfolding dawns on America’s top brass, the President (played by Henry Fonda) engages in an increasingly desperate exchange with his Russian counterpart via telephone to find a way to stop the bombers from triggering World War III before it’s too late.

The tension builds as the President (Henry Fonda) and his interpreter (Larry Hagman) talk to the Russians in Fail Safe

The tension builds as the President (Henry Fonda) and his interpreter (Larry Hagman) talk to the Russians in Fail Safe

Director Sidney Lumet stages the film in a similar fashion to his 1957 debut 12 Angry Men. The drama plays out in several locations, each of them boiler rooms of fetid tension where the temperature is mercilessly cranked up to the point where a number of characters crack under the strain. Even Fonda’s President loses his cool as the terrible reality of what is happening sinks in.

By doing relatively little with the camera and refusing to pull away, Lumet is able to poison the atmosphere with a thickening dread; so much so that when Larry Hagman’s interpreter’s hands start to shake as he drinks a glass of water we question whether he’s acting or not.

The pressure builds in the War Room in Fail Safe

The pressure builds in the War Room in Fail Safe

The only one who seems unphased is Walter Matthau’s coldly analytical civilian advisor Professor Groeteschele, who is seen at the start of the film at a dinner party calmly rationalising how 60 million deaths should be the highest price America is prepared to pay in a war. The ultimate utilitarian, Groeteschele sees the unfolding tragedy as a golden opportunity to wipe Russia off the map to ensure that American culture, whatever’s left of it, survives. Ironically, his uber-hawkish outlook shocks even the most senior military brass.

The film explores the duality we feel towards technology through the banks of dials, buttons and flashing lights at Strategic Air Command headquarters and the imposing screen displaying the whereabouts of military assets and targets across the world.

The detestable Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) coldly rationalises nuclear war in Fail Safe

The detestable Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) coldly rationalises nuclear war in Fail Safe

Implicit trust has been placed in the instruments, which General Bogan (Frank Overton) confidently states are so good “they can tell the difference between a whale breaking wind and a sub blowing its tanks”. However, it’s this same technology that betrays us by sending the ‘go code’ to the bombers. We are all of us Dr Frankensteins, Fail Safe implies, courting our own destruction through our insatiable hunger for ever more sophisticated technology (a concept more colourfully explored in the Terminator franchise).

Fail Safe concludes with a disclaimer courtesy of the Department of Defense and US Air Force that safeguards and controls are in place to ensure the film’s events can never come to pass. It’s unlikely that would have made anyone watching Fail Safe back in 1964 any more comfortable in their beds.