Demon Seed (1977)

Demon Seed (1977)

Synopsis:

Demon Seed takes place in the not-so-distant future where a brilliant artificial intelligence researcher, Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver, Creepshow), helps develop — with the blessing of the USA Department of Defense — a sophisticated computer system named Proteus that will hopefully help mankind find the cure for all sorts of diseases, among other things. Harris’s elaborate, computer-controlled home is connected to the central brain of Proteus, and when the computer starts developing ideas of its own, Proteus traps Harris’s wife (Julie Christie, Doctor Zhivago) in the house, unleashing a heavily symbolic battle of wits between the machine and the unsuspected woman, in which the fate of humanity will be decided.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The concept of artificial intelligence — a term first coined in 1956 by John MacCarthy during the famous Dartmouth Conference — has been around for quite some time. Despite what many people think, the idea of creating artificial life is not something new; in actuality, the concept can be traced way back to Greek mythology, where we can find many indications of people’s preoccupation with this interesting possibility. Ancient myths like the stories of Hephaestus and Pygmalion — later immortalized by playwright George Bernard Shaw in his play of the same name– explored the possibilities of hand-made artifacts capable of some degree of reasoning. Although these were fantastic tales that have no basis in reality, they serve as an early indication of mankind’s desire to emulate nature’s ability to produce life.

From the creation of clocks and printing machines in the 16th century, to the invention of the first mechanical calculating machine in the 17th century, people have always been intrigued by the notion of creating tools with some type of intelligence that could perform arduous and tedious tasks. In literature, we can also find the idea of man experimenting with the ability of creating life, most notable in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein — which, interestingly enough, was a nod to the Classic Greek tale of Prometheus. But for whatever reason, movies seem to provide the perfect medium to explore the real possibilities (and consequences) of artificial intelligence, presenting in visual terms the moral ramifications, ethical questions, and fears that arise when one thinks of mechanical objects being capable of reasoning on their own.

As further indication of how well this provocative subject has been served by the world of cinema, one doesn’t have to think too much before realizing how the idea of artificial intelligence has become an integral part of the science fiction genre. MetropolisBlade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, and more recently, Spike Jonze’s Her and Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina, are good examples of how common (and popular) this subject has become over the years.

Thematically speaking, Demon Seed resembles a movie like Alex Garland’s 2014 sci-fi movie Ex-Machina, and in many ways, succeeds in expanding some of the ideas that Garland’s movie was only able to hint at. Even though Demon Seed, directed by Donald Cammell (Performance and White of the Eye), lacks the realism that modern technology is able to supply to today’s science fiction dramas, this is an intriguing and intellectually demanding movie. Based on one of Dean R. Koontz’s first and best novels, Demon Seed is an absorbing tale that neatly combines the conventions of two genres (horror and science fiction).

Demon Seed is not what you will call a masterpiece, but the central premise — an incredible showdown between machine and its creator, or more accurately, synthetic versus organic — is so fascinating and so well executed that one cannot help but get pulled into the story from the very first scenes to the film’s incredible and puzzling ending — thanks to an interesting script and imaginative direction, it’s always engaging and entertaining.

Robert Vaughn (Bullit) provides the chilling voice of Proteus — a distant cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey — and leading actress Christie gives a tour-de-force performance; especially quite amazing if one realizes she’s interacting with an inanimate object — we can feel her pain as she uncovers, layer by layer, Proteus’s amazing master plan. Director Cammell builds suspense slowly, but in an intelligent manner, infusing the story with complicated existential and metaphysical undertones that range from man’s place in the universe to Nietzsche’s superman theories.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Demon Seed is a film I think will be embraced by most sci-fi & horror enthusiasts, especially now, when humanity seems to have reached a technological threshold in which science has not only opened the door for new possibilities, but also has become a source of concern and anxiety. Demon Seed does not pretend to have all the answers, but it definitely raises some interesting questions about the meaning of life. Color, 94 minutes, Rated R.

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