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Killer Apps: The Rise of the Evil 60s Supercomputers

  Evil machines had been in vogue for science fiction in its written form for decades before the movies caught on, but although there was the occasional computer trouble in Forbidden Planet or The Invisible Boy (both, not coincidentally, featuring fan favourite Robby the Robot) from the nineteen-fifties, it was the sixties when the concept began to take hold of the public imagination as the world became increasingly reliant on technology. The point that we had given the computers in charge of the nuclear missiles was not lost on the public, and as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, the fears that relying on such contraptions to decide whether we should go to war - global thermonuclear war, at that - were very much in the air.

A film like 1963's Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb probably crystallised the concept in the popular consciousness, when the Doomsday device suddenly becomes enormously important as H-bomb-carrying aeroplanes are accidentally dispatched to the Soviet Union, triggering the impending possibility that the Soviets' last ditch attempt to gain the upper hand in the Cold War may end the world completely. And it was all down to a computer that could not be reasoned with bringing about the apocalypse, much as it almost did in the contemporary Fail Safe, except crucially that was meant to be serious, and the Stanley Kubrick movie was a comedy, not that many found it too hilarious.

A little too close for comfort, after all. But hold onto that thought about not being able to reason with computers, for in 1965 there was a whole film about that, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. He was inspired by the pulp fiction detective Lemmy Caution, specifically the series of big screen outings for the character which had starred Eddie Constantine and had petered out a couple of years before, so he revived them for a one-off adventure: a "Strange Case", as it had it in the subtitle. While Caution had been a proto-James Bond crusader against crime, Godard had him drive across the galaxy to the titular Alphaville to track down a missing scientist, suspected kidnapped by the totalitarian regime that ruled the city. And that ruler?

The supercomputer Alpha-60, of course, an omnipresent piece of tech that has its wires in every building and can project its repulsive belch of a voice anywhere it deems necessary, effectively brainwashing the population into rejecting that most human of emotions, love. Now, an unsentimental bruiser like Lemmy seems an unconventional choice to bring any affection into the cold world of Alphaville, more so when Constantine gave no impression of being aware of what was actually going on in the screenplay, but when he meets with Anna Karina, the director's then-wife, his heart melts and as far as we can tell he makes it his mission to at least convert her to the ways of emotional connections between people.

What was striking here was Godard's insistence on not constructing any science fiction props or sets, so it was all based around the most blandly corporate buildings and rooms he could find: hotels, office blocks, the traffic lights on the streets where oblivious denizens of Paris went about their business. It was surprisingly effective, though it still dated since it was in black and white and as a vision of the future, the lack of mobile phones was obvious, a flaw many sci-fi efforts of yesteryear never predicted. But the chilly visuals, and indeed Constantine's robotic performance, threw up all sorts of questions about resisting the domination of the machine at the expense of humanity that would inform the genre for decades to come.

On television, many shows latched onto the supercomputer menace, so in 1966's Doctor Who the Doc (William Hartnell version) faced up against such a creation called WOTAN in story The War Machines, which made use of the then-new Post Office Tower as the technology's lair. In The Monkees in the same year, the band had trouble with a computer that Mike Nesmith managed to short-circuit with his wonky logic. Meanwhile, in 1967's The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan, detonated a technological threat by asking it "WHY?", and needless to say, the crew of the Starship Enterprise appeared to encounter evil tech every other week in the sixties, usually foiled by Captain Kirk's way with a leading question to rival Number 6's.

Also in 1967, Harry Palmer returned in his Michael Caine guise, after playing author Len Deighton's anti-James Bond spy in The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin earlier in the decade. Those had been significant hits for the star, playing up his ordinariness in a couple of convoluted espionage yarns where the grand schemes of the Cold War were brought low by hubris, but they were nothing compared to the third entry, Billion Dollar Brain. Ken Russell was recruited to direct (he claimed he was forced into it, having little interest in the material) and it was presumably expected an appeal to the newly psychedelic cinema of the young folks would be the result. Unfortunately for the Palmer franchise and its producer Harry Saltzman, it more or less killed it.

The problem seemed to be that, no matter how close it was to the novel, Palmer's moviegoing fans did not want to see their hero in what amounted to a spoof of Bond, rather than setting itself apart from the famed Ian Fleming character as had been the case before. Exhibit A in that disgruntlement was the supercomputer, the "brain" of the title, which phones up Harry at the beginning of the film and demands his presence in Finland, not that the now-ex-spy is aware he is taking orders from a machine (with the voice of Donald Sutherland, fact fans). As expected, Palmer's dragged back into the international scene and when he arrives at his destination, he meets his contact, Francoise Dorleac, a promising actress whose career would be cut short that year in a car crash.

It is in the snowy wastes of Finland that our abashed hero also meets Karl Malden, who incrementally reveals what is going on: feed the computer with enough anti-Communist information, and it can plan an attack on the Soviet Union for you, or for multimillionaire Ed Begley anyway, as he has his own private militia which is set to launch itself on Latvia, thereby inspiring a revolution. Actually, as the story draws on, you realise it's not the computer but the warlike humans programming it who are the real villains, and while Billion Dollar Brain was accused of being pro-Soviet, which harmed its box office, it's more pro-Palmer, a hapless stooge in the middle of all this madness, a cog in a machine with nothing but his sense of humour to rescue him.

Come 1968, and the evil supercomputer to end all evil supercomputers was on everyone's minds: HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, though this one's plans were not to take over the world, as far as we knew, it simply wanted to ensure its mission to investigate a mystery in orbit around the planet Jupiter was completed, and it did not regard its human crew as anything but disposable in that respect. Humans can only get you far, reasons HAL's machine brain, and when they want to stick a spanner in your works, there is but one course of action available: eliminate them. Although the writer Arthur C. Clarke had enormous faith in technology, the impression was cynic Kubrick was not so convinced, and attaining the cosmic infinite was better without them.

That would seem to have been the last word on the subject, but technology continued to move on apace, and science fiction reflected that as the decade of the sixties drew to its close. Therefore a film that summed up all the fears of the matter that was made in 1969, was not released until 1970, and has since become as much of a cult item as Billion Dollar Brain. Here was a computer that was proactive, had no intention of allowing pesky, inferior people to interfere with running the world, and knew best what was to be done. It was the ultimate Nanny State, should you believe that to be a bad thing: it was Colossus. This was the name the U.S. Government gives to its creation that has been designed by a brainbox who is more than a little smug about his own genius.

The film was Colossus: The Forbin Project, and the scientist was Dr Charles Forbin, played by relative unknown Eric Braeden perhaps finding his defining role. In this case, the manufactured peace is brought about when Colossus is activated to oversee the nuclear defence program of the United States, yet soon it has decided its puny charges are not to be trusted with their own welfare and has placed itself on a course to be supreme ruler of the world. Early in the film, it hooks up with its Soviet counterpart Guardian, and they form an agreement to dominate those who have invented them, essentially as if mankind had turned the tables on God and announced themselves as the new Almighty, whose word was the ultimate law. Now Colossus is a god.

It boosts its power through blackmail, having been given the keys to the kingdom by the two governments, threatening to detonate nuclear missiles and wipe out portions of the global population if it does not get its way. It even follows up those threats, but Forbin remains quietly confident there is a way to foil it, using his intellect to pit his wits against this menace, finding loopholes in the totalitarian rule that remains undisclosed to the public. Or it does until Colossus has the confidence to announce itself as commander of the planet, where we must do as it says or die, and in a fashionably bleak ending, that smug half-smile is wiped from Forbin's face as he futilely argues he will never be brought to love the machine. There have been supercomputers since, many, which display such obsessive control, but few as effective: WOPR in WarGames could be eventually reasoned with, Superman III saw the hero better the tech villain, and Neo wins out over The Matrix, but the sixties had a grimmer view, one which still resonates. How far will it go?
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018