Dean Koontz’s "Demon Seed" was published in 1973, and then made as a film in 1977. With its far fetched premise, the film had a mixed reaction from both critics and audiences. Although the film has aged some it is still amazing to see how on target and prophetic were some of the ideas that it ambitiously addressed when first released. This film not only envisioned people living in houses almost completely controlled by a computers, but also envisioned how intertwined our lives would become with smart technology and what an alienating effect it would have in all of us.
Demon Seed is one of those films that will either fascinate or alienate its audience with few in between. The film is a blend of science fiction and horror-working a la Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film is stylishly directed with solid visual bravado by Donald Cammell (who previously co-directed the brilliant film Performance starring Mick Jagger). Cammell well known for his psychological approach towards narrative found the right vehicle to showcase his talents in Koontz's story. Cammell was also known as director/writer who refused to compromise his artistic vision and Demon Seed is full of his brilliant if eccentric touches. Not only does he manage to produce some amazing images but is also able to mix philosophy with the absurd blended with realistic details, resulting in a terrifying movie that is effectively believable despite its outlandish premise.
The story involves Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), a brilliant scientist under government contract who builds Proteus IV, a super computer, designed to solve mankinds greatest mysteries such as the cure leukemia and develops a personality and a human-like intelligence. Proteus is not a computer in the usual sense; we are told that it contains the first true synthetic cortex, a brain; that its insides are organic; that it functions on a matrix of synthetic RNA. Proteus begins to grow an identity and a warped sense of conscience. It begins to question the commands it is given, and wants to go about its own business. When Proteus is denied access to its own terminal, it linkes itself to Alex's old console in his home, where his wife, Susan (Julie Christie) now lives alone. Fearing that they may soon pull his plug, Proteus turns his attention to Susan. Proteus takes over the house’s electronic control system, kidnaps Susan, forces her to undergo a physical examination, and announces that she will bear its child.
The script by Roger Hirson and Robert Jaffe as far fetched as its premise is, it is also very scary, clever and deep. At times it personifies Proteus by giving it human-like traits: self-assured of its own intelligence Proteus questions those who created it and begins to think only of itself. Its only concern is to self preserve no matter what it takes. Proteus has a complete disregard of the folks that stand in its way, and yet you know that its actions are entirely necessary for his survival, and even implied; necessary for the survival of mankind. The script also implies that Proteus may be an extension of its creator, and that its actions paralell its creator’s suppressed desires and emotions towards his wife which adds chilling dimension to the treatment of Susan by both Proteus and Alex.
Proteus is effectively voiced by actor Robert Vaughn with calculated chilling distance. His voice is cold and threatening and yet full of longing and concern when leveling with Susan. Which leads us to Julie Christie. This is truly her movie. The entire film has Christie either bound or trying to outsmart the computer to escape. Within the limited range of possibilities of such scenario Julie Christie turns in a strong performance as a woman terrorized and eventually impregnated by Proteus.
There are some memorable images like when the computer uses a wheelchair mounted with a laser to chase and attack his enemies, then there is the house itself, which is completely computer controlled: the doors, the lights, the water supply, the heating, the security system; all becomes a cage for Susan . The laboratory in the basement. filled with various electronic projects – the main one "Joshua", a robotic arm attached to a wheelchair – a device proves capable of crashing through walls, chasing people, lifting heavy objects, and even killing, and finally a frightening machine that resembles a giant metallic Rubix Cube and the closest thing to a physical and tangible monster in the movie. Cammell portrays Proteus mind as a series of psychedelic computer graphics on a TV monitor that reminds us of the final trip images on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His eyes are dual-lensed cameras positioned all over the house, its voice pours through multiple speakers, its limbs and body made of various experimental robotic components in the basement lab.
The movie has been critized for its basically unpleasant, unsavory elements of rape and torture, but considering the themes it is amazing how tastefully everything is handled without resorting to exploitation or pornography.
Demon Seed is a true unappreciated science fiction and horror classic. It is involving, intelligent, prophetic, and very scary. To find a movie with all those traits in today's MTV lowest common denominator cinema would be as miraculously as the immaculate conception itself.