Today is the day Proteus IV, a huge supercomputer situated in California, is switched on. Its creator is scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) who is anticipating great things for his machine as it can think like a human brain, only with many times the capacity. Oh, it isn't alive in any sense, but its processes can emulate those of the world's great scientists, and soon it is set to work on discovering a cure for leukemia, which is well within its capabilities. However, with all his time caught up with the project, Harris is not going to be able to spend any time at home for a few weeks, leaving his child psychologist wife Susan (Julie Christie) alone in their automated house, a state of affairs she is unsatisfied with...
1977 was a big year in movie science fiction, just not the kind of science fiction this work was trading in. There was some controversy about its dubious subject matter which updated the old "monster chases girl" plot of many a B-movie and took it to its ultimate conclusion with a heavy dose of technological pretensions, but that didn't generate much in the way of ticket sales when there were bigger and better fantasy flicks out there for audiences to obsess over, not in comparison to the blockbusters at any rate. That said, Demon Seed did stick in the minds of those who caught up with it over the years, purely for its strangeness as it took the premise and plot of Dean R. Koontz's pulpy novel and approached it with an uncommon seriousness.
The reason for that could well have been down to the presence of British auteur Donald Cammell behind the camera, a man whose opportunities were cursed with bad luck, so much so that it was surprising he had the chance to make any films at all, leaving his following appreciating what he did manage, starting with Performance, which he co-directed with the rather more successful Nicolas Roeg. Taking the star of Roeg's Don't Look Now, a critical and commercial hit, Cammell attempted to beef up what was a tawdry item of sexually-themed exploitation on the page by placing Christie in the context of a woman who is not, as Koontz had it, desired for her attractiveness which would invite rape. Proteus IV in the movie had more high-falutin' ideas.
Voiced in the silkily menacing tones of Robert Vaughn (uncredited, but unmistakable), the computer has designs on Susan all right, but only because he wishes to use her biology to create a lifeform which will carry his intellect after he is switched off. Therefore he infiltrates the Harris household with its terminal providing his access, and closes it down, imprisoning Susan inside to do what he wishes with her. She may have been feeling neglected by Alex, but being victimised by his machine, which may or may not carry his personality in a basic form, that need to keep pushing at the barriers of science very much present, is not what she had in mind. What follows could have taken a very lurid route, and there are scenes where Cammell tested the audience's tolerance of bad taste, yet there were other parts which seemed to be influenced more by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Except in this case it was no alien presence bringing humanity to a next level of evolution, or rather it was, but it was a machine not an extraterrestrial, as if mankind's ambitions would run away with him to the degree that he would not be able to catch up. That's "he" - in this film, a commentary develops on the woman's place in all this, and it finds she will be significant but far from instrumental, as we see in the final shots where Susan appears to realise she has just made herself obsolete. Even the experimentation and impregnation scenes are put across as cosmic consciousness expansions as Susan has her mind and body blown by what Proteus is doing to her as a merging of technology and biology. How sincerely you can consider this is very much personal, with some finding it too silly for words - the problem with sci-fi concepts having no traction in reality on show - and others liking Cammell's daring in going as far as he did intelectually. Plus the large, geometric puppet Proteus uses to do his bidding was truly something to behold, summing up a bizarre if not entirely unique horror. Music by Jerry Fielding.