COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Forgotten masterpiece of science fiction genre

As a film, it has been exceptionally well and precisely constructed.

Jakub Piwoński

19 June 2023


Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of those outstanding science fiction films that few people remember today. Shot two years after the famous A Space Odyssey, the film followed Kubrick’s footsteps, re-drawing the conflict between man and machine. Let’s add – doing it no less suggestively and no less credibly. That is why it is worth remembering.

The first association that popped up in my head when getting acquainted with Colossus: The Forbin Project was Terminator. This is how the film would look like in my opinion if it focused only on Skynet, which is hostile to humanity – its beginnings and the moment of opposing its designers. The story shown in the 1970 film presents a situation of apparent success achieved by a man. In the near future, Dr. Charles A. Forbin, commissioned by the government, constructs a supercomputer that is to surpass a human in the effectiveness of decision-making – especially those related to the defense of the country. Colossus, as this is the name given to the machine, turns out to be not a technological marvel of only one culture. The spies did their job well, because in Russia, which is in conflict with the US, a certain Guardian appears, a computer with no less computing power.

The conflict presented in Colossus: The Forbin Project consists in the fact that at some point both computers establish a thread of communication with each other. Getting along, they decide to subdue a man, taking extremely extreme measures for this purpose. The basic argument of thinking machines is the power over nuclear weapons. The main goal is to make a human being a slave unit in order to lead them to a new, better world. Will man be able to oppose the power of the creation he designed himself? Will she bend the knee to him, paying him homage and promising obedience, or will she be able to “disconnect the plug”, drain the machine of energy and show it its place in the ranks? Not only are the plot directions chosen by the director Joseph Sargent often arouse the effect of surprise, especially in relation to the finale, but also throughout the duration of this nearly one and a half hour long film, you can feel a peculiar tension that makes it very difficult to tear yourself away from the screen.

This is where I see the greatest strength of Colossus: The Forbin Project . As a film, it has been exceptionally well and precisely constructed – it is rigorously and methodically, but consistently led towards the climax. The action gets to the point very quickly, and the hero, introduced by means of a very clear exposition, is placed in a conflict situation from which it is very difficult to find a favorable outcome. The fight against time begins, the search for solutions, including weak points that could distract the machine enough to gain an advantage over it. Perhaps the funniest in this field is the very interestingly provoked love story in the film, in which the machine is for a moment defeated by the literalness of the contract concluded with a human. Since he must have the right to privacy, the computer with the camera turned off allows Forbin to rendezvous with the woman, so that information can be exchanged. Could the creators of this story want to make it clear that while intelligence can no longer be the advantage of a man over a machine, it can still be cunning?

At the very center of this high-tech theater full of tension stands a hero with the physiognomy of Eric Braeden. We quickly take his side, because the opponent he has to face is a disembodied entity with a personality generated in the binary process. It terrifies more with its amoral spirit than with its vague figure. On the other hand, Charles Forbin with his intelligent facial expression and handsome appearance is the quintessence of human creative thought, human pursuit of perfection. The tool in this case is science, which, at the peak of its capabilities, does not pass the test, because in the hands of a man it seems to be imbued with his pride. Therefore, the title project did not take into account one key error related to the achievement of the Colossus of self-awareness. A mistake that, by challenging ethics, contributes to Forbin’s failure.

It would seem that the topic of artificial intelligence has already been exploited in a fairly clear way by cinema. What amazes me, however, is that in the 1960s and 1970s the subject was approached so seriously, thus setting standards for future artists. It is difficult to treat such computers as the Alpha 60 from Alphaville, the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project with distance. These are threats whose primary task is to arouse fear that technological development may eventually get out of our control and bring much harm to society. It hides a deeply hidden fear of (techno)terror, control, surveillance and, of course, loss of freedom. The Colossus gives humanity a very simple pattern to follow, promising at the same time that submission to it will bring us benefits. Rejecting, according to him, an illusory freedom, in truth we are giving up our pride above all. And therein lies the pain.

Therefore, the open question is: if man were faced with the possibility of entering the era of the dominance of intelligent machines, a new species aware of its existence that could bring peace to the world, eliminate hunger, diseases and other misfortunes, if it were to take place only at the price of subordinating man, or then, faced with such a choice, would he be able to categorically reject the idea of his own uniqueness, would he be able to reject pride? I dare doubt. That is why we are so fascinated by the second chapter of this story, shown in the Terminator or Matrix series. Destructive war – this is our future, if we can’t put down the mutiny of the machines in time.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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