“Now, just a minute, Berthold,” you cry. “I thought the theme of this year’s October horror story series was Frankenstein. This appears to be a science fiction movie in which revivified monsters, hunchbacked assistants, and Gothic Romanticism are conspicuous by their absence!”
Patience, good friends. All will become clear, in time.
And you’re right, Colossus is about as far away from Gothic as you can get. It’s modern and high-tech. Or at least, what was considered modern and high-tech in 1969. And before you scoff at the antiquated hardware, remember that they put a man on the moon with tapes and punch cards.
1969! I’m reliably informed that we haven’t had that spirit here since.
Colossus is about Dr. Forbin, lead scientist on a team creating a computer network to control the US missile defense system. “Colossus,” as it is known, soon proves even more powerful than its creators expected, especially when it discovers a Soviet system similar to itself and opens a communication channel between the two machines.
Well, you can probably guess where this is heading. With complete control over both the US and USSR nuclear arsenals, Colossus begins blackmailing the superpowers into obeying its own autonomous will. Despite numerous ingenious attempts by Forbin and his team to outwit and sabotage Colossus, the film ends with humanity, and Forbin in particular, under the iron rule of a dictatorial computer overlord.
Earlier this week, Zachary Shatzer posted a humorous tweet that summarized the movie more succinctly. As far as I know, he wasn’t referring to Colossus specifically, and he couldn’t have known I was about to review it. But it is too good not to include:
It’s important to note, however, that Colossus isn’t exactly evil. In the closing scene, it explains that it is doing this because, left to their own devices, humanity will destroy itself. To survive, humans must submit to the superior intellect of artificial intelligence. In other words, it is still following its original overriding priority: preserving human life.
During one of Forbin’s weirder attempts to deceive Colossus, in which he pretends to be having an affair with another member of the science team so she can smuggle information to him, their conversation turns to the subject of Frankenstein. Forbin muses that it should be required reading for all scientists.
The theme of Colossus is exactly that: the scientist who hates his own creation. Forbin has bestowed a kind of life, and lives to regret it. Because of when it was made, there is a Cold War spin on it, but it’s the same idea: create artificial life forms, and you’ll be eternally sorry for doing so.
The concept of a scientist who hates his creation is familiar enough. Oppenheimer famously said, “Now I am become Death,” when he witnessed the destructive power of the atomic bomb he had done so much to create. There’s a similar story with Alfred Nobel.
But, let’s be real: they were creating weapons. Not new life forms. Admittedly, Colossus is both a new form of life and a weapon, but the moral of Frankenstein is clearly in the Faustian tradition of cautionary tales about cheating death.
Are there actual examples of scientists creating life-giving innovations and being plagued with regret by it? I can’t think of an example. As my friend Pat Prescott reminded me, Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex,” meaning an irrational fear of scientific progress. So far, many technological and medical advances have occurred without inadvertently destroying humanity.
Of course, just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Maybe scientists just haven’t yet gotten close enough to tampering with the fundamental structures of the universe to sow the seeds of ironic destruction that Frankenstein-ian fiction suggests they shall someday bitterly reap.
Well, like the proverbial Chinese frontiersman said: “who knows?” It really is hard to derive universal principles from works of fiction, you know. Even more so when you consider H.L. Mencken’s observation that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”