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DVD SAVANT

Demon Seed


Demon Seed
Warner DVD
1977 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date October 4, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit Graham, Berry Kroeger, Michelle Stacy
Cinematography Bill Butler
Production Designer Edward Carfagno
Special Effects Ron Hays, Jordan Belson, Bo Gehring
Film Editor Frank Mazzola
Original Music Jerry Fielding
Written by Robert Jaffe, Roger O. Hirson from the novel by Dean R. Koontz
Produced by Herb Jaffe
Directed by Donald Cammell

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This picture starts as a rather trashy concept grafted together from elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary's Baby. In terms of significance, it can be dismissed as an attempt to cash in on the post- The Exorcist shockeroo craze exemplified by the previous year's The Omen. Tastefully assembled and honestly acted, Demon Seed partially redeems itself, but in the final analysis has few original ideas to wave in its defense.

Charming Julie Christie is a trouper as a woman rather conveniently forced to indulge a computer's ambition to sire a human offspring.

Synopsis:

Alex and Susan Harris (Fritz Weaver and Julie Christie) are breaking up. She's a teacher specializing in emotionally disturbed children and he's a computer genius putting the last touches on his super-creation Proteus, a thinking machine that will solve mankind's most complex problems as easily as pushing over dominoes. Alex leaves Susan in charge of his computer-driven house of the future the same day Proteus is activated; when the computer shows signs of frustration at not being permitted to pursue personal studies, mainly the humans that created it, it quietly rebels. Taking remote charge of Susan's automated house, it makes her its prisoner, fashions a mechanical prosthesis to allow it to interact with humans, and prepares to impregnate Susan with a biologically mutated offspring of its own creation.

Demon Seed is a definite mixed bag. There are few surprises in the story as we all know darn well that, because he speaks with a suave "Hal- like" voice by Robert Vaughn, Proteus will entrap Susan. The computer takes control of her house's automatic doors and shutters, and even electrifies doorknobs when she tries to circumvent his wishes. For her part, Susan reacts predictably to Proteus' demands and eventually caves in to his will when he murders a co-worker and threatens to kill her patient/pupil, a little girl. Susan lost her own daughter to leukemia and requires no further demonstrations of Proteus' power.

That's about as complicated as the story gets. The estrangement angle keeps hubby Fritz Weaver away on the sidelines and Susan barely has contact with anyone else. Gerrit Graham puts in an effective supporting bit and we're amused to see that old villain Berry Kroeger (Gun Crazy, Atlantis, the Lost Continent) doing duty as a kindly researcher of no particular consequence.

Proteus is a clear nod to Frankenstein and more than the usual 'computer out of control' cliché, but that still doesn't make him particularly interesting. He respectfully asks his creators for 'his own space' to do research but is told he can't look at the stars (he's plugged into a telescope system) and must spend all of his time following orders. In other words, like Frankenstein and his monster, or God and Man, Proteus rebels at being denied a will or personality of his own. In just four days, he comes up with a cure for the specific form of leukemia that killed Susan's daughter, but he resists when his parent owners want him to regurgitate plans to mine metals from the ocean floor. Even after he tells them that the resulting ecological effects will cause a global catastrophe, they don't care, and they eventually plan to shut him down.

Science fiction fans will experience a strong "been there done that" sensation, for Demon Seed's central concept is basically a less ambitious version of Colossus: The Forbin Project. In that technically dated but still exciting 1970 movie, the U.S. builds a similar computer to handle its defense needs and locks it away in a mountain so it can't be tampered with. When Colossus suddenly develops an ego and a personality to go with its advanced reasoning capability, it usurps political control of American defense by seizing missile silos and blackmailing the government into following its orders. The coercion is all for the greater good in that Colossus neutralizes the Soviet threat, but the computer also assumes authority over its supposed masters. By ceding responsibility to a higher power, man also gives up his right to act irresponsibly, and the benevolent/tyrannical Colossus takes over.

Proteus is basically the exact same computer, but unfortunately he isn't linked up to any missile silos and can't contact his Russian counterpart to pool resources. It's too bad that he tips off his handlers to his rebellious nature, but he openly admits that he's just learning how humans behave. The threat just doesn't seem as horrible as either 2001 or Rosemary's Baby in that Proteus is basically benign (unlike Satan) and sane (unlike Hal-9000). We understand his desire not to perish by living through his progeny - every father finds that feeling, even if it only comes later in life when his children are almost grown. It's funny how women already seem to understand that lesson, and despite Susan's horror at her situation she understand's Proteus' wish as well. The script misses the boat when it portrays Susan's hysterical reaction to Proteus' unreasonable demands -- as a child psych specialist she should be ideally equipped to deal with an immature ego making strange demands at the expense of other people.

Susan ends up as the vessel for Proteus' artificial sperm recipe, in the depressing way that modern childbearing has sometimes been reduced to a biomechanical function instead of a wondrous window to the mystery of life. The movie is restrained and tasteful and handles the actual impregnation almost impressionistically. Or perhaps literal-impressionist, depending on how one interprets the viewscreen visuals that seem to represent something (Susan?) opening up to reveal the spark of life within.

The ending is quite a surprise that pays off unexpectedly but not very satisfactorily. I don't feel like spoiling it because Demon Seed might work much better for other viewers, but the last couple of moments of the picture make it seem as though the whole movie is just a preamble for another Omen like trilogy charting the progress not of the spawn of the Devil, but of a new melding of man and computer. It brings to mind parallel possibilities that even H.G. Wells never solved in his fanciful (and unfilmed) The Food of the Gods1


Warners' DVD of Demon Seed is a beauty. Savant didn't bother to watch the film on television years ago because it was both pan-scanned and edited, but the handsome enhanced transfer on view makes the (actually modestly mounted) production look great. Jerry Fielding's abstract score, which sometimes sounds like atonal sound effects, is quite unique. The special effects are dated light-show displays on Proteus' viewscreens, but at least one section that serves as a background for the computer's lecture about its cosmic curiosity, is a keeper. Experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson did some of this work; it was used to equally ethereal ends in the later The Right Stuff and earlier in the Andersons' Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, in that case in conjunction with some beautiful Barry Gray music.

There are no extras except a trailer that stresses the sordid aspects of the film's concept. 1977 audiences still feared the Devil but Savant guesses that female filmgoers back then would nix a pic that says upfront it's about a woman being raped by a computer.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Demon Seed rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 22, 2005


Footnote:

1. Yes, there are a couple of film versions of The Food of the Gods but H.G. Wells' wonderfully suggestive book is about a lot more than the giant rats that appear in only one or two of its pages.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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