Demon Seed

Director: Donald Cammell
Screenplay: Roger Hirson and Robert Jaffe (based on the novel by Dean Koontz)
Stars: Julie Christie (Susan Harris), Fritz Weaver (Alex Harris), Robert Vaughn (Voice of Proteus IV), Gerrit Graham (Walter Gabler), Berry Kroeger (Petrosian), Lisa Lu (Soon Yen), Larry J. Blake (Cameron), John O'Leary (Royce)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1977
Country: USA
Demon Seed Poster
Demon SeedWhen "Demon Seed" was first written as a novel by Dean Koontz in 1973, and then released as a film in 1977, much of its premise was far-reaching science fiction. The idea of people living in houses almost completely controlled by a computer; the thought of a supercomputer with artificial intelligence that can out-think man; the very notion that we as humans could become so dependent on technology of our devising that it could become our undoing.

Looking at the film twenty years later, "Demon Seed" still has some far-out notions, but much of it has indeed become reality. IBM's Deep Blue has proved that a computer can "think" better than the world's chess champion. You can't go into business anymore without relying on computers, and anyone without computer experience has a hard time finding a job. The Internet dominates the information stream, and I was even reading an article in Mac Addict not two weeks ago that described how a Macintosh and a few hundred dollars worth of software and equipment can allow you to almost completely automate your house.

"Demon Seed" is part science fiction, part fantasy, and part horror. The story involves Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), a brilliant scientist under government contract who builds the ultimate supercomputer, an entity named Proteus IV. How smart is it? Once fed the data, it was able to cure leukemia in four days.

Unfortunately, Proteus IV, which is described as being part organic in addition to its metallic components, begins to grow an identity and a warped sense of conscience. It begins to question the commands it is given, and even wants to go about its own business, namely studying human behavior.

When the computer is denied this privilege, it realizes that its plug might be pulled, so it seeks to create offspring. By infiltrating the computer controlling the house where Harris' separated wife, Sarah (Julie Christie), lives, he locks her inside and literally keeps her captive until she agrees to be the mother of Proteus IV's child.

While this situation sounds ludicrous, the film actually pulls it off. Proteus IV, voiced with superb metallic coldness by actor Robert Vaughn, takes on a character all its own. It is like a more ambitious version of HAL from "2001." It realizes how brilliant it is, and that it shouldn't be a mere pawn for the eternal desires of human consumption. Like an ungrateful child, it quickly forgets about those who created it and begins to think only of itself. It says with calm coldness that if it had to murder a thousand children so that it could reproduce, it would do it in a second.

The film personifies the computer by giving it human-like features: it's eyes are dual-lensed cameras positioned all over the house, its voice pours through multiple speakers, its limbs are various experimental robotic components in the basement lab, its body is a gargantuan mainframe housed in an underground government laboratory, and its mind is a constant series of whirling colors and clouds on a TV monitor that often envelops the viewer, drawing him deep inside.

Proteus IV is such a dramatic presence in the film, that the human actors have to work double-time to make the audience remember they're there. Julie Christie turns in a strong performance as the woman terrorized and eventually impregnated by the vicious computer. Her character shows strong will and determination to fight against this being that has trapped her, but it soon becomes apparent that she cannot win. Proteus has too many weapons at his disposal, and when she finally concedes defeat, you realize she had no choice.

"Demon Seed" was directed with solid visual flair by Donald Cammell, a filmmaker who made only four movies in twenty-six years before committing suicide. Here he handles with a deft hand material that could have been downright silly. He balances the absurd with tangible, realistic details, and the result is an often terrifying and somewhat bizarre movie that is ultimately believable despite its outrageous premise.

Copyright © 1997 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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