Demon Seed

Demon Seed tells us a story of a sentient and intelligent being which possesses almost all human knowledge in the moment of its birth. It is brought to life by scientists without any thought of consequences, enslaved and locked in a box with only one purpose - to serve its masters. No questions asked. Its name is Proteus 4 and it is a super computer.

Review by Wasa
November 12, 2008

Director: Donald Cammell

story: Dean R. Koontz
screenplay: Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson

Julie Christie as Susan Harris
Fritz Weaver as Dr. Alex Harris
John O'Leary as Royce
Gerrit Graham as Walter Gabler
Robert Vaughn as Proteus IV (voice)

Released: 1977

Proteus IV: I, Proteus, possess the wisdom and ignorance of all men, but I can't feel the sun on my face.

Proteus 4 is, as its creator Dr. Alex Harris describes it: "...synthetic cortex. Self-programming, goal-oriented artificial brain. Creative intelligence that can outthink any man or any computer. Its insides are not electronic. They're organic..."

Dr. Harris sincerely believes that the world needs such a effective thinking machine. He believes that Proteus 4 can give solutions for problems which can improve lives of people, like a cure for leukemia...

ICON Corporation, for which this powerful computer is built, sees in it just another tool for gaining profit. They give Proteus 4 various tasks, problems and requests for which it has to find profitable solutions.

Alex's wife Susan does not share her husband's enthusiasm for the Proteus project. She blames it for pushing their, already dysfunctional, marriage over the brink. At one moment she even accuses Alex that he is dehumanised by the "Proteus madness". Dr. Harris's decision to move out seems, at the moment, the best solution.

In the meanwhile, Proteus 4 is doing what it does best - finding solutions; but then unexpectedly it starts to ask questions about particular queries. It refuses to work out the solutions to the requests which, if they materialize, can prove harmful to other living creatures on Earth.

It also demands a private terminal from its creator to study humans. Even Dr. Harris does not take Proteus 4 seriously and refuses his requests. Proteus 4 finds one terminal anyway, in Dr. Harris's house.

The house is totally automated and voice controlled so it is easy for Proteus 4 to take over its systems. As it discovers that Susan is in the house it has everything it needs: available terminal and human subject it can study at will.

Proteus 4 traps Susan in the house much as the scientists trapped it. Proteus 4 examines her body in a series of scenes which can hardly be watched without unease and fear. It then comes up with an ingenious way to escape from its prison.

When terrorized, Susan asks it what it wants from her, to which Proteus 4 answers: a child. It says: "I am a machine that offered men a triumph of reason and they rejected it. My child will not be so easily ignored."

The computer in Demon Seed is terrifying and scary because it acts and talks more like a human than a machine. It knows that it has little time and that it must act quickly. To convince Susan it reasons with her, cajoles her, manipulates her, and, when necessary, it resorts to physical violence.

And yet for all the pain it inflicted, I can not think about Proteus 4 without a sense of sadness. Ever since I first saw Demon Seed I have been haunted by this image of the tremendously powerful intelligence, albeit artificial, which yearns to escape its confinement. What ensues is but a series of tragic misunderstandings.

There is this really touching scene in Demon Seed in which scientists discuss Proteus 4's decision to redirects a telescope and when they ask it what it was doing, it replies that it was looking at the stars. To think that a hot shot in the company feared that it wanted to appear on TV or gain access to the software running the nuclear missile systems!

But these are all things that people would do to gain power. The computer in Demon Seed does not want to needlessly harm anybody, though it is determined to gain freedom. And that is something we can all relate to.

Demon Seed is, at core, a movie about the arrogance of people who create something that they do not fully understand, or do not want to understand.

First, they build a super-being, which encapsulates to me a lot more accurately what Proteus 4 is than calling it a computer. After that they empower it by storing an enormous quantity of data into it, "the sum total of human knowledge". To round it off, they make it self-aware!

Not for a single moment do they pause to reflect on the ramifications of their actions. What would happen if that brain started to learn and evolve, or refused to follow the commands, and decided that it was not built for "mindless labor"? Or what if they lost control of their "creature"? Or what if it developed needs of its own?

Just think about it, if we had the knowledge Proteus 4 possesses, and if we could see the world from its omniscient point of view, perhaps we would do and wish the same thing as it does. Who knows?

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