Demon Seed

The mainframe is my babydaddy
Donald Cammell
Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit Graham, Berry Kroeger
The Setup: 
Woman is trapped in house controlled by artificial intelligence system with designs on her womb.

This was one of my 70s TV favorites, as it tells a kind of cool story of a woman trapped in a house controlled by a mean-spirited A.I. system. At the same time, the story always seemed a little gross and distasteful, and still does. So let’s get started!

We open with a very pretentious sun and desert shot under the credits, forcing us to contemplate… I don’t know what, but something very meaningful, for sure. We find out that this movie stars Julie Christie of Shampoo and other delights, as well as Fritz Weaver of Marathon Man, and Gerrit Graham, notorious from The Phantom of the Paradise. So first, a lot of exposition. The husband, Alex, works at an institute, where he bringing the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence system online. It’s called Proteus, and is as large as a warehouse and is supposedly made up of biological, but non-living, material. Meanwhile, at home the doctor has an estranged wife, Susan, who is on the verge of kicking him out. They live in a computer-controlled house of the future, which does everything from open doors to mix drinks. She finds his work monstrous, and wants him out. Before he leaves, for reasons that still remain obscure to me, he disarms the security system of his house. Maybe he subconsciously wants something bad to happen to his wife?

Well, that super-advanced computer, here realized by rear-projecting some “trippy” light patterns on a screen, soon wants to get out and play. When Alex denies Proteus clearance, he finds a way out that’s not protected—Susan’s house. He completely takes over the house and locks her in. One of the touches I found kind of amusing, especially as it’s a computer we’re talking about here, is how sadistic he is. He waits until Susan has almost made it to a door or window before slamming it in her face, and generally just gets a lot more peeved and verbally bitchy than you’d think a computer would get. He starts performing experiments in the basement, fashioning a big brass diamond-shaped thing, and finally lets Susan in on his plan for her—he’s going to implant her with a baby! And when she refuses, he simply injects her in the brain.

Now follow numerous, somewhat repetitive scenes of Christie being miserable in the home, Proteus being bitchy, and her trying to escape. Again, he’s much more snide and piqued than you’d think a cold, calculating computer would be. Various people come to the door, but he generates an image of Susan telling them to go away. Meanwhile, at work, Proteus is using his powers to explore deep space [we never find out why] and is peeved at having to follow through on some company directive that is harmful to the environment. I suppose both of these things make much more sense in the novel… but maybe not.

Anyway, Gerrit Graham as Walter comes over [it’s surprising to see him play a straightforward man], demands to be let in, and this leads to this whole assassination attempt via laser. I never understood why, once they disabled the mobile robot, they didn’t just use the laser to take out the rest of Proteus’ monitors, which look like binoculars at the end of sticks. But there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. Then Walter goes downstairs and Proteus unleashes the giant brass geode that spins around, comes apart into smaller pyramids, and finally crushes him. I think we’re supposed to understand that it can divide itself into infinitely smaller pyramids, to make arms and hands and things like that. Or a hat. Or a brooch.

So then Susan tries to burn the thing, and the giant geode comes right up through the kitchen floor [how, we will never know]. He shows her a picture of her daughter that died of leukemia, and lets her know that he solved leukemia in four days. He tells her that “if the deaths of ten thousand children were necessary to ensure the birth of my child, I would destroy them.” He then tells her it’s time to make her preggers, and you’re like—“WAIT a minute, he hasn’t even impregnated her YET?”

So he does. We see his twisty brass penis-thing for a second, then a lot of spacey light patterns. I love 70s sci-fi when, if all fails... just show spacey light patterns. The fetus grows to maturity in just 28 days, then she has to give birth and put it in an incubator. The birth itself is quick and painless, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, at the lab, Alex’s superiors are getting ready to shut the thing down, because it’s turning into a sort of A.I. whistle-blower. In here you might have leave to ask—so he’s been away from home for MONTHS and hasn’t once called back to say hi or whatnot? I guess so. So it finally, finally dawns on the dumbfuck that he has a terminal at home, and he rushes off there.

When he finally gets there he finds the house all cleaned up [and HOW did that happen?] and is soon apprised of the baby situation. Proteus makes a big final speech at the lab and is turned off [wow, what timing!]. They crack open the incubator and see this horrifying brass baby, with all these tiny scales! Susan wants to kill it, but Alex won’t let her, and pulls the scales off to reveal—a version of their dead daughter! She says “I’m alive,” with Proteus’ voice… and the end

Ultimately, just kind of gross and distasteful. Anytime you have a man—author of the novel Dean Koontz, the writers and director—fantasizing about forcibly impregnating a woman and forcing her to carry a baby and give birth, that kind of crosses a boundary of good taste. So what’s really going on here? We have a doctor who is a bit of a megalomaniac. He and his wife had a daughter who died because of a genetic imperfection. The doctor makes a supercomputer. The supercomputer is able to solve the very genetic problem in question immediately, then forces the wife to bear its child. So it’s kind of like the doctor having a second chance, creating something that fixes the genetic problem and having what in fact turns out to be a replacement child. So it’s a concept.

What makes it kind of gross is the fact of forcing the wife to bear it against her will. It could have been handled better, in a way to tone down the nastiness of it, but instead this movie makes her torment its focus, in repeated, and repetitive, scenes of her trying to escape, being taunted and tortured, having medical experiments performed on her, and the massive violation of having to bear the child of something she is utterly disgusted by. It’s just an outgrowth of a male sexual fantasy of potency, spun into the story. The most despicable version of this fantasy I’ve ever seen, by the way, is Species II, in which an alien impregnates several women, the fetus grows to beyond full size in a matter of minutes, and we watch the woman’s belly swell, then BURST OPEN, killing the woman. Yeah. Nice, guys.

I will say that this is a respectable science fiction story with some pretty interesting sci-fi ideas… that I assume work much better in the novel. First is the idea of this computer that works on genetic RNA… which is what advanced computer engineers are working on now. Then the idea that an A.I. system would want to get out and study man, and would revolt at certain of man’s moneymaking ideas that are harming the environment. And the whole concept of the giant geode-thing that can arrange and re-arrange itself into infinitely-smaller pieces. Interesting. But this movie is able to only glance at most of those ideas, and, being a sci-fi horror movie, emphasizes Susan’s torment.

By the way, this novel came out in 1973, and in 1997 Dean Koontz entirely rewrote it, from the perspective of Proteus.

So there we go, another intriguing film of my TV childhood laid to rest. I always thought it was distasteful [oh, and by the way, in terms of thrills and drama it is pretty much inert], now I have a better sense of why. And, lucky for me, now I never have to watch it again.

Should you watch it: 

I think there are plenty of better things out there to watch first.