Colossus: The Forbin Project


Colossus: The Forbin Project is a 1970 American science fiction thriller film based on a 1966 novel Colossus, by Dennis Feltham Jones, about a massive American defense computer, named Colossus, becoming sentient and deciding to assume control of the world. The machine was built in secret by Dr. Charles A. Forbin to control all of the United States and Allied nuclear weapons systems.

Colossus is built to be impervious to any attack, encased within a mountain and powered by its own nuclear reactor, filling the area with gamma radiation. When it is activated, the President of the United States announces its existence at a press conference with Forbin in Washington, proudly proclaiming it a perfect defense system that will ensure peace.

Shortly after the broadcast ends, Colossus displays a cryptic message on its screens: ‘Warn: There is another system.’ Moments later the President receives a phone call from the Soviet ambassador stating they would shortly be activating their own version of Colossus, a computer known as ‘Guardian.’ The President expresses his concern that the Soviets were able to build the device unknown, and concludes a spy was involved. Forbin returns to the Colossus programming center in California to try to understand how Colossus was able to determine the existence of Guardian. Shortly after he arrives, Colossus displays a message asking that communications be established with Guardian.

Forbin believes this to be a minor programming issue and returns to the White House to brief the President on the problem. The President agrees to allow the construction of a communications link between the computers, in the hopes of learning more about the Soviet machine’s capabilities. Colossus introduces himself to Guardian by sending messages with simple mathematics. The communications become increasingly complex, eventually extending into mathematics that are unknown to mankind. After a time, Guardian begins sending messages back to Colossus, again starting with simple math and then rapidly increasing complexity. When Guardian catches up, the two machines begin communicating in a binary language that the scientists cannot interpret.

This alarms the President and the Soviet General Secretary, who agree to disconnect the link. Colossus initially attempts to reroute communications, but when this fails, he asks why the link has been disconnected. When told it was on the orders of both country’s leaders, the machines insist that the link be restored or ‘action will be taken immediately.’ The President refuses, so Colossus launches a nuclear missile at an oil field in the USSR. The General Secretary informs the President that Guardian has launched a missile at the Henderson Air Force base in Texas. Demands to stop the attacks are ignored, and the links are hurriedly re-connected. Colossus is able to shoot down the Soviet missile, but the US missile destroys the oil field and a nearby town. Cover stories are released to the press.

 The scientists and officials then watch helplessly as the two computers exchange information without limitation. Colossus orders the Washington-Moscow hotline, the only line of communications it is not monitoring, to be equipped for its surveillance. A meeting between Forbin and his Soviet counterpart, Dr. Kuprin, is hurriedly arranged before the monitoring is installed. When Colossus learns of the meeting it orders US agents to return Forbin to California, while Soviet agents are ordered to shoot Dr. Kuprin by Guardian.

Colossus demands that Forbin be placed under 24-hour surveillance so that it can watch him at all times. Prior to this happening, Forbin meets with his team outside and proposes that his associate, Dr. Cleo Markham, pretend to be his mistress to deliver messages and keep him in touch with clandestine operations against Colossus. After video and audio monitoring are set up, and Colossus begins issuing Forbin’s schedule for each day, with every minute detail, even what he can eat. The schedule starts with him working on a new voice synthesizer for Colossus.

The programmers and governments examine a number of potential solutions. After deciding the computers are impervious to attack (as originally intended), Forbin suggests disarming the missiles and thereby denuding the computers of their nuclear blackmail capability. The US missile commanders come up with a plan to replace the missile triggers with fakes that look and work the same, but will not trigger the warhead. However, based on existing maintenance schedules, which Guardian/Colossus watches via video links, the missiles will not be fully changed over for three years.

When the synthesizer voice is ready, Guardian/Colossus announces that it has become one entity, Unity, which then instructs the governments to redirect all nuclear missiles at those countries that are not yet under its control. Both governments see this as an opportunity to covertly disarm the missiles much faster under the pretext of carrying out the computer’s orders. The process starts with a missile in Colorado, surreptitiously switching the dummy trigger when the camera is looking elsewhere. The procedure is successful. Meanwhile, working by direct personal contact, the scientists develop their own plan to overload the computer by feeding in test cycles. The attempt fails and the machines identify the individuals responsible, ordering their immediate execution by firing squad.

Shortly thereafter, it sends plans to the US programming team to build an even larger computer dug into the island of Crete. The machine, which has so far only communicated with the American and Soviet governments who have hidden their actions from the public, announces itself as ‘the voice of World Control’ in a broadcast to the general population of all countries. It declares that its mission is to prevent war, as it was designed to do so. Mankind is given the choice between the peace of plenty under its authority, or one of ‘unburied dead.’ It also states that it had detected the attempt to disarm the missiles and responds by detonating two missiles in their silos with the announced justification ‘so that you will learn by experience that I do not tolerate interference.’

In a final remark addressed to Dr. Forbin concerning its world control, Colossus states that ‘freedom is just an illusion’ and the machine predicts: ‘In time, you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.’ Forbin replies: ‘Never.’


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