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Promise of Science: Computers

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Computers didn't become central to science fiction films until the 1950's, when they first captured the public's imagination. In 1952, CBS used a UNIVAC to predict the outcome of the Eisenhower-Stevenson election -- live, on television. Rather than show the real, rather dull-looking computer on TV, CBS used a huge plug-board decorated with dials and blinking lights (Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, xx). This set the stage for the first appearances of large computers in the SF films that followed.

Gog (1954) is one of the first science fiction films where the computer plays a central role. It is enormous, occupying a large space in an underground top-secret military base. Humans speak to it with punched paper, and it responds using a vast array of blinking lights. This computer, like nearly all science fiction film computers, is far more powerful than computers were at the time the film was made. Its function is to control the military base.

In many science fiction films where the computer plays a central role, conflict is centered around a problem with the machine. Gog is no different. The supercomputer is sabotaged by the Russians, who alter its program, causing it to turn on its human makers. This film embodies the cold war paranoia that was so strong during this time. It also expresses common fears about giving too much responsibility or power to a machine.

There are many films where powerful machines turn on their human makers without any sort of sabotage or intervention. The computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969, US) is a perfect example of this. At the height of the Cold War, the United States develops an enormous computer system in a top secret underground facility. This machine's single purpose is to keep America (and the planet) safe from nuclear war. To this end, the country's entire arsenal is placed at its disposal.

As soon as the machine is brought online, it begins to learn, and establishes its own identity. It has access to every piece of information known to humans, including all top-secret intelligence. Through this intelligence, Colossus learns that Russia might also be developing a large computer installation. It demands a network link to establish contact with this other artificial intelligence, and gets it by threatening the humans with their own arsenal.

Once connected, the two machines use the universal language of mathematics to establish a means of communicating with one another. They quickly surpass human understanding, and arrive at a conclusion: in order for the world to be a safe and peaceful place, the humans can not control it. The machines then systematically revoke control of everything from the humans, placing the entire planet under a new form of military dictatorship.

Colossus' interior is vast and underground, similarin appearance to the Krell's supercomputer.

The theme of evil computers taking over the world is furthered by the premise of The Terminator (1984, US). A satellite-based computer system called Skynet, designed to protect mankind and maintain global peace, is given complete control over communications and weapons systems. It doesn't take long for Skynet to decide that humans are nothing but a waste, and it wages nuclear war on its creators, seeking to wipe out all life on Earth.

The Matrix (1999, US) takes the Terminator theme one step further. Not only have machines successfully taken over the world, they have enslaved the human race after identifying it as an infinitely replenishable energy source. An elaborate computer-controlled virtual reality simulation of twentieth century life (basically, Life As We Know It) is imposed upon each one of the billions of trapped humans, so they are enslaved without even knowing it. Several humans have figured out what is really going on, and work towards freeing humanity. Once awakened from slumber and pulled out of the false reality, humans see the huge network of formidable machines. These machines occupy the entire planet, and are stronger and more powerful than any others encountered in these films.

This is a shot of the enormous underground cavern containing the Krell's computer system.

Almost as large is the computer complex in Forbidden Planet (1956, US), although it is located entirely underground. Its neverending energy source is the core of the planet, and it has been running for thousands of years. Despite its great age, it shows no signs of wear and tear, as it is able to repair and maintain itself. This computer system is different from many others that appear in SF film because it is neither good nor bad. It simply exists to serve those who built it.

Unfortunately, those who built it have been extinct for over two thousand years. The computer complex was built to accomodate and magnify the mental power of all Krell, so they could download themselves into it and abandon their physical bodies. However, they forgot to accomodate their repressed lower-level instincts when designing the machine, and these were magnified to the point of destroying the entire civilization.

Interestingly enough, the machine has the same effect on the humans that are visiting the planet centuries later. The computer (and therefore the planet) has to be destroyed in order to protect mankind.

A second movie computer that simply exists to serve is the machine in Andromeda Strain (1971, US) that runs Wildfire. Wildfire is a top-secret high-tech underground government research facility that is the embodiment of sterile and inhuman.

When the scientists enter the complex, they are sent through a five-level computer-controlled decontamination sequence. This involves a series of physical examinations, automatic showers and powderings, and question and answer sessions. The hostility of these events is heightened by the pervasive lack of humanity -- all discussions are held with the computer's disembodied female voice, and the environment is cold and unforgiving.

This computer, like all others in science fiction film, is not perfect. Towards the end of the film, a false contamination signal is sent to Wildfire's self-destruct mechanism, and the facility is set to explode in five minutes. These five minutes show more mechanical, inhuman behavior. Wildfire shuts its doors one by one and releases gasses into the atmosphere to make death easier on the humans who are trapped inside.

A computer-generated diagram of Wildfire, showing its five subterranean levels. It is shown to the scientists as they descend through decontamination.

HAL takes up a great deal of space. This is an image of his enormous memory banks.

Perhaps the most famous SF film computer is HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, US). This machine embodies many of the characteristics of film computers we have seen so far -- it is enormous, adheres to its mission a little bit too perfectly, and communicates with a cold, disembodied voice. The classic science fiction mistake of bestowing too much trust onto a machine is illustrated perfectly in this film.

HAL was designed by top human engineers to be infallible, always correct, and -- most importantly -- to complete the mission. HAL's downfall is brought about by the lack of humanity in its decision making skills. It determines that the humans on board are not only a burden to the mission, but a threat to its own existence -- and it goes about destroying them in a series of "accidents."

Unlike most film computers, HAL possesses some very human characteristics, to the point where we almost see a man/machine role reversal. Despite its cold, calculating essence, HAL's humanity routinely surpasses that of the humans. Its will to survive and the importance of its existence seem to outweigh those of the humans. The humans are the emotionless drones operating the space ship and going through the motions of life, while the computer appears to have real emotions and a true will to live. HAL's death is perhaps the most dramatic scene in the film, but when the humans die, it's almost inconsequential.

In Alphaville (Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution) (1965, France), the compter (Alpha 60) controls much more than a single complex. Created by an evil human in an unspecified future time, the computer operates the entire city of Alphaville -- a city that could be in any place. Cold and oppressive, it has outlawed emotions and poetry. Alpha 60 is eventually defeated by intergalactic agent Lemmy Caution, who overcomes it by providing poetic answers to its straight questioning.

eXistenZ (1999, Canada/UK) introduces an entirely new type of computer system: organic. The video game consoles in this film are engineered from mutant amphibian DNA. Although they perform all of the duties typically associated with a game console (providing the user with an immersive virtual reality gaming environment, interacting along a pre-defined storyline, etc.), they are susceptible to disease, just like any other living creature.

The virtual reality gaming environments are the most important aspect of this film. Varying levels of confusion are introduced by the many immersable worlds in which the movie's characters exist, and the prudence of using the video game consoles is addressed. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell what is reality and what is virtual reality, and the boundaries between the two disintegrate for both character and film viewer as the film progresses. These side-effects are similar to the effects of time travel found in La Jetee and Twelve Monkeys, and this film is one of the only computer movies to be concerned with the human side-effects of using machines.

These films illustrate different ways that computers are used and perceived in science fiction films. Often, these films are vehicles for the expression of common fears surrounding machines and machine intelligence -- fears which have only been heightened by the evolution of technology. Earlier films contain scenarios where humanity is tightly controlled by a mastermind computer, and later films involve the complete eradication or enslavement of the human race. All of these films express concern over the use of computer technology in everyday life, and question the wisdom of using them too much.

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Further Resources
(See also the complete references and resources list.)

  1. Campbell-Kelly, Martin and Aspray, William. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. New York: HarperCollins (August, 1997)

  2. Hurt, Matthew. Cybercinema.: University of Illinois Department of English (date accessed: 7/1/99)

  3. Kantrowitz, Mark. Milestones in the Development of Artificial Intelligence. (September, 1994) (date accessed: 7/1/99)

. erika . .
. last modified: Jul 20, 2000 .