In the eighties, the Rubik Cube was so ubiquitous that all sorts of similar toys had to be developed to satisfy the market demand. Some were pyramid shaped, some had five sides or more. One was even spherical. But one that stands out in my mind is something everybody called a “snake”, though I’m not sure what names it was marketed under. It wasn’t a puzzle, but a toy—a series of extruded triangle shapes linked together which could be twisted to various angles, resulting in all manner of shapes.
I mention this because 1977’s Demon Seed has an amazing effect in it which reminded me of that toy. In this film, a large metal diamond unfolds its triangular segments to become a robot snake that can coil and strike. It can even unfold into multiple appendages that can act as arms. It can encircle a person’s neck with multiple points which threaten to converge and decapitate its victim. This is an astonishing effect and I am pleased to say I have no idea how it was done.
The plot concerns a diabolical artificial intelligence which escapes the lab of the corporation where Fritz Weaver has developed it. Fleeing via the only terminal it has access to in the outside world, it ends up in the system Weaver created to control his house. Good thing the Internet wasn’t around back then.
The company that created this AI is secretly evil, because of course they are. They are even ran out of a complex that is a single level structure of brutalist architecture on the surface, with a great many subterranean levels beneath it. I think this should still be the look of technology corporations, especially the evil ones.
The servers where the development work is done are somehow organic inside, so the scientists are actually growing an artificial brain. Between that and the brutalist architecture, this is starting to feel like a film from Cronenberg’s prime, and I haven’t even talked about the icky objective of this intelligence.
That development involves Julie Christie, who plays the estranged wife of Weaver. In their separation, he is leaving her the fully automated house. An aspect of this I love is, before leaving, he programs the house for the next few months using only one 8” floppy. Even I have never seen an 8” floppy in real life. I had to look it up, but the capacity of such a disk would only be 80 kilobytes. Damn, the computer running that entire household is ridiculously data-efficient.
Anywho, the AI’s creepy plan for Christie is to impregnate her. As the computer system has control of all functions of the house, it forces her into accepting this through such techniques as making the water-heated floors too hot to walk on. Yes, folks, a computer rapes our heroine in this movie.
And this is entirely Christie’s film. The majority of the picture is only her and the disembodied voice of the computer. I was especially shocked that only three people bother to check on her in roughly the month in which the plot takes place, and neither of the first two are her husband! The first person to look in on her is actually Weaver’s second-in-command at work. This unfortunate soul is played by Gerritt Graham, who at least doesn’t take a toilet plunger to the face, as he did in the last movie I saw him in (Phantom of the Paradise).
The AI has all kinds of clever means to maintain his hold over Christie and dispatch potential interlopers. It creates that amazing metal creature that reminds me of that 80’s toy. It can create a virtual Christie on the house’s external video screen in what seems to anticipate the current era of deep fakes. And there’s no end of mayhem it can get up to with the extensive laser lab Weaver put in the basement. Early in the film, we see him using that to fix his glasses, prompting my wife to exclaim, “It’s the first Lenscrafters!” Damn, I wish I had of thought one myself.
I was surprised Demon Seed was adapted from a novel by Dean Koontz, given the material is solidly in Michael Crichton territory. All in all, it was much better than I anticipated it being, given the colossal ick factor of the plot. It was interesting how elements of it such as artificial intelligence are hot topics at the time I write this. But even more than that, the picture had me thinking about how the computer technology used to protect our homes can just as easily make us a prisoner of them.
Dir: Donald Cammell
Starring Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, Garrit Graham
Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray