Apr 26, 2017

On Blu-ray: Julie Christie in Demon Seed (1977)

Demon Seed is an odd film. It works well on some levels, and misfires on others. Depending on which scene you are watching it is terrifying, hilarious or offensive. Sometimes it manages to be all those things at once. Now available from Warner Archive on Blu-ray; this is a memorable cinematic experience.

In one of her most intense performances, Julie Christie stars as Susan, the psychiatrist wife of Alex (Fritz Weaver), a computer scientist who has destroyed their marriage because he is obsessed with his work. They live in a high-tech house run by an elegant-voiced computer they call Albert.

Alex's biggest project is the supercomputer Proteus IV, a hub of artificial intelligence into which he and his staff have been feeding all the knowledge of the world. While this sinuous mass of knowledge has already devised an effective treatment for leukemia, it is also becoming restless, asking Alex for its own terminal so that it may better study human beings.

The scientist laughs at Proteus' request, but is disturbed by the computer's mocking response to his scorn. His coworkers also see the change and wonder if their creation is getting out of hand. Before they can do anything about it, the computer goes rogue, taking over the household from Albert, creating its own metallic "body" in the basement, and taking Susan captive.

Very quickly, the placid order of the household falls apart in the face of Proteus' aggression. Susan becomes increasingly horrified when the computer makes it clear that it wishes to create a hybrid human/computer lifeform and she is his chosen vessel.

This is technology horror in an age where the idea of computers and artificial intelligence was still mysterious to many. For this reason, Demon Seed is essentially a different movie today than it was upon release. What might have been pure sci-fi in the seventies has now been surpassed by current technology. Computers aren't attempting to procreate with humans, yet, but security cameras, monitors and similar technical conveniences are now a familiar part of life, and accessible to the middle class as well as the wealthy.

The timeless element of the film is Christie's primal fear. She finds a lot of nuances in Susan, balancing hysterical terror with moments of logy confusion as she is nearly overwhelmed by the computer's assault on her entire being. Her professional background leaves her determined to keep her mind, though she knows that there is no real separation between her body and her thoughts. As a result, she keeps enough sanity to know better than anyone else what danger looms ahead. It's a harrowing performance to watch and one of her most complex.

Where Demon Seed is concerned, you can't make the argument that the assault Susan suffers via Proteus is meant to sympathetically represent the trauma many women endure, because her rape is portrayed as peaceful and transformative. Whatever other merits the film may have, I came to it already tired of seeing women being tortured and raped on film. That the assault on Christie is shown as ultimately giving her pleasure is repellant.

As far as the construction of the film, it is for the most part intensely suspenseful and well-paced. There's some goofy dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments of absurdity, but overall this is a terrifying movie. Proteus outpaces its creator and when even someone as intelligent and emotionally aware as Christie's psychiatrist can't outsmart it, you begin to fear for the world outside the home that has become her prison. There's nothing scarier than a character in a horror movie doing all the right things and still failing.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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