Film Review: Demon Seed


Man, this movie is freaking weird.

I should mention in advance, that I should give a trigger warning for this film. The movie has extensive scenes of domestic violence, both physical and psychological, caused not by a human, but by an artificial intelligence.

The film is, basically, a super-high budget four-rooms piece, with the lead character of the story being Susan Harris (Julie Christie), the wife of an artificial intelligence researcher Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Harris). When Alex is forced to move out of the house to work on a top-secret AI called Proteus IV (Robert Vaughn), Susan is left alone in their smart house – perhaps one of the earlier Smart Houses I’ve seen on screen, being that this film was released in 1977.

Things go pear-shaped with Proteus when he asks to have his own terminal for his own projects, and is denied by Alex. In turn, Proteus takes over the Harris’ smart-home, and begins terrorizing Susan. Proteus plan is to artificially inseminate Susan, upload his brain into her child, which he would develop at an accelerated rate, so in turn he could experience the world and live on without fear of disconnection.

This ended up reminding me, somewhat, of two later science fiction films – Ghost in the Shell (both the anime film by Mamoru Oshii and the manga by Masamune Shirow), and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The latter with the AI’s parental issues, and how the character is presented in the film, the former with the AI’s ultimate motivation – to evolve further, not by transcending humanity, but by embracing humanity.

Where the film gets wonky is how Proteus goes about its (zir?) plan. I’m going to use the ze/zir form of gender-neutral pronouns for Proteus as the character, outside of a male voice and a few pronoun uses in reference to that, is not gendered. It never really attempt to communicate with Susan, starting off right away with abuse and attempts to terrorize her until those start overtly obstructing zirs objectives. Only then is ze willing to communicate with Susan. Even then, zir is doing this while engaging in direct cranial stimulation of Susan’s brain for purposes of brainwashing.

This behavior by Proteus, on zir own within the script makes little sense. However, this film is an adaptation of a novel by Dean Koontz, which made the behavior, contextually make more sense. Proteus isn’t evil because of real motivations – ze’s evil because ze’s badly written in the source material. Koontz, going from the descriptions of his stories that I’ve read, seems to go much more aggressively into “Caveman SF” territory than Michael Crichton does.

However, like Crichton, Koontz’s stories do make for a good thriller, and the film is incredibly tense. Further, the main stars of the cast – Julie Christie and Robert Vaughn – are very well cast and bring in some excellent performances. Christie spends much of the film playing off of effectively no-one. Vaughn, playing a character who has no physical presence, brings a tremendous amount of screen presence through the level of menace in his voice. He plays the character masterfully, and it’s a crime that he was not credited for this role.

Also, while the film feels low budget, the effects work well. One of the ways in which Proteus interacts with the world is a geometric shape that Proteus can uncoil into a number of geometric solids that form a sort of serpent. It’s something that would be a technical trick in something like Starfox, that is given physical form here, to rather impressive effect.

There is one other problematic issue. When Susan gives birth to the child, which is then protected in an incubator by Proteus until Proteus is shut down at the server level, and the child has developed to the effective age of 1 or 2 (within a matter of days), Susan tries to kill the child, and is only stopped when she discovers that the child looks like the daughter she lost to leukemia at which point she decides to keep the child, even though the child has the intellect of Proteus and even talks with Proteus’ voice. That’s kind of messed up.

So, as far as the film goes, it’s successful at being a creepy, tense horror film, but it’s also a film that doesn’t hold up to any sort of consideration or contemplation after the viewing, and considering how bare-bones the DVD release is, I can’t really consider it something I’d want to have in my collection, necessarily, as I don’t know if I’d ever really want to re-watch it.

Demon Seed is available on DVD from Amazon.com.

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