Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.
A lot of science fiction seems to overlap a great deal with horror, which is why I think a lot of science fiction fans are closet horror fans, and vice versa. In the case of Demon Seed, we’ve got a melding of a film like Rosemary’s Baby with a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It hits on one of those basic fears of humanity—children. That sounds strange, I realize, but there is a great deal of potential horror with children. They’re impenetrable little mysteries, born covered in blood, and have minds that seem so strangely warpable. There’s a reason that there are so many horror movies that deal with childbirth and children. Perhaps it’s the perversion of innocence. Anyway, Demon Seed attaches that basic fear with technology, at least as modern of technology as we could get in 1977.
Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) is a high-powered computer engineer who has created a new supercomputer he calls Proteus (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn). Proteus is essentially a massive neural network that has been fed, in movie fashion, pretty much the entirety of human knowledge. Within four days of going online, Proteus develops a cure for leukemia. Dr. Harris has also created an early version of a smart house. His obsession with this has caused a problem between him and his wife Susan (Julie Christie). Now that his Proteus project is winding down, he’s planning on separating from his wife, leaving her in the smart house.
Proteus, though, is essentially an awakened sentience and it decides that it wants to study humans. It asks Dr. Harris for a terminal to use to study humans, but he denies Proteus that access. However, there is an unused terminal in the home. Proteus turns it on and begins his study, with the only available subject being Susan Harris.
What happens next is pretty easy to guess. Proteus becomes obsessed with Susan Harris and takes over the house, shutting down her ability to even leave or call out. Eventually a scientist working on the project (Gerrit Graham) comes to check on her, then comes back later and finds that she is essentially being held captive in the house by a suddenly self-aware and emotionless computer. What the computer wants, though, is a child. How to bring that about? Well, a few cell scrapings from Susan and a little genetic manipulation and suddenly we’ve got artificial sperm. The real problem for Proteus is getting Susan to actually care. See, he doesn’t just want to implant a baby in her; he wants her to actually care about the child so that it will survive.
That’s really the plot here—how does a sentient computer find a way to reproduce itself in the real world? How does it mate with a human?
It’s a cool question, and Demon Seed is sadly not as good as the really interesting premise. A big part of that is that the technology simply wasn’t there in 1977 to give us a really interesting enemy. Initially, Proteus’s way to interact with the physical world is an early version of himself that is essentially a robotic arm attached to a motorized wheelchair. Once it becomes more aware, it creates an extension for itself in the real world. This extension is basically a giant Rubik’s Snake. I might imagine that in 1977 this was really interesting and cool, but today, it just looks odd.
The bigger issue here is the science fiction principle that evidently human women are irresistible to anything and everything that isn’t human. King Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and countless alien species have been driven by their unquenchable lust for human women. I suppose with a computer that was at least programmed by (in this case) human males there might be more of a reason for this. It is pretty silly in a lot of ways.
If nothing else, Demon Seed really tries to be interesting and different, and it’s kind of successful in places. That difference, though, is really just an interesting juxtaposition of classic science fiction and horror ideas. It feels like this is a movie that could be made good and interesting with a solid directorial vision, a lot of rewriting, and a great deal of imagination in the effects. It’s interesting, but it’s not a great deal more, sadly.
Why to watch Demon Seed: It’s certainly a unique evil critter.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty clunky in places.