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Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Forbin is the designer of an incredibly sophisticated computer that will run all of America's nuclear defenses. Shortly after being turned on, it detects the existence of Guardian, the Soviet counterpart, previously unknown to US Planners. Both computers insist that they be linked, and after taking safeguards to preserve confidential material, each side agrees to allow it. As soon as the link is established the two become a new Super computer and threaten the world with the immediate launch of nuclear weapons if they are detached. Colossus begins to give its plans for the management of the world under its guidance. Forbin and the other scientists form a technological resistance to Colossus which must operate underground.

  • All defenses of the United States are permanently handed over to a fantastically advanced computer system called Colossus, designed by Doctor Charles A. Forbin. Less than twenty-four hours after its activation, it finds a similar system in the USSR, called Guardian, designed by Doctor Kuprin. At the request of both machines, they are linked. Colossus and Guardian proceed to exchange information at an incredibly fast rate, such that it alarms the President, and he orders a disconnection. When this happens, the two computers launch missiles at substantial cities in each others' countries. The link is restored in time for the Soviet missile to be intercepted, but not for the American one. A Russian oil complex is destroyed, and the machines threaten the destruction of other cities if the link is severed, or their orders disobeyed. The two systems merge into one, taking the name of Colossus. Two Colossus Programming Office supervisors are executed after a failed attempt to overload the system. Colossus begins to send designs for new computer systems. The militaries of the USA and USSR disarm several of the computer's missiles, under the impression that it knows nothing of their activity. It does, though, and during its speech to the world, it explodes two missiles inside their silos (one in Russia, one in the U.S.) when the sabotage crews are present, killing thousands. Colossus' speech makes clear that it will establish its own "absolute authority" over Earth, completely controlling mankind and eliminating freedom, achieving the same goals the President intended, but by a totally different means.

  • Thinking this will prevent war, the US government gives an impenetrable supercomputer total control over launching nuclear missiles. But what the computer does with the power is unimaginable to its creators.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) stands in the middle of an incredibly vast complex of reel-to-reel tapes, pilot lights, and punch tapes. This complex is named Colossus, and is the product of years of work toward a single goal: build a sophisticated and impregnable computer that can run America's missile defenses without interference from humans, and retaliate at once to any threat an enemy might pose.

    Clad in a white overall, he walks through the complex, a remote control in his hand, as he activates bank after bank of the huge complex. That done, he walks out of the complex, sealing huge vault doors behind him. The last door to close is the one to the outside of a mountain in Colorado. Once that door closes, it will never open--and even if anyone could get in, deadly radiation would kill him within minutes.

    Outside, the President (Gordon Pinsent), the Secretaries of Defense (Sid McCoy) and State (Byron Morrow), and the press greet him. He makes a brief speech, then flies to Washington, DC with the Presidential party.

    In the White House, the President orchestrates a grand announcement to declassify Project Colossus totally and let the world know what the United States has built. Forbin is on hand to explain what Colossus can do, and how it can monitor the state of the world, including every telephone call, radio and TV broadcast, or other mode of communication.

    Back in the primary command center on the California coast, Cleo Markham (Susan Clark) hosts a wild party with all the technicians who worked on the project, including Drs. Blake (Willard Sage), Johnson (Martin Brooks), Fisher (Georg Sanford Brown), Peterson (Lew Brown), and Harrison (Tom Basham), and secretary Angela Fields (Marin Ross).

    And in the middle of that celebration, Colossus abruptly issues a cryptic warning: THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM.

    The angry President summons Grauber (William Schallert), Director of Central Intelligence, to ask him why the [censored] he, the President, had to hear from Colossus, not from the CIA, that the Russians had a Colossus of their own! Forbin flies back to his command center to confer with Cleo and his staff. They run a diagnostic program--which runs about 150 times as fast as they're used to seeing. And then--a propos of nothing--Colossus requests--no, orders--everyone to set up a communications link between Colossus and Guardian, Colossus' Soviet counterpart.

    Intrigued by the possibilities, Forbin urges the President to set the link up. The President and the Soviet Party Chairman (Leonid Rostoff) agree.

    Colossus begins by sending Guardian a multiplication table, then progresses rapidly to calculus, then to very highly advanced mathematics. Next, Guardian starts sending the same output back to Colossus. Then Colossus slows down to let Guardian catch up, and then they continue with incredibly abstruse formulas in perfect synchrony.

    And then they stop. When Forbin asks Colossus to tell him what's happening, Colossus replies that it and Guardian have developed their own inter-system language and will start their own dialog--a high-powered dialog that no human can hope to follow.

    The Soviet Chairman calls the US President immediately and suggests pulling the plug, in fear that each system is disclosing classified information to the other. Forbin and his own counterpart, Kuprin (Alex Rodine), protest, to no avail.

    They cut off communications--and then Colossus demands they restore it. When the humans refuse, Colossus threatens "action," but won't say what. Then the President dictates a hard-nosed message to Colossus--which response by launching a missile at a Soviet oil complex. Guardian, for its part, launches a missile at Henderson AFB in Texas.

    Hurriedly, Forbin and Kuprin restore the link--and while Colossus can intercept the inbound missile, Guardian cannot--or does not--intercept the outbound. Colossus then demands the humans give it a tap into the White House/Kremlin Hot Line, the only line Colossus cannot--yet--listen in on.

    Forbin suggests making one last call over that line, to ask Kuprin to meet him in Rome. Forbin flies there, while the news desks explain away a stray missile that Colossus successfully intercepted, and a "meteor strike" that took out the oil complex.

    While Forbin is in Rome, Colossus issues another demand: "I WANT FORBIN." Cleo Markham desperately tries to stall Colossus by saying that Forbin is trying to catch some badly-needed sleep. But Colossus is not fooled. "WHERE IS FORBIN?" it demands. So Cleo confesses the truth.

    Colossus and Guardian engage in more dialog, while Colossus tells the humans to have Forbin on the line at 0800 the next morning "OR ACTION WILL BE TAKEN." Also: Guardian dictates an ultimatum to the Soviet authorities: kill Kuprin or a missile will take out Moscow.

    Once Forbin returns to the command center, Colossus orders him to arrange for "visual and audio surveillance" to cover him at all times--or the Colossus-Guardian team will nuke Washington. Forbin reluctantly agrees--but has one last meeting before the deadline. At this meeting he proposes three things:

    1. The technicians will write a program powerful enough to overload Colossus' circuits.

    2. The Air Force will painstakingly seek to disable all the missiles.

    3. Cleo Markham will pretend to be Forbin's mistress, and if Forbin can convince Colossus to let them have a little privacy in their lovemaking, Forbin can get information in and out, with Cleo as the channel.

    The next day, Forbin goes under surveillance, as agreed. In a dialog fraught with irony, Forbin gets Colossus to agree to let him and Cleo have private moments--under several almost humiliating conditions. Among them: that Forbin work with his technicians to give Colossus a proper voice, so that Colossus can communicate by more means than through slow terminals and teletypes.

    Cleo Markham succeeds in playing the part of a lover. Forbin keeps the relationship coldly professional as soon as the cameras and mikes are off--the first night. The second night, Cleo asks Forbin to make it somewhat more than professional. It becomes clear that Cleo has been in love with Forbin the whole time, though she knew him to be a cold fish, and is now availing herself of the opportunity to thaw him out.

    The overload program ends in worse than failure: Colossus correctly identifies Johnson and Fisher as the authors of the overload program and orders the guards to shoot them down--right outside Forbin's window, where they will lie where they fell overnight and until the next morning, when the guard will then cremate them. That night is another night for Cleo to visit Forbin, and Forbin breaks confinement to drink at night--which Colossus criticizes him for.

    The missile-crippling program, however, has another stroke of luck. When Colossus tries out its new voice (Paul Frees), it announces that Colossus and Guardian are now one corporate entity. Then it calls for manual realignment of all missiles to new targets--the capital cities of nation-states not under the direct control of either constituent mainframe. Grauber sees the point at once: in a few weeks they can reservice every missile--and place dummy guidance modules that will render them useless.

    But Colossus has the last laugh. One day, it is confidently sending out blueprints for a third system, that it expects Forbin to build for it on Crete, after evacuating its entire population. The next day, it addresses the world--and after boasting that it is now the ruler of the world, it says it has known about the sabotage since its inception, and will now detonate two missiles, one in Death Valley and one in the Ukraine, that were still active.

    The detonation kills Grauber, the SecState, and the SecDef.

    Forbin, crushed by what he has seen, takes a desktop telephone, jerks out its cable, and throws it into a monitor. Colossus takes no notice and goes on with its message that "time and events" will vindicate it. Forbin reacts in the most emotion he has ever displayed in his life: "You [illegitimate son]!" he shouts. And when paparazzi start snapping pictures at him, he roars at them to "GET OUT!" But Cleo Markham reaches for his hand, and smiles warmly.

    The last word Colossus has for Forbin is that Colossus will release Forbin from surveillance the next day, and expects Forbin to work with it, even if reluctantly at first. Forbin insists he will never do this, perhaps knowing that his protests are as futile as are those of a petulant child under parental or school discipline.

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