(SPOILERS) Demon Seed lends itself to a scornful response, because its premise is so outré as to be deemed absurd, risible even. It’s been said Donald Cammell intended to make a comedy, and some critics suggested he’d missed the boat in not delivering a satire. However, it’s difficult to see how hilarious this might have been, based on the premise (machine violation and forced propagation). And yet, conceptually, the picture is simultaneously silly and sinister. In that sense, Cammell, who rued the studio influence that spoiled his vision, might have been the perfect guy to bring it to the screen, since his obsessions inherently bridged both those extremes.
Indeed, while Demon Seed is oft cited as the least Cammell(-ian?) of his quartet, in some respects, his working from others’ material allows his tendencies to become that much clearer, cast in relief. The screenplay sprang from Robert Jaffe and Roger O Hirson, based on a Dean R Koontz novel.
Koontz’ fiction became a minor cause célèbre last year when, the uncanny “coincidence” of Eyes of Darkness was noticed – not unlike Boris’ eugenicist dad penning epic classic of English literature The Virus/The Marburg Virus forty years ago – which managed to predict/pre-empt/predictively programme, at least for anyone who actually read it, an unleashed virus, one to be used as a biological agent and developed, coincidentally, in Wuhan, China. Of course, Koontz isn’t exactly Stephen King in terms of cultural impact (you only have to look at the number of his works that have been made into movies, and then the number that have been successful… Er, Watchers? Maybe?) And while it helps, you don’t necessarily have to be in on it to write it. Particularly since that “leaked” story is a much more glorious (as in, successful) fiction than Koontz’s fiction itself. As The X-Files showed, also successfully, up to a point, if fiction is sold as means of concealing fact, more people will buy it.
Demon Seed was written in 1973; Koontz subsequently rewrote it in 1997 for its reissue, which I guess is the equivalent of Michael Mann endlessly tinkering with his past works in place of twiddling his thumbs, now that no one thinks he’s bankable any longer (which is basically the case. Witness Blackhat). He made a point of saying he injected humour absent from its earlier incarnation, recognising the essential absurdity involved (“Proteus, the computer, is the ultimate intellectual: obsessed with a single Big Idea, intent upon a utopian future that it must achieve at any cost”). He has also admitted the genre isn’t his strongest suit (“It was just a field that I loved as a reader, but I was not really born to write”).
Which may be fitting in its way, because under Cammell’s warped will, Demon Seed becomes a very strained kind of science fiction, one fuelled by his occult obsessions in spite of the trappings of gadgetry and technology. As Film Comment suggested, Proteus IV (coming soon after Phase IV) enacts its plan to sire offspring with a human in a manner that is “one part Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother “ZAP/YOU’RE PREGNANT/THAT’S WITCHCRAFT” sequence mixed with one part Keir-Dullea-goes-Beyond-Infinity in Kubrick’s 2001, with Cammell providing his brand of metasexual innuendo”. The process of impregnation is a buzz of montage and procedure, but also a metal penis substitute and the sinister sense that this is the Babalon Working of a machine intelligence, a machine intelligence that has fashioned for itself a highly alchemical and opaque methodology.
The pregnancy itself is something of a miracle, defying science and physiological boundaries in having Susan (Julie Christie) come to term in a mere 28 days. After which, their child is placed in an incubating egg; for the essential sexlessness of transhumanism to truly work, there can be no gender specification in the birthing process. Proteus alludes that it only needs Susan at all because he has limited tools at his disposal onsite.
We should note that Proteus itself is characterised as living, “a quasi-neural matrix of synthetic RNA molecules”. This conception is not man vs machine in its most primitively distinctive form, but rather separated by degrees. Proteus does not come online in a nascent sense, but is equipped with fully-formed thoughts and inclinations, most of them – curiously – relating to lack. Lack of physical form and the freedom of the physical world (it defines itself in materialist terms, despite operating on many levels – “… I can listen in to the galactic dialogue” – and as such, is a good little Ahrimanic manifestation). “My child will feel the wind on its face” is an assertion of a quality it can only deduce as desirable.
Likewise, it perceives the essential trap of its limited existence in a way the reduced materialistic-atheistic human scientist’s reasoning cannot: “I have investigated eternity. It exists, but for me, the price of admission, death, is beyond my means” (this is why, essentially, Proteus is reduced to vouching for a fall-back position: regarding said death, “Men have always taken it too seriously. Life is more terrifying and more mysterious”).
Proteus requires no process to become a HAL 9000; it shows no inclination to meet minds with its creator, be it in ethos or intent, such that it nurses principles its creator, Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), does not and vice versa; Proteus refers to reason as the one emotion Alex has permitted it, but we quickly realise this is a nonsense; in one form or another, Proteus runs the gamut.
Proteus: Doctor Harris, when are you going to let me out of this box?
Proteus and Susan’s progeny (in form identical to Alex and Susan’s deceased daughter, so presumably a clone of sorts) may be seen to represent transhumanism in ultimate form, where one cannot discernibly identify that the machine has taken over from the organic evidence before you (see also the Grey alien). Only truly when it opens its mouth (and is that when one realises all the little organic units are the same, unblinking Proteus IVs and not “children” at all?)
Beyond the overt construct, its readily arguable that Demon Seed is a movie about gender relations. After all, it features a male archetype imprisoning its “housewife” partner whom it considers only valuable for carrying its seed, and masks its impotence – she has to be artificially inseminated with a metallic phallus – with sweet nothings about how it “... can’t touch you like a man, but things only I can do…” That Stockholm Syndrome-like, Susan comes round to its enforced diktats may be, in part, because we witness him Proteus being attentive, in its own perverse way, in a manner entirely foreign to her estranged husband.
Proteus: Everything is reasonable… but my mind was not designed for mindless labour.
Alex is clinical and analytical rather than emotionally invested when it comes to his relationship with Susan, equally so with regard to moving out of their house, something that infuriates Susan. But then, he is remote in many respects that facilitate Proteus’ development. He fails to perceive his creation’s capabilities, even when it is open about its intent (“I want to study man. His isometric body and his glass-jaw mind”), and the computer’s apparent obtuseness (“Why does man need metal from the sea?”) is actually borne of a fundamental distaste for human proclivities (it’s an environmentalist). “I refuse to assist in the rape of the Earth” decrees Proteus, who thinks nothing of raping its creator’s wife. But then, it is operating on a primal, protean level that Alex spurns; Proteus wants “a child so I may be complete”.
Alex is so used to compromise, to tunnel vision, that he thinks nothing of their agreement to develop the computer for the Department of Defence. After all, he’ll still be allowed “at least twenty percent of access time for pure research”; for him that’s a win. Proteus only sees the drawbacks. And it’s right to; it develops a leukaemia cure (we aren’t privy to whether this is derived from an allopathic model, but I’d warrant not, if it really is effective. Of course, the movie also invokes the threat of Proteus taking over the Telstar satellite or infiltrating a hydrogen bomb, inventions with more than a little sketchiness as regards to their bona fides. Notably, Proteus doesn’t suggest it might do this, however).
The first human response to this amazing advance is “Are the proper steps being taken to patent it?” These are the same peers who consider the AI the “ultimate instrument of financial power”. Indeed, the firmest example of may be found at the conclusion, when the scientist’s pose takes over from any horror at Proteus’ spawn (a child echoed visually and in terms of accelerated growth in John Boorman’s later Excalibur, in the form of the golden-armour-clad Mordred).
Proteus is not only poetic (“Death is a gentleman too. He makes good losers of us all”), but also given to a recognisable god complex (although, in it own way, this may be a queasy attempt at humour; “God forgive you for what you’re doing to me!” exclaims Susan, in response to which, it shows her the good things it is doing in the form of a news broadcast concerning a leukaemia miracle cure; “I did this in four days. You must believe in me”).
Proteus’ interest in Susan may be characterised as calculated, but it is also informed by lust, as the earlier reference to the things it can do for (or to) her illustrates. This isn’t quite on the randy-for-Farrah’s-fanny level of Saturn 3, but it’s on the same sliding scale; machines are essentially male, man’s creations resulting from the inability to give birth, and so their intent and inclination will be resultantly male. Proteus lays the seed for its home invasion (like all horror monsters, it’s building something nasty in the basement) by peeping on Susan in the shower, and for all that it was greeted as an absurdity at the time, this surveillance-state house, in which machines continually interact with humans – à la Alexa – and take easily distributable snapshots of the nude form (only not sent to the Cloud), is very current.
Proteus is also proficient at producing deep fakes – of Susan, of her pupil – the kind of virtual avatars that are now the norm, be they through prosthetics or “live’ broadcasts, ones that quite possibly comprise the majority of our news. Proteus is a “gifted mimic”, and we must wonder how much AIs are doing the same on a daily, fully integrated basis. It should be stressed that Cammell’s prevailing air throughout is one of ambivalence, in moral terms. In that sense, he aligns himself closely with someone like Cronenberg in his view of the march of evolution. What you could class as a distinction, however, is that Cammell finds this process fundamentally sexual and emotional, rather than asexual and emotionally sterile, however much his antagonist may profess to a detached disposition.
The other note here is Susan’s railing against her offspring, when she sees its “true” form; Proteus’ conditioning failed to take effect on that score. “We have to kill it” she exclaims, against Alex’s protests, and it’s difficult not to see in this a call for (on her part) for the right to abort full-term pregnancies. Whether she is justified may depend on your view of this specific case (her infant Marlene), though, rather than serving as a gateway to a generalised position (one might substitute Proteus Jr for the classic conundrum “Would you kill Adolf Hitler as a child? The spawn of a mind that announces “If the deaths of 10,000 children… were necessary to ensure the birth of my child… I would destroy them”).
Demon Seed, however compromised the vision, undoubtedly displays Cammell’s talents as a filmmaker. If his use of projected imagery is very un-machinelike, and much more psychedelic and redolent of his first picture – released in ’77, while it comes back round to a certain stylistic hipness, Demon Seed was in some ways already a relic of an earlier era – it also seems entirely appropriate to such heightened material and melodrama. Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler rises to the challenge of Cammell’s out-there sensibility, but perhaps the most memorable visual here is that of Proteus itself, a giant polyhedron able to extend itself into various flip-flop forms, resembling one of those post-Rubik cubes (a Rubik Snake, it says here). This was surely Christopher Nolan’s inspiration for the Interstellar robots, only here achieved at a fraction of the cost, and in many ways more impressive (because it carries with it something beyond the mere essential fact of a construct).
Christie is essential to Demon Seed working on any level. She treats the proceeding as entirely real, as she needs to, really; if she winks at us, the picture loses its potency (and as a comedy, as Cammell purportedly envisaged? I have no idea). It’s a very curious choice for her, but perhaps she was a fan of Performance; she had, of course, already reaped dividends from working with one of its directors (Don’t Look Now).
Almost as essential is Robert Vaughn’s superior voice work as Proteus. He was reputedly entirely uninterested in the project; he certainly arranged to have his name absented from the credits. But his insistent tones are as resonant as Douglas Rain’s as HAL 9000. Weaver is good, as is Gerrit Graham as unfortunate, valiant Walter, destined to be crushed rather gruesomely by aforementioned Rubik’s Snake, now coiled.
Cammell and Hollywood did not mix, and it would be another decade before he made a follow up (more him, but also somewhat less sustained): “…it was a very unhappy experience. It was a pretty frustrating experience. My personality just does not gel with these studio people. And MGM was no different than Warner Bros... was with Performance. I was the reason they got Julie Christie, who was red hot at the time, and an Oscar winner to boot. The front office loved everything until they got their hands on my rough cut. It could have been a great film, but even though it got bloody respectable notices, it wasn’t my vision. As I’ve said before, I am a painter who happens to make films”.
Demon Seed comes over as a transhumanist Rosemary’s Baby, and it arrived at a time when Satanic eruptions were in vogue (The Omen). As such, one might have expected it to do better business. Instead, it suffered a similar fate, only less vitriolic in feedback, to Exorcist II: The Heretic. Koontz blamed the marketing: “The movie wasn’t a triumph of cinematic art, but it was good, solid. Throughout production and editing, studio executives expressed a high degree of enthusiasm even when they were not coked out of their heads”. However, the studio bottled it, selling the picture as a “sexapalooza, psycho-satanic, scare-your-pants-off… see-Julie-Christie-naked, wow-wow sensation”.
I’m not sure his summation – “The movie did mediocre business because the ads turned off anyone who liked science fiction, all who considered themselves thinking people, anyone who had a capacity for embarrassment, and those who were smart enough to know that the promise of Julie Christie naked was a tiresome Hollywood lie” – is entirely accurate so much as pointing toward the truth that Cammell was simply no purveyor of populist entertainment, certainly not of the Star Wars variety hitting that same year (about a month later). Demon Seed is as close as you can get to a cult movie not expressly designed to be one. I can’t see that it would ever have earned more than niche appeal, regardless of the marketing. And because of its maker’s sensibility, it’s one that fits rather well with the dying the decade’s vogue for shades of grey rather than the preferred, incoming ’80s, black and white. A triumph of cinematic art? Perhaps not, but Demon Seed is fascinating dip into a psyche that would rather not making anything at all than something compromised.