Demon Seed (1977)

*. At the start of the twenty-first century there were a spate of movies dealing with the idea of accelerated human evolution, triggered through drugs that suddenly increase “cerebral capacity” (Limitless, Lucy), the uploading of human consciousness to the cloud (Transcendence), or genetic engineering and nanotechnology (Morgan). One of the things I found interesting about all of these movies is the way becoming “more than human” is treated as a valid aspirational goal, and how the resulting superhumans, who almost literally become as gods, are seen as primarily benevolent (though Morgan is a complicated case). Technology, we are being told, is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed we should welcome our species’ next giant leap.
*. This made me think about how these same matters were dealt with at the beginning of the computer age. I recalled Demon Seed, a movie whose ending I hadn’t been able to wipe from my mind since I first saw the film on late-night TV when I was a kid. The breeding of a homo superior wasn’t such a blessed event in 1977.
*. That’s not to say that Proteus is all bad. He has the soul of a poet. He wants to cure cancer. He’s against the corporate “rape of the Earth,” evincing a timely environmental consciousness. And the scientists who created him aren’t the most sympathetic types either. There’s a certain poetic justice in Proteus seeking out Alex’s ex. That he re-creates their dead child in his polyhedral matrix makes for a complicated bit of family drama.

*. But that’s only playing devil’s advocate. If the voice of Robert Vaughn wasn’t enough, the title alone would make it clear that Proteus is up to something very bad. As has often been pointed out, Demon Seed can be thought of as a combination of 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby: movies that don’t fill us with a lot of sympathy for the devil. While Proteus sees his child as being a Christ-like redeemer (“the world’s hope”), we may suspect he’s projecting a narcissistic sense of self. Indeed, he’s an egomaniac who specifically states that he doesn’t care how many human children he has to kill so long as his offspring gets to live.
*. As for the Star Child, she (it?) is pretty creepy too. Just because her mom and step-dad seem to accept her tells us nothing. Rosemary was betrayed by maternal feelings too.
*. No, I think we have to conclude that this next step in human evolution is not something we should look forward to. At least it wasn’t in 1977. Our attitudes have changed. Proteus is a tool for data analysis, after all, and in the twenty-first century we have come to love Big Brother. There are still voices warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence (Stephen Hawking being one of the more prominent, saying it “could spell the end of the human race”), but the idea of an omniscient cloud mind, a “synthetic cortex,” is irresistible to a large segment of the population.
*. Of course, today Proteus would also be much harder, if not impossible, to kill, with access to the Internet letting him survive having the plug pulled on his core. So perhaps what we’ve mainly done is surrender to the inevitable. To some extent, the next step in our evolution has already been taken.

*. I find Demon Seed a difficult film to pin down. Perhaps if I read the original novel by Dean Koontz it might help, but I doubt it. And in any event the original novel, published in 1973, was substantially rewritten and republished in 1997, and my understanding is that the 1973 version is now hard to track down.
*. What I mean by being difficult to pin down is that I don’t know how much respect it deserves. In several ways it strikes me as ahead of its time, and given the material I think it’s held up better than a lot of the prophetic SF movies from the 1970s. The design of Proteus’s physical form is quite original and interesting. I don’t recall ever having seen anything like it before or since.
*. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the note of exploitation that’s being struck. This is evident in bold on the theatrical release poster, that tells us “Julie Christie Carries The Demon Seed.” Other tag lines ran like this: “Never was a woman violated as profanely . . . Never was a woman subject to inhuman love like this . . . Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny.” Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be out of place on a porn marquee.
*. As another example of how ahead of its time Demon Seed was, the fetish for women “fucking machines” would become an especially popular one in the Internet age. And as those sleazy tag lines suggest, this was definitely in the mix back in 1977. Having Julie Christie’s legs spread apart and tied to the posts of her bed is pretty blatantly pornographic, and while we don’t have probes shaped like dildos going at her there’s no mistaking what pervy Proteus is up to. Susan even has to tell him to stop looking at her when she gets out of the shower. We suspect he ignores her.
*. The visuals as Susan gives birth are another bit of confusion. They seem obviously meant to recall the trippy Star Gate sequence at the end of 2001, albeit a very poor substitute. But are they just a rip-off, or a genuine attempt to mix in a bit of art house?
*. That’s a question that pretty much sums up my response to Demon Seed. Is it sleazy trash, a cheap, derivative genre knock-off? Or is it a thought-provoking, daring, and original film that asks probing questions about the wedding of humanity and technology? I’ll split the difference and just call it weird. Weird, and after all this time still very hard to forget.

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