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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

Eric Braeden on How Colossus: The Forbin Project First Predicted the Rise of AI

Well over a decade before Skynet hit the scene, a sentient computer known as Colossus deemed itself superior to humanity.

By Josh Weiss
A split featuring Eric Braeden in 1970 and recently.

What comes to mind when we say the phrase "rogue artificial intelligence"? Your brain probably shouts "Skynet!!" and conjures up images of a leather-clad Arnold Schwarzenegger mercilessly hunting down Sarah Connor. It's not that unreasonable to argue The Terminator birthed our collective phobia of technology evolving from a modern convenience into an apocalyptic instigator.

But what if we told you Cyberdyne's computerized monstrosity was not the first cinematic machine to gain sentience and deem itself superior to the human race? Fourteen years before James Cameron exploded onto the scene with his cautionary tale about our technological hubris getting the better of us, Universal Pictures had already tried to warn society about the dangers of AI in a post-nuclear civilization with a semi-obscure science fiction thriller titled Colossus: The Forbin Project (now available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment).

Based on the 1966 novel Colossus written by author D.F. Jones, the 1970 adaptation follows Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden), the world's foremost expert on computers who invents a complex and indestructible electronic brain — the titular Colossus — tasked with overseeing the defense apparatus of the United States. The rationale of handing the keys to America's nuclear arsenal over to a machine is as follows: a cool, emotionless entity acting solely on hard facts will be a vast improvement over the hot-headedness and fallibility of human operators.

Things take a drastic turn once Colossus becomes self-aware, merges with a Soviet equivalent called "Guardian," and holds the Cold War superpowers hostage with the threat of nuclear annihilation if its demands are not met in a timely fashion. Dr. Forbin, of course, comes to regret his wayward invention, stating at one point that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein should be mandatory reading for any would-be scientist. Not only does The Forbin Project present a terrifyingly plausible scenario, but its surprisingly non-ending conclusion (one that defies the traditional Hollywood mandate of wrapping up every story point in a neat little bow) doesn't offer up any easy answers.

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Colossus: The Forbin Project Star Eric Braeden Looks Back on Prescient Sci-Fi Thriller

"It felt way out of the realm of possibility at that time," Braeden, who has spent the last 44 years portraying Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless, tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom. "How quickly that has changed. It’s extraordinary, the leaps and bounds we have made in technological terms. It’s scary. We’re obviously not getting a handle on it."

Braeden, who was born Hans-Jörg Gudegast, decided to accept the role of Dr. Forbin after realizing it could be his ticket to more fulfilling roles. Up until this point, he had been cast to play German and Nazi characters such as Captain Hans Dietrich in The Rat Patrol series. "[My wife] reminded me that I always wanted to get out of this Nazi trap. I was sick and tired of playing Nazis," he adds. "I had had it with [being typecast]. And she said, ‘This is your chance.’"

He reluctantly changed his name to "Eric Braeden" (the surname being a nod to his hometown of Bredenbek) and got to work on Colossus, which enjoyed a predominantly closed set. No one outside production was allowed to be present for the shoot, save for a number of special exceptions, including an ambitious young director working for Universal's television arm on shows like Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. "Every so often I saw two or three strange people there," Braeden remembers. "I said, ‘Who the hell are they?’ [They said] ‘Well, that’s a young director called Steve Spielberg. He wants to observe.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay.’"

Why Did Colossus: The Forbin Project Fall into Obscurity?

A split of featuring two posters for The Forbin Project (1970).

Released into theaters on April 8, 1970, Colossus: The Forbin Project proved to be a major box office misfire, grossing less than a half a million dollars, according to the American Film Institute. One of the biggest reasons behind such lackluster ticket sales is the fact that 1970 was one of the worst financial periods in Hollywood history (an extension of the wider economic problems faced by the United States as a whole during that time). 

"It came out at a very bad time," Braeden explains. "There was kind of a depression afterwards, where they made no films in Hollywood. The whole business went into a low gear from about 1970 on. People didn’t go to theaters much, no new films were made, there was no money around, [and] a lot of big stars turned to television. It just came out at a very unpropitious time."

In spite of the disappointing turnout from audiences, Colossus garnered generally positive reviews from critics, landed a Hugo nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation, and won a "Golden Scroll of Merit" at the 1979 Saturn Awards. What's more: the film inspired up-and-coming directors who would revolutionize the science fiction genre like James Cameron, who "was a big fan of Colossus," Braeden says.

He learned of Cameron's love for the movie while playing the role of John Jacob Astor IV in 1997's Titanic." I finished a scene with DiCaprio and James Cameron said, ‘Never!’ I said, ‘What do you mean never?’ I thought he was criticizing the scene. He said, ‘Don’t you remember the last word in Colossus?’"

As Braeden had hoped, The Forbin Project unlocked the door of opportunity. Once the industry's movers and shakers saw the film, they began courting him for coveted roles. For example, longtime James Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli asked him out to lunch with the intention of offering him the chance to play 007 once George Lazenby exited the lucrative franchise. Little did Broccoli know... Braeden was not a native Brit. "We had lunch and he said, ‘Do you still have a British passport?’ I said, ‘No, I have a German passport.’ [His face] went down like a curtain. So that was the end of that. They were very upset, they felt they had a new James Bond."

A year after Colossus debuted, Braeden played another government scientist, albeit one of a more nefarious nature, in Escape From the Planet of the Apes, which saw Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) traveling back in time to present-day Earth. "I wasn’t interested at all," Braeden confesses. "I just admired the actors who were undergoing that enormous makeup job every day. They came in at 3 o'clock in the morning and sat in that chair for four hours."

The talking chimpanzees become overnight celebrities, but must soon go on the run from Braeden's Dr. Otto Hasslein (a figure briefly mentioned in the first two Apes movies), who intends to kill them, as well as Zira's newborn child, in an effort to prevent the simian uprising. Hasslein does succeed in murdering the whole family, unaware that Zira switched her child with a different monkey at a traveling zoo run by a kind-hearted ringmaster named Armando (Ricardo Montalbán). Yeah, it's a super weird movie.

Anyway, by hunting the monkey refugees down, Hasslein ensures that apes will one day rule the world. Something that earned Braeden an infamous reputation among college students. "We lived near UCLA and there were a lot of students around and they would look at me. My son was usually on my back — he was about 5 or 6 — and they’d say, ‘Oh, look! There’s the bad man! That’s the guy who killed Baby [Milo]!’"

Will Colossus: The Forbin Project Get a Modern Remake?

Eric Braeden reading the paper while researchers look on in The Forbin Project (1970).

With AI being one of the major sticking points behind the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, Colossus: The Forbin Project seems particularly ripe for the ol' remake treatment. Indeed, a modern reimagining from Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment has been in development since 2007. Though time has certainly passed, Ron Howard was on board to direct the film, which had cast Will Smith as Dr. Charles Forbin in 2010. The last update on the project arrived in 2013 when Bill & Ted and Men in Black screenwriter Ed Solomon was tapped to rewrite the script from Blake Masters (2 Guns) and Jason Rothenberg (creator and showrunner on The 100). 

When SYFY WIRE asks Braeden what he'd like to see out of a potential remake, the actor counters with a message to Universal: Give the original film its due by way of a theatrical reissue. "They should bloody well re-release it with the appropriate advertising and … all that," he emphasizes. "It’s a very prescient film. They should re-release it, period. Not remake it, re-release it."

While Braeden admits he never cared all that much for sci-fi as a younger man, he's steadily come to appreciate how the genre never fails to telegraph the dark side of scientific breakthroughs that advance faster than we can properly understand them. "The fact that AI can imitate my voice, for example, and have me say things that I would never say, that’s frightening sh**," he concludes. "So I think the [AI] companies are in for a lot of lawsuits… big lawsuits. Because you know some slime-ball is gonna take advantage of it, as we have seen lately. The whole world of science fiction is more interesting than I ever gave it credit for."

Colossus: The Forbin Project is now available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.