July 3, 2011

Synapses and Circuits

The Colossus of New York (1958)

What is it that makes you unique among all the billions of people in the world-- what is that makes you, you? Is it your mind alone? Is it some combination of mind and body? Is there such a thing as a soul that can be severed from both mind and body at death, and start floating around the universe (or heaven, or some other dimension), preserving everything that is you for all time? Philosophers and religious scholars have grappled with this problem  for a very long time with very little consensus.

Lately, with supercomputers undreamed of even five years ago, and molecular and quantum computing on the horizon, speculation has turned to the possibilities of mind uploading or "whole brain emulation" -- digitally mapping a biological brain and processes in such complete detail that it could continue functioning in some kind of computer system. Imagine taking an image of your brain, uploading it to the most super of supercomputers, and finally connecting it up with digital sensors and robotic capabilities. Suddenly, the concept of a "new you" becomes literal instead of figurative.

On second thought, forget the digital brain scan -- what if it was your actual, living brain that was now divorced of its body and hooked up to all the electronics. Would that still be you? Or is there something special about the mind-body interaction, some whole beyond the sum of the parts that really accounts for all that is you, and when that's messed up, the result is something else, something… not you anymore…

The great science fiction writer Damon Knight explored that very topic in his famous 1968 story "Masks." In a secret research project, a horribly injured quadriplegic has his consciousness transferred into a brand new, gleaming cyborg body. Sounds great, right? Not only have all his health and mobility problems been solved, but there's nothing preventing him from living for a very, very long time, if not forever. Only, as he interacts with the scientists and other people around him, he begins to develop a new aesthetic, and a growing distaste for these messy, sweaty, greasy, disease-ridden and very imperfect bio-organisms. He loses his connection with not only humanity, but all living things, with tragic consequences. Ten years before Knight's groundbreaking story, The Colossus of New York explored the same territory, with darkly surprising and at the same time head-slappingly silly results (after all, the film was made by fallible humans).

Colossus begins by introducing us to the Spenssers, a veritable think-tank of a family whose collective IQ is off the charts. Patriarch William Spensser (Otto Kruger) is a noted brain surgeon, and son Henry (John Baragrey) is a whiz with robotics and automation (quite fortuitous skills, as we will shortly see). But the youngest member of the family, Jeremy, is even more brilliant--  "one of the few authentic geniuses in the country," in the words of old family friend Dr. John Carrington (Robert Hutton). He's just gotten back from a trip to Stockholm where he accepted the "International Peace Prize" for his work in producing hardier, cold-resistant crops to feed a hungry world. Doting father William patiently explains to a reporter that his son works at the highest level of genius, which tries to address the needs of all humanity.

All that promise is tragically obliterated in the next few minutes. A wind kicks up as the ebullient Jeremy, family and friends prepare to leave the airport. Jeremy's son Billy loses his toy airplane in the wind, and foolishly, the dutiful father and peace prize winner chases the toy into the street. He looks up just a split second before a truck barrels into him.

William's grief seems to have gotten the better of him when he has Jeremy's body delivered to the Spensser mansion instead of a mortuary. No one understands why he's operating on a dead man in his home laboratory. Hours later, a grim-faced William emerges from the lab to tell John, Henry, and Jeremy's wife Anne (Mala Powers) that "I did all I could." Which apparently is quite a lot, as they soon discover.

At the funeral, Carrington declares in his eulogy that despite the seeming senseless of Jeremy's death, there must be in God's infinite wisdom a profound meaning in the loss of such a great genius. William jumps up, yelling "No! No!" and rushes out the room. Later, he has it out with Carrington. While keeping the results of the operation a secret from the old friend, he recklessly implies that not even death has to keep a good man down:
Brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser's brain
is preserved in classic sci-fi style.
William: Don't you realize that Jeremy's brain was unique? It was like Darwin's, like Michelangelo, like DaVinci, like Einstein. Now suppose, all those great brains had been allowed to continue their work, unhampered by their bodies? Think of the advance in civilization there would be.
John: No, no… I believe that every man, and that includes every great man, is the product of his mind and body. It's through the divine spark of the creator that the interconnection of body and mind is achieved through the soul…
William: Oh, now don't speak to me of antiquated notions like a soul! You're a scientist-- can you measure a soul?
John: As a scientist, I believe that any brain, unable to feel hunger and cold, pleasure and pain, love and hate -- any brain -- divorced from human experience, must become dehumanized to the point of… monstrousness.
William: You are an idiot… an idiot! I tell you, that in the brain, and in the brain alone, lies the glory of man, the ability to think, to create… why, these go on eternally! I tell you that the brain is supreme, it is immortal, and I can prove…
John: Wait, wait, this is merely a theoretical discussion.
William (hand over his mouth, hesitating): Er, yes… quite…
Here then is the crux of the age-old mind-body problem, and the crux of the film. And, with a good working knowledge of Frankenstein and all the other "he dabbled in things best left alone"-type films, it's an easy guess who will be proved the greater fool in the end.

Brother Henry, no slouch himself as a scientist, has chafed for years at all the attention lavished on Jeremy by his father, and by the world. With Jeremy's death, he decides to make a move on his brother's attractive widow Anne. But a short time later, he finds out things aren't so simple. William gives him a tour of the dark lab, where Henry discovers that his brother's brain is still alive in classic sci-fi style in a glass container, hooked up to a plethora of tubes and electronics. The brain can receive voice transmissions, and in turn can "speak" through a teletype machine. Henry's response: "It's inhuman!" But William's doting on Jeremy has now become an obsession. "With your knowledge of automation, you can help him live again!" he pleads with Henry.

The product of the collaboration between the brain surgeon and the automation specialist is one of the more eerie creations in all of '50s sci-fi: an 8 ft. tall automation with a huge domed head; glowing white eyes; a crude, chiseled face; a mouth that moves slightly, but never fully opens; and huge metal hands with long, jointed fingers. An enormous cloak and Frankenstein monster-like boots complete the effect. (The Colossus is played by 7' 6" Ed Wolff, who had been a circus giant before getting work in movies.)

Henry, whose motivations are perhaps less than pure, makes William promise that once the new body is activated, he will let Jeremy decide if he wants to go on living in such a fashion. William, obsessed with the idea that Jeremy's genius can help the world cure much of its ills, reluctantly agrees. The activation scene is very well done, and in a low-key way produces more chills than all the arcing electricity and pulsating dials of all the Frankenstein films put together. In a nice point-of-view shot, the interference in the automaton's visual circuits clears up to reveal a concerned William staring up at the giant. In a distorted electronic voice that makes the flesh crawl, Jeremy wails that "he can't move." "You can move!" William insists. It's a physical therapy session from Hell that gets kicked up several notches when the bewildered Jeremy sees what he's become in a less-than-ideally-placed mirror. His spine-chilling electronic screams wake up Anne, who insists she heard a voice like her husband's before the ruckus. The patronizing men reassure her it was nothing at all. (Later on in the film as the Colossus finds his voice, it's clearly Jeremy's/Ross Martin's, which is satisfying from a dramatic standpoint, but not from a scientific one-- how in the world, and why, did they recreate such a unique human attribute in the giant's electronics, when everything else about the thing is otherworldly in the extreme?)

Anne (Mala Powers) has just about had it with
her manipulative father-in-law (Otto Kruger).
After the shock of seeing himself in the mirror, Jeremy pleads with his father to destroy him. But the obsessed William talks Jeremy into continuing by appealing to his sense of duty to humanity:  "Jeremy, you still have a priceless gift to give to the world… I can give you destruction, or you can give us a world of abundance!" How can any self-respecting cyborg turn an appeal like that down? But Jeremy has one condition-- "I don't want anyone ever to see me…"

Henry is bummed, skeptical and frightened: 1.) even after Jeremy's "death," he's still being eclipsed by the favored son; and 2.) this 8 foot tall monstrosity he himself designed might just stand in the way of his designs on Anne. He unwisely taunts the Colossus, and then hurriedly shuts the creature down remotely when it moves menacingly toward him, hissing in its creepy electronic voice, "Don't taunt me Henry…"  (the scientists have wisely built another safety mechanism into their creation-- a shutdown lever attached to the back of Colossus' body where he can't get to it with his mechanical hands!)

Ever the good son, Jeremy tries to adapt to his electronic/mechanical "prison." Not only does he adapt, but he develops new faculties. He describes to William and Henry a disturbing vision he's had of two ships colliding in a fog-shrouded sea. Hours later, the collision is worldwide news. But along with the ESP, he's developed something darker-- a growing cynicism. When his father excitedly reports that the World Food Congress will be held at the United Nations and Jeremy's work will be featured, the Colossus sneers that it's good to be remembered, especially on this day-- the first anniversary of his death. He declares that he shall commemorate his own death with a trip to the gravesite. When William forbids it, Jeremy/Colossus reveals yet another talent-- the ability to hypnotize with his flashing white eyes (see the clip below).

It's at this point that Colossus veers from dark, gothic, Frankenstein-inspired sci-fi to Saturday matinee chapter-serial stuff. By itself, Colossus' ability to hypnotize by flashing his eyes is acceptable, if a little corny. But in the latter half he acquires all kinds of superpowers that come out of nowhere and leave you scratching your head: precognition, the ability to walk underwater, and coolest of all, the ability to shoot death rays from his glowing eyes. To top it off, the filmmakers try to tug at the heartstrings by having Jeremy/Colossus meet up again with his son ("Are you a good giant, or a bad giant?" the implausibly calm boy asks Colossus at their first meeting). At one point he even gives the boy a new toy airplane. Ouch!

The first half of the movie is darkly effective, and the rest so cartoonish that you have to believe at some point the money people started turning the screws to make the thing more kid-friendly. As Jeremy's paranoid psychosis blooms, so do his superpowers. With his ESP, he can see where Henry is and what he's doing at all times-- the duplicitous would-be wife stealer gets his comeuppance with some well-placed death rays (the monster surprises his no-good brother by suddenly emerging from the East River after a nice underwater stroll). And his mind takes even a darker turn. "Why should we work to preserve the slum people of the world?" he asks his stunned father. "Isn't it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead?… It will be necessary to get rid of [the] humanitarians first!"  Hmmm…. maybe John Carrington wasn't such an idiot after all. Divorced of the essential mind-body connection, Jeremy/Colossus has become as soulless as a Wall-Street bankster or a Washington politician.

The Colossus tries to "enlighten" the world's
top scientists gathered at the United Nations.
The climax takes place at the United Nations building, where the misguided humanitarians have assembled to talk about world hunger. Yes Virginia, there are death rays, and shouting, and screaming, and shattered glass-- all against the backdrop of the Isaiah 2:4 quote inscribed at the U.N., "They shall beat their swords into plowshares [and so on]." And yes, that safety shutdown lever built into the Colossus becomes quite handy.

Besides the overdone pathos, other production elements served to take Colossus down a peg or two from minor sci-fi classic status. Van Cleave's original score for single piano strikes just the right ominous tone in the title credits, but as the movie progresses, the dirge-like piano music begins to sound like a cheesy accompaniment to a silent movie. The sound effects are also amateurish. The cartoonishly-loud clomping of Colossus' boots sounds the same regardless of location-- lab, forest, lawn, or the marble floors of the U.N. And the electric-current buzzing that follows the cyborg around wherever he goes wears thin pretty fast.

Sadly but predictably, Colossus was not a resume highlight for most of its cast and crew. In Keep Watching the Skies (McFarland), Bill Warren relates that director Eugene Lourie signed onto the picture while waiting for the go ahead on a much larger sci-fi project, The Giant Behemoth (1959). Despite reservations with the script (or maybe because of them), he shot Colossus in eight days. In an interview published in Fantastic Films #17, he's extremely dismissive: "I remember very little of the actual shooting as I remember very little of the scarlet fever I had when I was eight years old." Okay then! (Lourie made more of a name for himself as an art director, but he did direct some of the greatest "giant monsters on the loose" movies of all time: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, Behemoth, and Gorgo, 1961.)

Robert Hutton, a character actor with leading man-looks who seems to have been in half of all the sci-fi movies made in the 1950s and '60s, was similarly unimpressed with the production: "To be quite honest with you, I had completely forgotten that I even made that movie until I saw it recently on television. It was wonderful working with Otto Kruger (William Spensser) -- he was great, a fine actor. Except for that, it was not a very memorable experience [laughs]." (Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, McFarland)

Anyway, I remember it pretty vividly for scaring the heck out of me as a kid. The scene in which William activates Colossus for the first time, and poor Jeremy takes a good look at his new body, is especially effective and chilling. Even though the film -- like the title character --  loses a bit of its soul midway through, it's worth the trouble of looking up. A watchable (but not great) copy is available from Sci-Fi Station.

Update: Olive Films will be releasing Colossus on DVD on August 16, 2011. The film is finally getting the kind of video release it deserves!

Brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin), now a hulking Colossus, decides to take a stroll and visit his own grave:

1 comment:

  1. Wow interesting stuff I'd have liked to see this movie but it's not on Netflix.