Three 70s Science Fiction Movies with Shocking Endings
“Colossus: The Forbin Project”, “Soylent Green”, and “The Stepford Wives” were released in the 1970s. They addressed social and political issues of the day. Spoiler alert. These movies did not have upbeat endings. “Colossus: The Forbin Project” dealt with the nuclear arms race between the United States and The Soviet Union. “Soylent Green” dealt with pollution. “The Stepford Wives” dealt with the women’s liberation movement. This article has spoilers for these movies.
I think Frankenstein ought to be required-reading for all scientists.— Dr. Charles Forbin
Colossus: The Forbin Project
Many subsequent movies followed this 1970 movie’s premise. “Colossus” mentioned the connection to Frankenstein. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) headed a project that built a computer that would have complete control over the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Dr. Forbin designed the computer so it couldn’t be turned off. The concept was with an unassailable computer controlling the missiles an attack on the United States had no chance of succeeding. The computer had artificial intelligence so it could teach itself.
When they turned on Colossus it asked to be connected to the other computer. This surprised everyone. Colossus was supposed to be a technological leap ahead of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. agreed to connect their computers. The computers began with simple arithmetic at slow speed, then went on to calculus at high speed, then exchanged information too fast for the humans to track. They decided to break the connection. Colossus immediately asked they reestablish the connection. They didn’t comply and Colossus launched an ICBM at Russia. The Russian computer, Guardian, launched a missile at America. They reestablished the link. It was in time to stop the missile launched against the U.S. but the missile against Russia destroyed a city. Colossus and its Soviet counterpart established a common computer language.
The computers had Dr. Forbin’s Soviet counterpart assassinated. Colossus had Dr. Forbin under house arrest. Colossus could see Dr Forbin’s every move. Dr. Forbin talked Colossus into permitting 4 private visits a week from Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark), who Dr. Forbin claimed was his mistress. The visits would be under strict rules. Two American scientists attempted to overload Colossus’s circuits. Colossus ordered the scientists’ execution. Colossus informed Dr. Forbin of the summary executions over a game of chess moments before the executions. Dr. Forbin, through Dr. Markham continued to plot against Colossus. Colossus was impregnable but nuclear missiles require maintenance. Deactivating nuclear missiles during maintenance would defang Colossus. The plan seemed to be working.
Colossus makes an announcement to the world where it renames itself “World Control”. During the announcement it explodes two nuclear missiles which were supposed to be deactivated. Colossus explained its motivation. The purpose of Colossus’s creation was to prevent war. Colossus determined the way to prevent war was for it to control the human race. “Colossus: The Forbin Project” ends with Colossus telling Dr. Forbin; “In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Dr. Forbin shouted “Never!”.
The first message from one computer to another happened a year before “Colossus: The Forbin Project” opened in theaters.[i] In the 1970s it was considered impossible for computers to act on general principles rather than staying within the strict limits of its programming. In the 21st century such capabilities seem plausible. The movie leaves open the question of whether Dr. Forbin, and almost everyone else, will accept the reality of a computer running the world.
[i] History.com, The Invention of the Internet, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/invention-of-the-internet, last accessed 5/5/2018.
Would you be willing to give up freedoms for the promise of greater safety?
This 1973 movie is set in 2022. Overpopulation and pollution destroyed the environment. Regular food is something only the rich can afford. Even for the rich these items are extravagances. Furnished apartments include a woman. The woman is referred to as “furniture”. The staple food is “soylent green”. It is a cracker made from ocean plankton. The government passes soylent green out but there is a limited supply. Food riots are common and the police scoop people into dump trucks for crowd control.
There is a homicide of a rich man and the police department assigns Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) to investigate. Instead of partners detectives are teamed with a person to do research. Thorn’s assistant is Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). Detective Thorn has no problem pilfering food and alcohol from domiciles he enters while conducting investigations. This is a common practice among police. Martha (Paula Kelly), who is “furniture”, takes great pains to prevent Thorn from pilfering. Despite her efforts Thorn still takes a spoon that was dipped in strawberries from the apartment. Thorn gives the spoon to Sol so he can have the pleasure of tasting it. Sol is old enough to remember how the world use to be.[i] He constantly laments how we could have let things get this bad.
While researching for the murder investigation Sol learns some information that made him decide suicide was his best option. The government has euthanasia centers where people can go when they are tired with life. These centers are air conditioned. People who want to die fill out some forms and then they are administered poison. The patients would die painlessly in 20 minutes. During the 20 minutes they would watch a video that played classical music and showed scenes of unspoiled nature.[ii]
Thorn catches up with Sol minutes before Sol’s death. For the first time in his life Thorn gets to see the beauty of an unspoiled world. In Thorn’s conversation with Sol Thorn humbly says about what he sees; “How could I know? How could I, how could I ever imagine?”
Thorn follows Sol’s body as it’s processed. Thorn learns the bodies of the euthanized are made into soylent green. The oceans are polluted and the plankton is dying. Thorn defeats the henchmen. The movie ends with Detective Thorn gravely, probably mortally, wounded. Thorn tells Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters), his superior, about soylent green. Hatcher promises to report to the exchange about soylent green.
While Thorn uncovered the truth and passed the information on his actions are pointless because the situation is hopeless. The planet is dying and the human race is doomed. People learning about the situation won’t alter the outcome.
[i] Sol Roth would have been about 20 in 1973 so would have watched the environment and living conditions sharply decline over 50 years.
[ii] The Simpsons episode “Million Dollar Abie” parodied this scene. Abe Simpson tried an assisted suicide where he chose to watch police beating up hippies to the sound of Glenn Miller music.
Soylent Green is made out of people.
The Stepford Wives
This 1975 move spawned many sequels and a 2004 remake. The movie also added the term “Stepford Wives” to the American lexicon. Celebrity fitness and diet expert Richard Simmons used the term “Stepford Wives” in one of his exercise videos. The woman’s liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s and by the mid-70s was making major strides in changing the perception of women’s roles. Television commercials of the 1950s and early 60s often had gorgeous, well made-up, women wearing dresses preparing meals in immaculate kitchens. Women mocked these commercials’ lack of realism. Advertisers introduced commercials that had women who looked like typical housewives. The Stepford Wives played into these changes.
Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson) was fed up with life in New York City so he and his family moved to Stepford, Connecticut. Walter’s wife, Joanna (Katharine Ross), is a photographer. Walter applies for acceptance into the Stepford “Men’s Association”. One night the members come over. One member, Ike Mazzard (William Prince), makes a series of detailed drawings of Joanna’s facial features. The Association accepts Walter. Joanna isn’t happy in Stepford. The wives always keep themselves and their houses immaculate. Keeping their houses and themselves “perfect”, and pleasing their husbands, are the wives’ only interests. Joanna finds two exceptions, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) and Charmaine Wimpiris (Tina Louise), both recent arrivals. Bobbie cares little about her or her home’s appearance. Charmaine is a “trophy wife”[i]. She likes to play tennis and have her husband out of the house at night. The trio decide they want to shake things up in the town. They decide to start a Women’s Liberation chapter. None of the other wives are interested. The trio is surprised when a woman who lives and works in a nearby town, tells them an African-American family is moving into Stepford. The woman also told them Stepford was the first community in the area to start a Women’s Liberation chapter. They talk to the Stepford wife who started the chapter and the woman explains taking care of her family was more important.
Six weeks after Charmaine moved to Stepford a construction crew tore up her tennis court. Charmaine spoke and acted the same as the other Stepford wives. After Bobbie was in Stepford for six weeks she has an immaculate house and looks and speaks the same as the other Stepford wives. Joanna knows in a couple of weeks she will be the same as the other wives. Joanna explains the situation to her psychiatrist (Carol Eve Rossen) and she tells Joanna to get out. Joanna confronts Bobbie. In frustration Joanna rams a kitchen knife into Bobbie’s gut. There is no blood. Bobbie gently chides Joanna as she removes the knife, rubs it with a towel and puts it away. Bobbie, like a broken record, keeps repeating the same words and actions. Joanna returns to her house to get her children. She knocks down Walter with a poker and demands he tell her where their children are. Instead of finding her children she finds the Stepford mastermind (Patrick O’Neal) who introduces Joanna to her unfinished robot replacement. The movie ends with a well-dressed Joanna and the other Stepford wives shopping at a supermarket. They politely greet each other as they go about their shopping. In the middle of the supermarket is an African-American couple. The wife seems perplexed at the wives’ behavior.
[i] Trophy wife wasn’t a generally used in 1975.