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Demon Seed
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Demon Seed

1977 was a watershed year for science fiction cinema. George Lucas' seminal film Star Wars was released in May and by the end of the year Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was also playing in theaters. These movies would go on to become two of the most profitable and crowd-pleasing films ever produced in Hollywood and they would inevitably overshadow another science fiction film that had made waves a few months before both of these money-making hits - Donald Cammell's Demon Seed (1977).

The film features the British actress Julie Christie as a psychologist involved in an unhappy marriage with a brilliant scientist (Fritz Weaver) who has created a remarkable advanced supercomputer (voiced by Robert Vaughn) known as Proteus IV. When the couple decides to separate Julie Christie finds herself alone in their house which has been equipped with every modern convenience imaginable including a powerful home computer, complex security system and a headless robot able to perform various household tasks. Christie's domestic solitude is shattered when the computer decides to imprison her at home and force her to give birth to its offspring.

Demon Seed is a strange combination of science fiction drama and home invasion thriller with some impressive visual effects for its time. Unlike Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cammell's film took a serious approach to its futuristic storyline and the film's adult themes and complex story line lacked mainstream commercial appeal. The plot borrows ideas from other popular films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) but Cammell's approach is anything but formulaic. His creative approach to the material gives Demon Seed an original edge that still feels contemporary today.

Demon Seed was based on a popular science fiction novel of the same name published in 1973 by author Dean Koontz. Producer Herb Jaffe purchased the rights to Koontz's book soon after it was released and his son, writer Robert Jaffe, completed a script based on the novel in 1975. MGM was interested in turning Jaffe's script into a full-fledged movie and many directors were rumored to be associated with the project before the studio asked Cammell to take over. Cammell had made a name for himself in Hollywood after co-directing the groundbreaking and controversial film Performance (1970) with Nicolas Roeg and he was eager to work again but studio executives were weary of his artistic temperament and notorious reputation as a drug-using bohemian. When MGM offered Cammell the opportunity to direct Demon Seed he jumped at the chance because he needed the money but he was also extremely interested in the subject matter. Cammell's relationship with his former creative collaborator Nicolas Roeg had become strained over the years and Cammell was disappointed that he wasn't given the chance to produce the science fiction drama The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which Roeg had directed. In some ways Donald Cammell's decision to do Demon Seed was a response to being taken off the production of The Man Who Fell to Earth as well as a reflection of his troubled relationship with one-time directing partner Nicolas Roeg.

A few years earlier Roeg had great success with his critically acclaimed supernatural thriller Don't Look Now (1973), which featured the actress Julie Christie in one of her most challenging roles. It's reasonable to assume that Donald Cammell was also impressed with Christie's exceptional performance in that film and he personally asked the actress if she would star in Demon Seed. Cammell was so eager to get Christie for the movie that he told MGM that he would only direct Demon Seed if Christie agreed to star in it. The actress admired Cammell's earlier work and she had also expressed interest in starring in more action oriented movies that allowed her to stretch her acting abilities, so it's not surprising that she accepted Donald Cammell's offer. Christie was no stranger to working with demanding directors and her previous work in science fiction productions such as François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) as well as the British television series A for Andromeda (1961) undoubtedly helped prepare her for her role. She worked well with Donald Cammell during the making of Demon Seed and her suggestions and ideas about changes to the original script were welcomed. Interestingly enough, before Christie committed to the role, Cammell had been tailoring the script for Marlon Brando as the scientist who creates Proteus IV; that role eventually went to Fritz Weaver instead when the studio nixed the idea of two difficult creative people - Brando and Cammell - working together.

Demon Seed garnered a lot of attention when it was released in April 1977 thanks to its salacious advertising campaign that featured a partially clothed Julie Christie on her back and tag-lines like "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." Some critics dismissed it immediately and berated the movie for its sexual themes and exploitation of its female star. As lurid and suggestive as it may have been, the publicity for Cammell's movie had very little to do with the actual film. Demon Seed is a thought-provoking film about the ethics of scientific progress in a male-dominated field and it's extremely uncomfortable to watch a woman repeatedly restrained and assaulted against her will by a man's invention. But contrary to its advertising campaign, the film is not gratuitous. A lot of the events depicted in the movie take place off screen and they're masked by special effects and colorful visuals including some stunning computer animation by American artist/underground filmmaker Jordan Belson (Music of the Spheres [1977], Cosmos [1969]). Demon Seed is troubling because Julie Christie is an unusually gifted actress and her outstanding performance as the tortured victim makes it easy for the audience to believe that she's suffering real harm. The Variety reviewer thought Demon Seed featured "Excellent performances and direction (Donald Cammell), from a most credible and literate screenplay." Other critics just found the whole enterprise rather ridiculous such as Vincent Canby from the New York Times who called Demon Seed "gadget-happy American moviemaking at its most ponderously silly."

Six weeks after the release of Demon Seed the film was overshadowed by George Lucas' Star Wars. Critics and audiences were given very little time to contemplate the larger ideas that Donald Cammell's film was presenting or appreciate the movies impressive visual effects and clever editing. Today Demon Seed seems remarkably prophetic for its time because so much of the science that it advocated in 1977 has become commonplace. Organism cloning, artificial insemination and complex artificial intelligence systems are no longer science fiction and they've become science fact. What may have seemed utterly ridiculous in 1977 doesn't seem all that implausible now.

Producer: Herb Jaffe
Director: Donald Cammell
Screenplay: Robert Jaffe, Roger O. Hirson; Dean R. Koontz (novel "Demon Seed")
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Music: Jerry Fielding
Film Editing: Francisco Mazzola
Cast: Julie Christie (Susan Harris), Fritz Weaver (Alex Harris), Gerrit Graham (Walter Gabler), Berry Kroeger (Petrosian), Lisa Lu (Soong Yen), Larry J. Blake (Cameron), John O'Leary (Royce), Alfred Dennis (Mokri), Davis Roberts (Warner), Patricia Wilson (Mrs. Talbert), E. Hampton Beagle (Night Operator), Michael Glass (Technician), Barbara O. Jones (Technician), Dana Laurita (Amy).
C-94m.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Sources:
Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side by Rebecca and Sam Umland
Julie Christie by Michael Feeney Callan
Julie Christie: The Biography by Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildre

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