I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Forbin Versus Falken: Misguided Computer Scientists In Colossus: The Forbin Project and WarGames

by Tom Keiser
March 14, 2013

In 1983, two teenagers from Seattle, Washington almost brought down the entire United States military.

In 1970, two giant supercomputers, each programmed to control the military systems of the US and the Soviet Union, became sentient, merged, and took over the world.

Hubris doomed the world; emotion saved it.

Both WarGames and Colossus: The Forbin Project are fictional portrayals of when computers charged with guarding America’s nuclear arsenal go haywire. And each film portrays the calamities in different lights.

WarGames shows Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a proto-Ferris Bueller stumbling onto the “game” Thermonuclear War while trying to hack into a video game company’s mainframe. Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) is one of the masterminds behind WOPR, but has been retired and classified as deceased for over a decade, the death of his young son being a main factor in his nihilistic worldview.

But just how nihilistic is Dr. Stephen Falken? Well, for one, he lives close enough to a nuclear target site that he’ll be killed in seconds when the bomb hits. And when Lightman and his girlfriend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) travel all the way to Goose Island, Oregon, he initially tells them to let Joshua (his name for the WOPR program and the name of his late son) finish what they started, so the bees can eventually rule the Earth. David and Jennifer’s attempt to escape gives Falken hope, and he helps save the day in the end.

Enough of Dr. Falken’s backstory is fleshed out so we can understand his descent into cynicism and his return back to humanity. His is a tale of redemption, and in turn the redemption of a human race hellbent on mass suicide.

Unlike the hair-mussing, mass-hugging finale of WarGames, Colossus: The Forbin Project ends with the enslavement of mankind. Not only are we supposed to root for an aloof genius whose hubris dooms (DOOMS!!!) us all, but one who is as helpless as the rest of us. The smartest thing Dr. Forbin can think of is making the supercomputer turn away while he and his partner pretend to have sex. Because in the late 1960’s, computers were prudes. Forbin does not even give us the satisfaction of becoming a martyr. In fact, in the Dennis Feltham Jones book trilogy the movie is based on, Forbin dies but not before he and Colossus battle Martians in the final book, Colossus and the Crab.

Eric Braeden (the soap opera star) plays Dr. Charles Forbin as an ersatz Laurence Harvey. Supposedly Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck were pursued to star in Colossus, and there are scenes where Heston’s scenery chewing and Peck’s cantankerous paternalism would not be out of place. However, Braeden acquits himself and does use humor to alleviate his no-win situation.

Gordon Pinsent plays the least Kennedy-esque Kennedy ever in his role of President. He, like the rest of the group involved in creating Colossus, is too nearsighted, underestimating the intelligence of a computer controlling the world’s nuclear arsenal. John Landis, when reviewing the trailer to Colossus: The Forbin Project, compared The President to George W. Bush, and a “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner would not be out of place in the middle of this. Watching Colossus, it’s clear: the people who created this machine and this problem deserve what’s coming to them.

In WarGames Ronald Reagan is president, but is only present in photographs, phone conversation, and his real-life foreign policy at the time. Co-writer Lawrence Lasker’s family were friends with the Reagans, and the President himself saw it in a private screening. Blame is put not on American or Soviet foreign policy itself, but on the folly of nuclear war to begin with. This time, however, at least the humans have a machine they created in their own image, who is taught the way children are taught. While Colossus forces his will on the world, and hopes Forbin will someday learn to love him, WOPR/Joshua has to trust the humans as much as the humans trust their megacomputer.

WOPR and Colossus are characters in their own right, and each eventually gain voices, or at least “voice modulation systems”. In the back of our minds we know that these are just actors doing monotone robot voices (like Paul Frees in Colossus), or speaking the words in reverse sequence before having them rearranged and put through a voice synthesis program (like Professor Falken himself, John Wood, did for Joshua’s voice in WarGames). But these fake voices give the viewer a sense that the computer is evolving, while giving the writers and directors a shortcut into showing the computer’s motivations.

It’s no surprise which of these movies is more popular after so many years. Both WarGames and Colossus have aged in terms of their technology, but aside from one early scene inside the supercomputer itself, Colossus looks like an elaborate TV movie. In fact most of the actors involved (Georg Stanford Brown, Susan Clark, Dolph Sweet, and Marion Ross) were best known for their roles on 70’s and 80’s television. Meanwhile, although many of WarGames’ actors were relatively unknown, a plethora of character actors shine, including bit roles by Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen as an odd couple of computer nerds, and Michael Madsen and John Spencer with the finger on the button.

We did get close to World War III on several occasions, especially just after the release of WarGames. Soviet officials became paranoid after the accidental downing of a civilian jet which carried a United States Congressman, and upcoming NATO exercises (Operation Able Archer) seemed like a perfect opportunity for a U.S. first strike. On September 26, 1983, the USSR almost attacked the United States on false information from satellites and the Oko early warning systems. Stanislav Petrov, who was in command at the time, correctly realized that the system malfunctioned, and while other protocols were in place to prevent this information alone from starting an attack, his actions proved that human reason is necessary in the face of nuclear holocaust.

Both WarGames and Colossus: The Forbin Project imagine worlds that were not to be, where nuclear warfare is only in the reach of superpower governments, and where nuclear terrorism (by humans, at least) is not even an afterthought. However, both films give us insight as to where we were when the atomic clock came close to midnight. When on the brink of world suicide, militaries on both sides of the Berlin Wall were clouded with delusion and paranoia. Colossus: The Forbin Project makes us think about what we’re putting at risk when we only think of military strategy, whereas WarGames proposes that the capacity to learn from mistakes is far more important than the temptation to remove the human element when faced with risk. The lessons of both films are clear: In order for the human race to survive, we actually have to act human.

Sources And Further Reading

WarGames - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Colossus: The Forbin Project - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Colossus: The Forbin Project - Trailer Trash (Hosted By John Landis), YouTube

Able Archer 83 - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Stanislav Petrov - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

John Badham, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes, WarGames DVD Commentary. MGM, 1998, 2005.
Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.