You Only Thought AI was Scary

July 11, 2023

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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…

It’s impossible to imagine a movie studio using taglines like these to sell its latest film to the public. But things were different in 1977 when MGM cranked up its publicity machine for Demon Seed. Directed by Donald Cammell, his follow-up to the 1970 Mick Jagger film, Performance, Demon Seed is the story of a randy supercomputer named Proteus who seeks immortality by impregnating a human female. 

Let that sink in while you click here and watch the trailer.

Gross. And that’s just the trailer.

I first saw Demon Seed at a drive-in theater. Thinking back, I don’t remember much about it. Maybe the weird way one of the lab assistants gets killed by Proteus after he turns into a giant bronze Shape Shifting Box. I also remember the AI insemination plot and how ridiculous it was.

Recently, the Criterion Channel announced that one of its July collections would focus on AI at the Movies, and there it was. Criterion didn’t use the same taglines, of course. Here’s what they had to say about Demon Seed:

“Susan Harris (Julie Christie) is alone in the house when, suddenly, doors lock, windows slam shut, and the phone stops working. Susan is trapped by an intruder—but this is no ordinary thug. Her assailant is a computer named Proteus, an artificial brain that has learned to reason . . . and to terrorize. Packed with suspense, surprise, and special effects, DEMON SEED follows Susan’s desperate attempts to outmaneuver and outthink her captor, a calculating machine with designs for domination.”

That’s right, Julie Christie, star of films like Shampoo, Doctor Zhivago, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and a genuinely scary horror movie called Don’t Look Now. Julie Christie. Now she is being raped by an insane supercomputer. According to the trivia page for the film, when Warren Beatty saw Demon Seed, he told Julie Christie that she had ruined her career irreparably. The following year they made Heaven Can Wait together, so it seems ‘irreparably” has a pretty short shelf life in Hollywood.

Seeing it on, I decided to give Demon Seed another look, especially how AI has been in the news lately as the wave of the future that will replace humankind. I’m sorry I did because Demon Seed is awful. It’s not just that it hasn’t aged well in the 46 years since I saw it at the drive-in. And it’s not because of how disturbingly sexist/misogynist it is, then and now. It’s just an awful movie on every level. Christie gives a terrible performance, although I doubt any actress could make what they put her character through any more watchable, let alone believable. Veteran character actor Fritz Weaver isn’t much better at playing her flesh-and-blood husband despite his “mad Scientist” scenery chewing. 

The best performance in the film comes from Robert Vaughn (Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as the voice of Proteus. There isn’t anything overdramatic or too “robot” about his work, but he deserves recognition for delivering the supercomputer’s insane dialogue without laughing. (According to that same Trivia page, Vaughn was “so disinterested in the movie he telephoned his lines in.”)

Which brings us to the moment you’ve all been waiting for, just how does Proteus, a machine, plan to impregnate Susan? Well, let’s just say it involves Proteus whipping up some synthetic spermatozoa in the lab (from household supplies, we are led to believe, since nobody delivers the ingredients to the house). He then plants his seed in an unintentionally hilarious way. (Spoiler: if Demon Seed were shot in 3D, it’d poke your eye out.)


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