Colossus is a pre-disaster movie, in the Irwin Allen sense. It has a lot in common with films like The Andromeda Strain and The Satan Bug. The problem is established and then the film’s story is an attempt to resolve it. It’s a little less character-oriented than the Allen disaster formula–Colosuss doesn’t have much lead-in, it sort of just gets started after the opening sequence–but that lack of character development makes the cast all the more important. The viewer’s never going to have a chance to get to know these people; the casting has to be superb.
And Colossus is perfectly cast. Eric Braeden–who I just discovered ended up on a soap (and I even recognize him)–turns in a likable, funny leading man performance. He’s always believable as the world’s foremost computer designer, but he still can get away with being a traditional (and excellent) leading man. Susan Clark’s second-billed and sort of around for half the movie in the background before she gets to take a more central role and she’s got some fantastic moments. I figured–based on that Planet of the Apes movie he was in–Braeden would be good. So the real surprise is Gordon Pinsent as the President. Too often, movie presidents aren’t convincing–or they’re played by big name actors who assume their recognizable name will make them a good president-in-crisis. Pinsent does have a lot of good material–he’s second lead for the first half–but his performance is rather impressive.
Colossus is a from-the-top crisis story. We don’t really get to see how regular people are reacting, which has become the norm today. Everyone in the film has been on the phone with the President of the United States. What director Sargent and screenwriter James Bridges have to do is make a film without special effects–we don’t see any of the disasters–work from a couple rooms. There’s the White House and there’s Braeden’s computer lab. The film could practically work as a play.
Sargent’s widescreen composition is peculiar and effective. He started on TV and he tends to use the Panavision frame to horizontally expand what would otherwise be television composition. The result is unexpected. It’s like Sargent’s composition ends up looking like deliberate, thoughtful art, when it appears to just be a pragmatic approach to widescreen filmmaking.
Bridges’s script is competent and unambitious. Colossus is from a novel–which probably followed most of the same story beats–so all Bridges has to do is make it play right. And, given how the beats develop, it’d be impossible not to. There’s some character development, left nicely with Braeden and Clark, but a lot of the script is just perfunctory. That mechanical approach ends up hurting Colossus, because there’s no sense of anything escalating. Eventually, the movie just stops. I figured there were another fifteen minutes, but no, it was end credit time.
Perceiving the passage of time in the story is partially Bridges’s fault–three days pass without acknowledgment, a problem in a story set over a specific period–but a lot of it lies on Michel Colombier’s score. It’s anti-climatic and rote. Colombier tries for melodrama and ends up wasting a lot of time.
Colossus is a boring and intriguing film. Even with the narrative distance, the characters’ dilemmas are compelling. And, at just after the halfway point, when the computer taking over the world starts talking, it gets real funny. Not dumb funny, smart funny. But still real funny. It sort of suggests the film could have cut fifteen minutes and run another thirty and it would have turned out better.