The Supercomputer Cult of Colossus and Crosstalk (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Another movie, albeit with a computer on a smaller scale, is the forgotten Australian thriller Crosstalk (1982). Here an eavesdropping computer plays peeping tom to a murder in what is a kind of Rear Window with computers and one that was well ahead of its time.

In Crosstalk, it is a privately produced computer and not one that is linked to the government – yet. Is the computer Trump serves or who serves Trump, should it exist, privately run and produced? Tee-hee.

Crosstalk (1982) poster

The film starts in a city warehouse where a creator is having trouble with his creation… a computer. The software is not quite right. Frustrated he goes to his home in the beautiful Blue Mountains. He is Ed Ballinger, the head of Ballinger Electronics. Ed Ballinger is developing a supercomputer, albeit for use around the home at this stage. Actually the purpose of the computer isn’t really discussed but there is much interest in the computer by the parent company based in Zurich… Though this is the early 80s, this computer reads your fitness levels and cooks your breakfast along with other household settings. Something that is starting to become more prevalent today. The computer has bugs and burns the toast, which pisses off Ed’s wife, who thinks when they’re making love, his head is off with the computer: “Marry the beast for all I care!” The computer is called the I-500.

Upon heading back to the city, Ed’s car appears to be sabotaged by the computer and the brakes fail, causing an accident and almost killing the computer boffin. It is a “malfunction” according to the computer and Ballinger is left temporarily in a wheelchair. So the future of computer driven cars isn’t that bright, just as we know now, there are plenty of bugs to be ironed out.

The Supercomputer – well almost – in Crosstalk is set up in the apartment

Ed must finish his commitments to the I-500 and is set up by executives in a luxury multi-storey apartment building overlooking Sydney Harbour. Ed’s boss, Robert Whitehead, thinks he’d be “better off if he’d died” since if Ed did in fact die, the plans for the prototype would automatically revert to his business partner George Hollister, who is heavily in debt. The subterfuge is all about money – which is not surprising. Aint it always the way!

Poor Ed, everyone, even his own computer, would seem to be out to get him.

But the computer may not be fully sentient, it is only just awaking to itself.

George sets up the computer in the apartment along with links to the building’s security cameras and others cameras as well.

It turns out one of the neighbours in the apartment is a Mister Big in the company with an interest in the I-500. His name is David Stollier and he is a silent partner who is psychotic and sexually kinky. He is also trying to put an end to a bad marriage without resorting to murder!

Crosstalk is a kind of computer take on Rear Window. Here is the trailer.

The question of whether the computer is actually trying to kill Ballinger is again raised when his nurse/carer goes to the toilet while he is in a hammock in a pool having hydrotherapy. The mechanism of the hammock disengages and threatens to drown Ballinger. He survives. Again the question of how far-reaching the computer’s arm can actually reach remains unanswered.

That night the computer seems to murmur to itself and then it spies on the Stollier’s apartment. It may be spying on every apartment but the Stollier’s place seems to be the most interesting…. It is this sequence that is the lead-up to the murder of Anne Stollier, which is very well directed. Using both classical and opera music as a cover for the murder, we get a total sense of dread of what is about to happen to poor Anne, while it also shows us the I-500 eavesdropping on the events. This is the Hitchcockian element of the plot.

Ex Machina was about Asimov’s ‘Frankenstein complex’ also used in Crosstalk

At the beginning of Crosstalk, the computer seems to have its evil eye focussed on its very creator. It is almost Oedipal, certainly it is a Frankenstein complex, something coined by sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov to describe a creation’s want to destroy its creator. This was explored in the recent Ex Machina (2014).

But the computer in Crosstalk suddenly has its attention diverted. It seems to see that its plans for murder are not original. Further, it sees there may be a conspiracy – or it becomes self-aware and maybe slightly paranoid about a conspiracy – that may involve itself. In fact, the conspiracy does involve the production of the computer and the possible murder of its creator by executive interests in the company. Something that may threaten the very existence and development of the computer – therefore it may not reach its full potential. Frankenstein complex put aside for the moment, the computer asks Ed for help to solve the murder/conspiracy. Certainly the viewer thinks there’s been a murder but the computer is puzzled by the clues, as is Ed at first. But as Ed fits the pieces together from the aural clues recorded by the computer, he sees the computer has far more potential than just undercooking eggs in the morning.

Demon Seed (1977) is another Supercomputer movie worth a look

In fact when it shows footage of Stollier playing bondage with his mistress, Ed realises: “It’s a mind of its own – and a dirty one at that!”

Ed is piecing together a murder scenario through the screen on the computer much like James Stewart did in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window.

Gary Day plays Ed Ballinger

“George this machine far exceeds my expectations,” says Ed, who wants to pull it off the market and develop a better model. This of course only makes matters worse for poor Ed, with George now spiking his whiskey with poison… But Ed is too obsessed with matching sounds of a body being cut up by a saw and fed down the insinkerator… But even George is in too deep… he leaves the apartment having unsuccessfully tried to kill Ed and tries to get four million dollars out of Robert Whitehead, who seems to be head of official operations of the Zurich based company in Austraiia. But George is murdered in the backstreet phone booth where he makes the call by Stollier.

“Darling, that machine can’t think,” Ed’s wife tells him, thinking he’s got “Boffin’s Disease.” Little does she know.

The computer continues to turn over day and night, growing in intelligence –just like Colossus – albeit on a far smaller scale. But remember this is a privately produced computer and not a government and armed forces product.

Stollier kept his wife’s head: how sentimental!

There are further similarities to Hitchcock’s Rear Window when Ed’s nurse/carer Jayne goes to Stollier’s apartment to look for clues and leave a bug in the phone, only for Stollier to return while she’s still there as Ed’s view of his return in the car park below is temporarily blocked. It’s another good sequence in the movie, prolonged by Ed falling from his electric wheelchair when he spots Stollier’s car in the car park… Stollier may have put his wife down the insinkerator but he has kept the head… something he puts in a paper bag for final disposal… Meanwhile the head in Zurich rings Stollier, a call overheard by Ed’s wife through the bug in the phone… “Do give her our best,” says the Swiss businessman about Stollier’s dead wife. Oh, what a tangled web we weave! And Stollier, now aware the game is up, goes to Ed’s apartment to murder the occupants! There he is shot-gunned by Whitehead, who says: “We don’t want anyone to interfere with the I-600, do we Ed?” It is then the computer strikes, using some sort of laser device built into a mobile unit which starts to roam the apartment and kills Whitehead. With Ed trapped in his bed, his wife catatonic and sucking her thumb, the nurse also murdered by Stollier, the mobile I-500 calls Zurich to announce to the receptionist at the other end that the computer is complete and that all enquiries will be directed to it: “I am ready for delivery.”

Bad luck if the receptionist thinks it’s a crank call!

“Who am I talking to… hello… hello… are you there?”

Crosstalk (1982) trailer

And that is the question! Is the computer really there? Does it have the full quotient of artificial intelligence beyond human comprehension?

Yes, the movie is convoluted and contrived – but I love it!

HIndley Street Cinemas – always purple – for sale and ready for demolition

This film would have looked beautiful on the big screen. Filmed in Panavision, it had a troubled production history with the original writer and director dumped after a couple of weeks of filming by the producers who it would appear had cold feet about going over budget. Crosstalk was completed on budget by Mark Egerton, who was promoted from first assistant director, and who had a hand in major script rewrites. It is his only film as director, but he is someone who would become legendary as a first assistant director on films by such directors as Peter Weir and Brian de Palma. Despite the convoluted plot, the running time is barely 80 minutes long. Crosstalk is a very entertaining movie, one which I have watched almost twenty times over the years. I’m hooked.

I remember seeing an advertisement for the movie at the Greater Union Theatre I used to haunt on Hindley Street as a teenager. The ad – which wasn’t a trailer but only a slide – ran for almost a year and the film never turned up, which reflected its troubled production. It ended up going straight to VHS in the state where I lived where I caught up with it many years later.

Its tale of a computer that becomes aware of a world beyond its creator, through a conspiracy concerning itself, is a minor classic. Like a child who sees a life beyond its parents, the computer grows exponentially, engaging in the world.

Crosstalk may not be as satisfying as Colossus but this small-scale murder mystery of a budding supercomputer that started out burning the toast before it launches itself on an unsuspecting public is a winner for me. It’s a shame this film isn’t better distributed and well known.

A mini-Supercomputer in the fun 80s film Electric Dreams (1984) which features Michael Madsen’s sister Virginia on the left and the voice of Bud Cort as the computer.

Colossus is probably the reverse to Crosstalk in that Colossus wants to solve the human conspiracy against itself for positive ends. The moral purpose of the I-500 in Crosstalk is far more hazy and unclear. Whether this is a failure of the script is equally unclear to me but it is part of the film’s charm.

Last word on computers that become sentient but on a more positive level is Electric Dreams (1984). A major box-office disappointment at the time of release, it tells of a love triangle between and man, a woman and his personal computer. I think it was caused by spilling champagne on the keyboard. It has great music by legend Giorgio Moroder (1940-) and a feel good vibe. Directed by music video maker Steve Barron (1956-), it is accused of being a long music clip but there’s nothing wrong with that since the music is so good. The film has been compared to the recent Her (2013) but director Spike Jonze (1969-) denied ever having seen Electric Dreams. Who could have missed Electric Dreams or the music if they lived the 80s?

The title song from the movie Electric Dreams is one of many catchy 80s tunes in the film

And so I’ll trail off on this article on my computer…. Maybe the supercomputer Macs a Million/Maximilian exists, or maybe the world will soon be in for a shock when it does! Then we’ll all be together in Electric Dreams!

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