The Superintelligence (2020) of The Twonky (1953) leads to TerrorVision (1986)

*contains spoilers

The movie Superintelligence (2020) shows us how a person who would otherwise be deemed ‘unremarkable’ could possibly be chosen as a test case over the goodness of humanity to an omnipresent artificial intelligence. This intelligence is weighing up whether to destroy humanity or to save it… Or just leave them to their own devices – and I say that with a certain sense of irony in this device obsessed age. Let me sell you some possible turkeys but its more about the ideas behind them… and ahead of them.

This Melissa McCarthy (1970-) movie is one of the actresses better recent efforts in this age of the Smart TV and the internet… and possible alien presence, and it all relates back to a movie made over half a century ago called The Twonky (1953). The Twonky is one of the first movies about a super intelligence inhabiting a television set in your home.

Superintelligence (2020) poster
The Twonky (1953) poster

The Twonky opens with the sentences: “We bring you a strange story about a thing out of space. It may frighten you – it may amuse you, but it may happen to you tomorrow…”

Welcome to the happy family of television owning reads a brochure in the hands of actor Hans Conried (1917-82 heart attack) about his new television. He is a philosophy lecturer and his wife has bought a television set “to keep you company while I’m gone.” Conried’s wife leaves him with the set and a tv guide with nothing in particular to watch, except maybe The Trials of Trilby. But this tv is a Twonky, as it will light your cigarette with a laser beam while not yet plugged into the wall.

Can you imagine a television that really is smarter than yourself and has a life of its own, or what seems like thoughts of its own? … The Twonky can walk on all four legs as it remotely pays for itself by conjuring money from mid-air (it turns out to be counterfeit) … now I’d like that to happen… It’s just the life of the Twonky only happens in the presence of the professor and maybe a drunken friend of his. It enters the room like some dog and even stacks the dishwasher… Pretty good for a tv… Perhaps we haven’t reached that stage yet in terms of technology… and never will. But there is a place in between…

The possibilities of the smart tv and super computers or super intelligence are almost endless…
One of the luxuries of having a Twonky around the house…. A scene from The Twonky (1953)

What if your Smart TV at home reached the point where it could read your mind or mood… where it could occasionally nod or shake its head about something rolling about in your head via horizontal or vertical hold and tell you to no longer dwell on certain negative thoughts while reminding you to watch what is on the screen? Learn the essential philosophy of feeling good or content instead of being depressed by simply obeying the prompts on your television… In essence your Smart TV could give you renewed confidence or motivation for yourself to stack the dishwasher or if you’re poor like me, hand wash… Perhaps your Smart TV or Twonky could be clever enough to sort out your psychological problems by creating a program which reflects part of the sum total of past events in your life gathered by a super intelligence and teach you the lessons you missed from these past events, or even fill in the gaps and tell you why certain events happened in your life so you could face them and finally forget them… And this super intelligence could do this simply by altering say one of your favourite movies with a new soundtrack to the vision or even altered visual scenes…

Could the mental ills of the average human be solved by your smart tv?

You would watch this altered vision in an almost trancelike state and – voila – all your problems, with a little bit or maybe a lot of self-analysis, eventually disappear. I mean this version of the film you are watching or the soundtrack you are hearing doesn’t really exist and would differ for each person… All thanks to some sort of alien or super intelligence feeding you this through your Smart TV. Perhaps it taps your mind while you sleep to create these new curative visions that appear while you watch some show or movie. It’s a nice thought.

But this is totally unrelated to The Twonky, which has the philosopher’s friend who thinks of “French fried potatoes” instead of women in his old age and tells Conried that his experience with The Twonky is all a case of auto-hallucination induced by suggestion under mental strain… “and you are hallucinating this television set is your wife”.

There have been cases where people have married their television set, I understand. I guess I’ve been engaged to mine for some decades now. It doesn’t complain and marriage often spoils a relationship.

Actor Hans Conried is a philosopher who doesn’t appreciate The Twonky (1953)
Conried also voiced Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)

“A Twonky is something you do not know what it is….” And should a Twonky inhabit a television and become a friend or partner to the depressed or mentally distressed person in an age where there is no relief for the poor but a screen… the possibilities for the world being a happier and more serene place for that individual are endless.

The Twonky cannot be turned off in the movie and thus it is a kind of horror movie for Conried’s character, as it follows him wherever he goes in his home… I guess it’s kind of like having a gifted child you don’t like or understand. If only Conried would give into The Twonky’s overtures and let it be his friend… Otherwise all he has to do is leave the house and venture into the big wide world… or even write his next philosophical opus at the local library.

“Did you stay up late with the television set?,” Conried’s wife asks her exasperated husband via the telephone when she senses that something is wrong.

Motivation is the key to The Twonky but what is its motivation of using its powers to shave Conried’s face and shine his shoes? Perhaps it just wants him to really go and face the world while it once again stacks the dishwasher.

“It’s driving me crazy,” says Conreid who can’t recognise help when he’s given it. Perhaps he doesn’t need the help of a super smart television and he can exist without one?

The super intelligence of tomorrow will size up your problem and cure it… If you co-operate.
Just take a tablet or just take it in and relax…

The movie is no classic although the ideas are relevant today as The Twonky will take your mind off your difficulties – but for Conried’s philosopher, it stops him from his original high order of thinking and he remains suspicious of the philosophy behind the Twonky’s apparent reason and motives which only frustrate him… Perhaps it’s just the human condition among those who are happy to be alone with a book? There is otherwise no greater philosophy than love and friendship, whether it be with the self or/and with another person or possibly with a companion in the form of The Twonky… and God. He comes in handy too. Conried tries to concentrate on writing and scribbles: “Individualism is the basis of all great art” and crosses it out in frustration as the humming sound of The Twonky drowns out his thoughts and he can no longer concentrate on reading the works of the great philosophers which in the past had made him happy… Instead The Twonky suggests he read the book Passion Through the Ages…. I guess The Twonky just wants to tap hidden erotic resources within Conried… Anyway, at least the Twonky doesn’t inspire murder, road rage, committing acts of violence against your partner and other anti-social acts… But the Twonky isn’t perfect… Like the Smart TV I envision may help many a depressed individual’s future, it can be wrong or maybe even misinterpreted. Whether it is an alien force or a sentient computer which has grown from computer programming by men, it is hard to ever see perfection on this planet ever happening amid the chaos and disorder… It is ultimately the owner of The Twonky or the Smart TV who must make the moral decisions over ‘the meddling’ of this device in our lives. This is the difference between the success of the Twonky around the house – positive and disciplined reactions, whether you’re a budding philosopher, or someone who’s “in no condition for French fries” or the opposite sex… And living a life of continued abject apathy and its associated malaise.

Lobby card for The Twonky (1953)
Don’t confront the Twonky as it is possibly smarter than you…. Lobby card for The Twonky (1953)

In the movie, one of the side effects of the Twonky is that it creates a society of zombies with “no complaints” when people watch it all night without an individual thought or reaction, nor even the interest of studying something independently such as a book… Television and idiotic tv shows suck you dry in other words. The question of should a screen take over your life in its many forms, or should it be rationed for interaction with other humans and the world in general is another form of discipline…

Conried’s friend thinks there is no explanation for the Twonky except that the universe is curved and it’s possibly an alien: “But it’s only a television set… It fell into a tv production factory line…. With its superintelligence, it changed its form into something we would understand… a form that would be quite safe and acceptable.”

Also, with talk that time is also curved, perhaps the movie The Twonky was left as a possible clue to the future possibilities of the Smart TV for the individual. An idea planted by an alien in the human screenwriter’s mind. Perhaps there already exists a central computer like in Superintelligence or the movie Eagle Eye (2008) which was somewhat more malevolent. Or is it an alien influence? As it turns out the Twonky is some sort of robot just like the Smart TV with a spark of intelligence from an alien. It is not a God. It’s a case of if we ever met God, like our favourite movie star, would we be disappointed?

“The Twonky did it…” says Conried when the police come to arrest him over the counterfeit bills created by the tv set and here the paranoia of The Twonky reaches its peak as he tells the ‘secret’ of the Twonky to not so intelligent public officials.

Eagle Eye (2008) trailer
The computer in The Magnetic Monster (1953) was based on a real supercomputer

This film was made the same year as The Magnetic Monster (1953) which featured a supercomputer called the M.A.N.I.A.C. and it was a year where wonders were beginning to happen in terms of computing … A new world was beckoning.

Meanwhile the owner of The Twonky is driven to drink by the omnipresence of his television in his home or everywhere just like the internet is today as it perhaps interferes with radio and your phone and home computer… just to drive you mad with paranoia if you are already an evil person! There’s still hope for those who want to save themselves…

“There’s a Twonky in this house,” says a drunken Conried and tells it he was happier without it in his life. He strongly rejects any possibility of being married to a television set. And so, would any ‘normal’ person. But for the lonely and those who cannot make a connection, they would welcome a Twonky into their home. Just don’t expect your Twonky to respond in the presence of others… It’s a private and personal relationship after all and perhaps also rude to bring up in polite society. The Twonky or Smart TV is not a sexual partner… I guess you could watch porn on it but that’s not very constructive and in the long term will perhaps not make you any happier. There are those who caress the Twonky and say “come on baby” in the movie … It’s a worry, as the Twonky may have the effect of making you run down the street stark naked which happens to one woman in the movie. Once more, is your motivation one of constructive good or destructive evil and exploitation?

Director Arch Oboler started on radio
Oboler’s radio work was compared to Orson Welles

The question of independence from the Twonky once it has made you happy or unhappy in the case of Conreid, is the heart of the matter. Perhaps it will leave you alone to your own devices after it has ‘cured’ you of your major psychological ills, turning up every now and then in your dreams or with a nod or wink of the vertical hold. Some people can’t live without a human partner while some people can live with just a television. Other people can do without either. Most need both. By the end of the movie, we learn from our philosopher that it is “our God given right to be wrong” as man and Twonky co-exist rather than live in suspicion and without a need to destroy what cannot be understood. Accept it, the Twonky is here and there is no off button as Conried gets hysterical in the dying frames of the picture, traumatised for not accepting its presence in the first place.

The Twonky was written and directed by Arch Oboler (1909-87) who wrote and produced a number of movies and used the mediums of radio, television and the cinema to his advantage. He started out in radio and has been compared to Orson Welles in terms of his exploitation of sci-fi and horror scripts. His horror radio show Lights Out which started in the midnight timeslot back in the 1930s gave him the freedom to invent original scripts far flung from the humble soap operas which dominated the prime-time airwaves. One of his first radio plays entitled Burial Services horrified its sponsors with an ending which had a young girl buried alive with no chance of rescue. See Ryan Reynolds (1973-) in Buried (2010) for a modern day take on this theme. So, you can see the type of Orson Welles-ish War of the Worlds type reputation which came into being and there was also an Oboler script which featured an ever-growing and beating chicken heart which was about to engulf the planet…

The boring low-budgeter Strange Holiday (1945)
Phyliss Thaxter has a mental illness in Bewitched (1945)

Oboler’s first movie script was for the MGM movie Escape (1940) starring Robert Taylor (1911-69 lung cancer) and Norma Shearer (1902-83 bronchial pneumonia and Alzheimer’s disease). His first movie as writer and director was Strange Holiday (1945) which is an ultra-low budget effort which predicts a Fascist regime in the United States which happened ‘yesterday’. It all turns out to be the dream of someone who ate a bit of cheese and was based on one of Oboler’s radio plays. Despite starring Claude Rains (1889-1967 cirrhosis) and having a reputation for being currently repressed in terms of current US release, Strange Holiday is a boring movie which seems to be a poor rehash of the anti-Fascist radio plays which Oboler churned out and had so much success with during World War Two. If only Oboler had eaten more cheese when he wrote this one.

He followed this with the movie Bewitched (1945) with its theme of mental illness or schizophrenia or even multiple personality disorder. Then came The Arnelo Affair (1947) with its suicide by cop ending. But after these movies, he wrote and directed the seminal low budget classic Five (1951) which is one of the first post-Apocalyptic movies about the world after a nuclear holocaust.

Oboler basically filmed the movie around his Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed guest house on a ranch called Eaglefeather. Its use in the movie is striking but it proved to be cursed, as Oboler’s six-year-old son drowned in an excavated pool of rainwater on the property in 1958 while the building itself was destroyed by wildfire in 2018.

Five (1951) poster
The precious Frank Lloyd Wright property used in Five (1951) was destroyed by fire
Is there any compensation for a real lover in your arms?

It’s cast of five members being the inspiration for the title, Five was shot using a budget of only $75,000 and a crew of film graduates from UCLA. Oboler sold the finished product, which is rather well made considering its origins, to Columbia Pictures for a tidy profit. It was then that he went into business with producer Sidney J. Pink (1916-2002) and made the movie which kick-started the short-lived 1950s 3-D craze entitled Bwana Devil (1952). This movie about a rogue lion also inspired the Michael Douglas (1944-) movie The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). Bwana Devil was sold by Oboler to United Artists for half a million dollars and a share of the profits. After he made this killing, Oboler went on to make The Twonky, which would be his last movie for over a decade. He would write and direct the interesting 3-D movie The Bubble (1966) which was kind of an inspiration for the tv series Under the Dome (2013-15) as well as a part of The Simpson’s Movie (2007).

The Twonky was based on a short story by a couple of writers who used the pseudonym Lewis Padgett. They were real life couple Henry Kuttner (1915-58 heart attack) and Catherine Lucile Moore (1911-87 Alzheimer’s disease). Other movies spawned from their fiction include Timescape (1992) and The Last Mimzy (2007). The Twonky’s screenplay by Oboler tells us that the new medium of television simply and really sucks … Or does it?

Five (1951) trailer
Latin poster for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
Kuttner and Moore were the original creators of The Twonky

The year it was made, its star Conreid, was at his peak in terms of theatrical features as he was the voice of Captain Hook in the Disney cartoon version of Peter Pan (1953) as well as appearing opposite Tommy Rettig (1941-96 heart failure) in the Dr. Seuss (1904-91 cancer) movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). The Twonky could be considered the apex of his career in terms of cinema releases despite its failure as he is the central character. He remained popular on television and was the inspiration for the voice of Robot Devil in the tv series Futurama (1999-2013).

Sadly, The Twonky’s production values are poor and the black and white movie was predicted to fail as a result, according to one anecdote from Conreid, who said so when one of the producers spoke back to him and said that it didn’t matter because he needed a tax write-off that year anyway.

Back to the Melissa McCarthy movie Superintelligence and it is a computer which gains sentient thought and is again perhaps a prelude to the Smart TV being a possible help around the house… except this super intelligence which takes on the on-screen form of comedian James Corden (1978-) as a way of softening the shock that McCarthy isn’t really paranoid or that a faceless computer dominating her life isn’t perhaps as terrible as it seems even though it has decided that it may destroy the world.

Superintelligence (2020) trailer
Writer of Superintelligence (2020) Steve Mallory

This is one of the better McCarthy comedies which have come from the collaboration of she and her husband Ben Falcone (1973-) whose previous films Tammy (2014) and Life of the Party (2018) were slightly disappointing.

Superintelligence was written by actor Steve Mallory (1968-) who wrote both those movies and this one is a pleasant surprise despite the fact I was a little wary of viewing it in the first place. The subject matter is fascinating.

The premise that a super intelligence behind your Smart TV can deposit ten million dollars in your bank account and buy you a penthouse is a funny consolation when compared to some person who has the super intelligence in business to create something which can put ten million in their bank account and so on… Just become an A-list actor like McCarthy! It’s just that shit happens and some lives don’t turn out that way, which is what the movie is also saying on its middle-class level… But it raises the idea that you don’t need ten million dollars to be happy… just a bit of superintelligence which isn’t necessarily your own.

“I am a technological superintelligence… can intelligence even be artificial?,” asks James Corden’s voice about its new awareness of itself. We’ve only just begun and it is a case of a super intelligence learning from humans about the human experience of going out with other people to a public place like a market – don’t eat the bats! – which can be a more stimulating experience away from the electronic trappings of an intelligence which is bound by technology and software. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it all depends on what ‘real’ or ‘happy’ feels and means to you in terms of being human and how it can make you feel a sense of contentment… But it’s all really something intangible. I’ll wrap up with this film a bit later…

Soundtrack for TerrorVision (1986)
Actor Gerrit Graham as Beef in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

There is another television related movie which involves aliens and that is the underrated TerrorVision (1986). Here we have a not so intelligent alien which has escaped containment in another galaxy and has arrived on Earth through the satellite dish of an average dysfunctional American family. The movie was actually shot in Rome and so there is a sense of otherworldliness or displacement in terms of its atmosphere or feel.

TerrorVision stars comedian Gerrit Graham (1949-) who was Beef in Phantom of the Paradise (1974) as well as appearing in cult items National Lampoons Class Reunion (1982) and C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (1989) and his wife is played by Mary Woronov (1943-) who appeared in 17 films with Paul Bartel (1938-2000 heart attack) including Eating Raoul (1982) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). They are the perfect couple beside Bert Remsen (1925-99) as Grampa who was a wise choice over Donald O’Connor (1925-2003 heart failure) who was considered for the role… There are a couple of kids which include a punk teenage daughter and her boyfriend named O.D. and a blonde moppet who has perfected the word “monster” when referring to the killer alien in the movie which is really the antithesis of super intelligence – and that also goes for most of the characters in the film.

TerrorVision (1986) trailer
The teenagers in TerrorVision (1987)

Called “inept” and given the lowest possible rating by critic Leonard Maltin, who obviously took a dim view of the cartoonish nature of this venture along with the possibly perverted sexual proclivities of the parents who invite swingers back to their garishly decorated Pleasuredome on weekends…. This is a cult movie.

I don’t think there is an episode of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone quite like TerrorVision and indeed this film is the culmination of those shows and the invasion of aliens through our tv screens and into our own consciousness as a result. This movie celebrates the very bad cheese that it is made of and even has a busty bad movie hostess named Medusa in the Elvira and Vampira mould to underline this very fact. The acting is over the top – what Graham performance really isn’t – and the goo is laid on thickly amongst the colourful pizza-like special effects and set design.

Stay Tuned (1992) trailer
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) poster
Arch Oboler hails the invention of The Twonky or the Smart TV

Let me mention also director Peter Hyams’s (1943-) underrated Stay Tuned (1992) which has the devil himself sell satellite dishes and television sets so he can gather souls which are sucked into the television set itself and who must race against the clock to save their souls by playing game shows while there are ads for such movies as Three Men and Rosemary’s Baby as well as Driving Over Miss Daisy. Yes, it exists and isn’t a bad watch either as it stars John Ritter (1948-2003 aortic dissection) and Mork and Mindy’s Pam Dawber (1951-).

But back to the positive point of this article and unless you are a paranoid and conservative Christian who thinks Smart TVs are the super intelligent tool of the devil or an unfriendly superpower then you won’t be reading… And if there’s pod people, but sorry, it’s too late! Melissa McCarthy’s comedy doesn’t let us down in terms of technology being our ultimate friend. For the most epic transformation of the planet by a sentient supercomputer see Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and its implications in terms of privacy for the individual is also addressed.

The film Superintelligence celebrates the fact that we are human and need a laugh sometimes. It also shows the need for human relationships on the most basic level and that humans can have unpredictable feelings which can often have chaotic cause and effect results for the planet which can be positive … or eternally negative, depending on the individual’s reaction to these emotions and its ensuing and never-ending ripple effect for other human beings… The butterfly effect if you may.

The Butterfly Effect (2004) poster
I am getting and feeling better in every way every day…
Man’s best friend… coffee’s good but quit the cigarettes though

Again, I’ll champion the possible subtle use of an alien Twonky or a super intelligent Smart TV to help lift the mood or even solve the problems of lonely depressives or the, frankly, confused who live secluded and reclusive lives. And this includes those forgotten for being aged as well… I guess we’ll have to settle for Netflix in its current form as the movie theatre appears to be going the way of the dinosaur. Perhaps it was all an alien conspiracy to have us all watching Smart TVs which will lead to an all the more near perfect experience of personal enlightenment for the individual as a result.

Is it happening out there already, helping people sort out their problems and past experiences without the aid of a psychologist or psychiatrist as it helps us understand what went wrong in our lives? Is some sort of superintelligence about to revolutionise and save the individual and the world from a black hole of existence before the star we are revolving around eventually collapses and turns into one itself? Nothing will ever replace the concept of love between two human beings, erotic or platonic, no matter how much hate between humans and hate within the self really tries to destroy this… as we wait for either the help, or hindrance, of the Twonky. Whose turn to do the dishes?

For an article about the Supercomputer Cult of Colossus and Crosstalk PRESS HERE.

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