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“The Computer’s Voice” Movie Marathon

Several months back I read A Grand Success! and wrote about the little private film festival that took me on as I read about Aardman’s work through the years. In these pandemic times, it was rather fun!

I seem to have stumbled upon a similar situation with The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri by Liz W. Faber. I don’t know what I expected from this book, but it quickly became clear that without seeing the films and shows she referenced throughout the book, I’d struggle to properly appreciate it. As it was, I found the phrasing and prose of the book a bit of a struggle because it feels rather academic to me. I also don’t really understand enough about things like psychology to properly understand everything she discussed. Still, it was worth reading for me, and it is a fascinating tour through the intersection of feminism, sexuality, and science fiction.

The first chapter went well, I’d already seen 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Original Series, but then things got tricky! I’d never seen any of the movies/shows mentioned in the next chapter, so I had some catching up to do. Dark Star was on a streaming service we subscribe to, and I was able to digitally rent Moon. Finding the Quark television series was a little trickier. It’s not available streaming anywhere, and the DVD was expensive in many places. I ended up finding the series DVD for less than $20 with shipping on a somewhat sketchy movie website, but it came through, I got my copy!

It was about at this moment when I realized I was having a lot of fun.

Dark Star is a campy classic, and everything about it is ridiculous, including the sultry voice of their computer. Moon was quite good, and I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it before. In stark contrast to 2001, the computer ends up being an unlikely ally to our protagonist. And Quark was just silly, it’s hard to say whether it’s bad or not because it was intentionally bad to poke fun at other space shows of the age, but I did chuckle quite often while watching it. There’s a robot throughout the eight episodes that it lasted, but it was the actual talking computer, Vanessa 38-24-36, from the final episode which was mentioned in the book. She was awful, but she was the villain of the episode and so that was to be expected.

Vanessa 38-24-36

But more importantly than these first few films and shows, it turns out, this book was a gold mine of other science fiction recommendations!

Nearly half of them I’d already seen:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • THX 1138 (1971)
  • TRON (1982)
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
  • Iron Man (2013)
  • Star Trek:The Original Series (TV series)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (TV series)
  • Eureka (TV series)
  • Big Bang Theory (TV series)

But there were plenty I hadn’t seen:

  • Quark (TV Series)
  • Colossus – The Forbin Project (1970)
  • The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  • Dark Star (1974)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • Demon Seed (1977)
  • Electric Dreams (1984)
  • Fortress (1992)
  • Smart House (1998)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)

Rollerball is apparently a bit of a classic, but the computer segment of it was quite brief and the computer wasn’t very good (in keeping with its place in this dystopian setting). It was a cool looking computer though, and very different from the walls of blinking lights that most movies use to portray super computers.

Zero from Rollerball (1977)

Also, fun fact, as they walk past Zero throughout the facility, you see product-placement Sperry Corporation computers. The book is what clued me in to this fact, plus that Sperry as a corporation didn’t last long once IBM released the IBM System/360 and /370, the direct predecessors of which I work on in my day job at IBM. What fun I am having! (Sorry Sperry Corp.)

Sperry-IBM quote from The Computer’s Voice

I was surprised that I hadn’t seen The Andromeda Strain, though I’m certain I’ve read the book. It was a solid movie with a pretty cool looking computer room!

Compute room from The Andromeda Strain

Smart House was a Disney Channel Original Movie and it was dreadful, but almost worth it for the control room for the home automation system. Almost.

Control room for the home automation system in Smart House

Of all the movies I watched, the most pleasant surprise was probably Colossus: The Forbin Project. The setup of a super computer in charge of the missiles during the Cold War was too perfect, I really enjoyed this film. It’s a shame that it wasn’t available on any streaming service, having to buy the DVD is quite the barrier to seeing it for most people, and most people should see it! Plus, I learned from the book that the computers filmed were real, provided by Control Data Corporation (CDC) as product placements.


The next movie on my list was Fortress. I don’t like prison movies/shows, so this one was tough for me. The computer in this movie was sadly not cool to look at, the interface was a split keyboard and a wall of monitors. No blinking lights! But the computer can also override the wishes of the “warden” and goes on to control a fleet of robotic cameras that travel around the facility, militant cyborgs, and pretty much everything else in the facility (vehicles!), so that’s pretty cool.

Zed-10’s prison security camera from Fortress

I didn’t read the descriptions of the movies since I was planning on watching them anyway, so I was moderately horrified at by Demon Seed. As the title hints at, the computer impregnates a human. There was a lot going on in the 1970s, haha! But the computer, Proteus IV, looks really cool and it’s a super bizarre movie.

Proteus IV

Her was a very cerebral one. The computer in this movie is an evolved personal assistant, and in the course of the movie you discover that there are people here and there who fall in love with them, including the protagonist. Oddly, during this pandemic time when we’re all so isolated, it did make me think long and hard about what people need, and I joked that I was very confused about emotions after watching it. The computer interface is usually just a small smartphone or earpiece (boring! but appropriate), and it’s voiced by Scarlett Johansson, a voice that will be familiar to many viewers, so that also added an interesting dimension, much like Kevin Spacey being the computer voice in Moon.

Electric Dreams is another in the field of computers and love, but it’s much less subtle. The movie came out in 1984, so very few people had personal computers, and I’m sure it must have felt quite novel and futuristic to have what we now consider the standard CRT monitor, computer, and keyboard setup. Watching it now, it feels old. Much like Tron, the movie comes from a place where most people didn’t really understand computers, so they could do playful things that didn’t make any sense (throwing champagne on your computer is not recommended). Still, the computer was effectively “on-line” which was a rare concept at the time, and it controlled his home automation system, all things I’m sure people wanted but ended up being quite the future-facing idea! The movie was also so so so 1980s. The music was the biggest focus, aside from the computer, and it was fun seeing so many shots of 1980s San Francisco, where the film is set.

Edgar from Electric Dreams looks very familiar!

Finally, one of my favorite movies was in this book! And I took the opportunity to watch it again: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I think the movie was a bit weird to ever be very popular, but it really struck a cord with me. The talking computer in this one is voiced by our beloved Robin Williams, and I really enjoyed the characters and the whole story. Also, I’m not much of a crier, but this movie gets me every time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this little movie and show marathon, but I think the best part about it was connecting with other SciFi fans on social media. My mainframe pal Ray Mullins told me about the Colossus book, which turned out to be a trilogy of books! I got old paperbacks of all three. On the topic of Colossus, there is quite the computer geek cult following of the movie, so it was also fun to engage with folks who are into that. I may have to get a t-shirt.

Most recently, my infrastructure pal Sarah Elkins pointed me in the direction of the Continuum Drag podcast where they just started talking about the show Automan (1983) which I immediately bought the DVD set of for the 13 episodes. It arrived today. Sounds like this movie marathon has taken on a life of its own, and I have a fun journey continuing ahead of me!

And many thanks to author Liz W. Faber for putting me on this path to begin with.