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Science Fiction films in the years following 2001: A Space Odyssey took a number of serious looks into the future. Unfortunately, weak dramatics and easy pessimism marred interesting pictures like Silent Running and Z.P.G. and viewers soon lost interest. Robert Wise's suspenseful The Andromeda Strain found a wide audience, but George Lucas's visionary THX 1138 died a fast death for the sin of refusing to compromise. These were the years of the "IBM" typeface, which imitated the font used by computer printers.
The author of The Andromeda Strain, ex- doctor Michael Crichton, launched a major career roll with scripts that combined provocative Sci-Fi ideas with thriller elements. After the smash success Westworld, Crichton's The Terminal Man was filmed at Warners, written, produced and directed by Michael Hodges, the director of the brilliant English crimer Get Carter. Starring George Segal, The Terminal Man didn't make much of a splash in 1974. I remember rushing to see it and being distinctly disappointed. How does it fare 36 years later?
The Terminal Man could have been suggested by Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, in which a violent delinquent is "tamed" by radical psychological conditioning. A group of doctors employ futuristic techniques to do the same thing with brain surgery and electronic stimulation. One of them marvels at the beauty of his own work, boasting that his immediate results will totally eclipse the vague results of psychological methods. A harsh criticism of the medical profession, The Terminal Man warns us that smug medical researchers can't wait to solve social problems through surgical intervention. As a disembodied eye looking at a test subject says, "You're next".
The crack research team is eager to test its behavior modification scheme on a human subject, and their first "volunteer" is Harry Benson (George Segal), a robotics expert rendered criminally violent by a head injury. Harry suffers seizures followed by episodes of murderous rage, which he later forgets entirely. Benson's only friend in the hospital is psychiatrist Janet Ross (Joan Hackett). She has misgivings about the experiment, but surgeon Dr. Ellis (Richard Dysart) and other proponents (Donald Moffat, James Sikking) are eager to break new ground -- and enhance their careers.
Harry is transferred from prison to the hospital and treated coolly by the staff. The futuristic operation is examined in detail. When the doctors artificially precipitate a seizure, a tiny computer placed in Harry's shoulder responds by stimulating the affected areas of his brain and dispensing a drug. Everyone is happy, Harry included, when the implant stops the seizure cold. Unfortunately, Harry escapes with his girlfriend Angela Black (Jill Clayburgh) just as the technicians discover a disastrous setback: Harry's brain enjoys the electrical shocks so much that it creates more seizures to be suppressed. The resulting electrochemical ping pong game in Harry Benson's head scrambles his personality, making him more murderously dangerous than ever.
Hanging on every portentious dialogue line in his script, Mike Hodges overloads The Terminal Man with "significance", while imposing a weird stylistic discipline. As this is a sinister near future, the hospital is made sterile and lifeless to match the cold calculation of the technocrats that insist on messing with the natural order of things. The doctors range from the professional surgeon Ellis, who throws up before casually invading Harry's skull, to professional functionaries that treat him like an irrelevant lab rat on their data sheets. The scan and probe technician (Matt Clark) is so blind to the human element that he signals that it's time to begin operating, even though the patient has yet to arrive.
An older medico and the sensitive Janet Ross express dissenting opinions about Dr. Ellis' eagerness to hot-wire Harry Benson's brain, but we already know that things will go horribly wrong. The Frankenstein-like surgery sequence may have seemed futuristic in 1974 but it all appears quite feasible now. Except for his shaved head, Harry seems normal in the recovery ward. But his paranoid fantasies about people being turned into robots have come true, and he is the first victim.
The problem with Hodges' script is that its insightful view of medical 'adventurism' isn't going to sell any tickets. When the movie turns into an ordinary thriller, with nervous doctors and angry cops searching for Benson, our interest drops. Hodges expresses a particularly offensive attitude toward the police, who are either faceless automatons shooting from helicopters (shades of These Are the Damned) or mouth-breathing comic book readers. A pretentious ending in a cemetery doesn't help either. Only our commitment to the actors -- we like George Segal and Joan Hackett -- keeps us involved.
Hodges runs amuck with his main stylistic conceit. William Wellman tried out a weird "black and white in color" design motif for his 1954 Track of the Cat to represent the repressed emotions of his characters. The Terminal Man carries the idea even further, making literally every object on screen black, white, gray or extremely muted pastels. Human faces and red ambulance lights seem lost in an almost B&W world that Hodges wants to represent as anti-humanist. But the idea (gag? gimmick?) becomes tiresome when Jill Clayburgh paints her fingernails in a huge close-up -- with black nail polish. We wish we could see some kid with a box of crayons -- all black, white or gray. When the cemetery scene arrives and the dominant color onscreen is the green of freshly mowed grass, we feel as though the film has broken from its theme -- unless Benson is seeking "life in death". Today, of course, Hodges could give his art director a break and re-paint his movie any way he wanted in digital post. We've just gotten clear of a few years of films that toyed annoyingly with repainted colors and degraded images ... and I don't miss it one bit.
The rest of the movie's details are just "fussy". A lifeless cocktail party is set in the famous Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis house, the one with the sculpted decorative building blocks. One murder scene obsesses over watery blood slowly filling a pattern of grooves in some fancy flooring tiles, a detail that tells us the director is really reaching to generate interest. Hodges plays the movie Them! on a TV set to add a weird touch to a pre-murder scene; I remember in 1974 thinking that I'd rather see that movie.
The acting is quite good throughout, with Joan Hackett excelling as a vulnerable potential victim. Jill Clayburgh looks cute but might as well have a "murder me" sign hanging from her neck. One nice moment compares some hospital orderlies laughing at dirty jokes in a hallway, with poor Harry Benson laughing uncontrollably in an observation room, due to the stimulation of a probe in his brain. The Terminal Man is now considered one of Michael Crichton's long-running string of clever Sci-Fi movie concepts, most of which are just plausible enough to intrigue audiences opposed to outright Sci-Fi fantasies. Crichton's biggest coup in this regard was of course the way he invented a way to "grow" dinosaurs from ancient DNA, for the hugely successful Jurassic Park.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Terminal Man is a very good enhanced transfer of this oddly designed feature. After years of greenish 16mm TV prints, it accurately preserves the B&W look. The audio volume is a bit low, something that doesn't mar the effectiveness of the film's music. There's no original score, only piano pieces by Glenn Gould. As an extra joke, when the deranged Harry Benson staggers through a mausoleum, a chapel organ plays the theme from The High and the Mighty.
An original trailer is included, which uses every bit of the film's action to give an impression of a full-blown thriller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Terminal Man rates:
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