Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Terminal Man (1974)

The 1970s had already seen two smash-hit science fiction thrillers based on the novels of Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain and Westworld, so when The Terminal Man was released in 1974 it must have looked like a sure thing in box-office terms. In fact it bombed quite badly. It’s not difficult to see why.

The premise is mildly interesting but had already been done, and done infinitely better, A Clockwork Orange. Harry Benson (George Segal) has violent seizures that turn him into a homicidal maniac at regular intervals. After the attacks he is left with no memory of the event whatsoever. A team of clever scientist chappies has come up with a sure-fire cure - they will implant a computer in the man’s brain to control the seizures.

Psychiatrist Dr Janet Ross (Joan Hackett) has her doubts. Right from the start the movie makes it clear it’s taking the classic anti-science approach so familiar from countless previous movies.

A potentially interesting element that is left completely unexplored is that Benson is a computer scientist who suffers from paranoid delusions about - computers! He believes they’re going to take over the world.

Predictably the surgery goes horribly wrong and it all turns into a messy disaster.

A Clockwork Orange (both Anthony Burgess’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film) make all sorts of provocative points about free will, the rights of the individual compared to the rights of society, the nature of violence and evil and the dangers of forcibly changing human behaviour. Unfortunately the writer-director of The Terminal Man, Mike Hodges, is content with little more than platitudes about technology turning us into machines. The fact that Harry’s violent episodes are presented as being entirely out of his control makes for an uninteresting movie. His personality is therefore irrelevant and he is a mere victim of the wicked capitalist medical-scientific conspiracy to control our minds.

Nothing is too obvious for Hodges. The police are brutal killers. The doctors and scientists are evil, greedy and uncaring. The system will destroy everyone. You can’t win. This is classic 1970s whining adolescent self-pity in full cry and it’s not a pretty sight.

George Segal tries hard but the script gives him nothing to work with. We know nothing about him, his personality remains a blank, and it is almost impossible to care what happens to him. He is further handicapped by having to wear an absurd wig for most of the movie (a disguise he dons to make his escape from the hospital). This has the effect of making the whole movie seem like a crude joke.

Joan Hackett is adequate as Dr Ross although once again the inept script fails to make her anything more than the stereotypical Caring Woman Psychiatrist.

Robert Wise (who directed The Andromeda Strain) and Michael Crichton himself (who directed Westworld) understood that a science fiction thriller
needs a balance of ideas and excitement. Hodges gives us neither.

The visual style of the movie is the one moderately interesting thing about it. The movie has a bleak antiseptic monochromatic feel to it. It’s reasonably effective but it’s scarcely original. Hodges does come up with a few striking images that might have had some impact but they’re wasted on a story that nobody is likely to care about.

This one is available in the made-on-demand Warner Archive DVD-R series and it’s a good quality print.

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