Review: The Terminal Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Our Man in Vancouver and I have been carrying on a (mutually, I trust) enjoyable dialogue-by-mail over the virtues and failings of Mike Hodges’s The Terminal Man. Some of the failings were set forth in a review heading up last month’s quickies section. As it happened, I encountered the review before the film, and while I don’t wish at all to cast aspersions on a very fine commentary, I must admit that the movie thrilled me a good deal of its running time, to the extent that I feel compelled to file what has become—in the light of still other reviews—a minority report on its behalf. I don’t discount for a moment the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—that Mr. Eisler’s objections might have served as a sort of cadmium rod inserted into the cinematomic pile, catching a lethal dose of oversimplified ideas, narrative inconsistencies, and plot lacunae, and reducing my exposure to them. If so, I’m grateful, because I was then enabled to like what I saw.

And “saw” is the operative word, for The Terminal Man strikes me as a vivid example of a film that must be seen, not tapped for its dubious ideas on a literary level. Example: Harry Benson (George Segal) is a homicidal epileptic who has long feared a world takeover by machines. He agrees to submit to an operation and the implanting of some computer-controlled electrodes in his head, in the hope that the electrode can effectively short-circuit any murderous seizure his nervous system may cook up and keep him a peaceable man. That doesn’t work out quite the way it’s planned, and Benson escapes from the hospital and, during a freakout, murders his girlfriend. At the hospital, his doctors and the police coordinate a search to recover him, knowing to the minute when he will go out of control again. Cut to Benson’s lab—he’s a computer scientist himself—where he’s bashing the bejeezus out of a slave robot we’ve seen in action earlier. The scene is realized in one take by a camera ominously and rather mysteriously drifting around the lab, observing Benson from a distance. Issues and counter-issues pile up: Benson, who feared machines, has become one; Benson, once the master of the lab and the equipment therein, is now wrecking it, his actions inextricably motivated by his human, and essentially helpless, desire to lash out at a symbol of what is destroying him, robbing him of his humanity, and at the same time given a regularized, machinelike character by his very obsessiveness as much as his mechanical helplessness. Already the scene is more complex than a mere machines-are-messing-up-our-lives interpretation will account for. And something else happens: the robot, one instant nothing but brute metal at the complete disposal of its human master and destroyer, imperceptibly becomes something else as Benson collapses exhausted and the shot continues and the swiveling of the robot’s head, at first only a meaningless physical reaction to Benson’s blows, becomes a sardonic, conscious-seeming response to the man’s plea: “Let it stop! Let it stop!” Benson cries, and the answer seems to be an unspoken “No way, baby! No way!” Hodges is clearly a film freak, and Bergmaniacs who have already noted the abstract invocation of a Through a Glass Darkly–style helicopter-God at the beginning of the film (it also closes the show) are free to add the robot to its malignant company. I think the robot scene is a remarkable moment in the movie, not because Ingmar Bergman has been invited into a sci-fi flick, but because the meaning of the scene is fluid, its ambiguity legitimized and made discernible by Hodges’s classically distanced and integral visual treatment.

The best things in The Terminal Man share this fluidity, this ambiguity, and Hodges’s use of camera, décor, negative space, and good old human beings is what makes it work. In fact, without implying any equivalency of quality, I’d include Terminal Man along with such pictures as Point Blank, Brewster McCloud, and The Parallax View, each of which more or less explicitly addresses itself to the aesthetic problem of seeing the modern glass-and-steel-and-concrete world in terms of a cinematic language and grammar that is at once new and consistent with, demonstrably derived from, classical modes of vision. (Michael Crichton’s own directorial début, Westworld, amply demonstrates an utter failure even to try—and, probably, the failure of even realizing that such a goal is not only meaningful but implicitly incumbent upon anyone venturing into movie sci-fi.)

The textures of Terminal Man‘s world add up to more than entirely manmade surfaces and a color scheme almost exclusively reduced to blacks, whites, and blue-grays. Hodges, sense of caricature, so evident in Pulp and even Get Carter, produces some readily peggable walking metaphors bereft of any original suggestibility. But he more than compensates for these in the nervy, sardonic, ultra-professional and credibly hip young doctor played by Michael Gwynne (Rip Torn’s manager in Payday), the laidback expertise of the computer specialist (Matt Clark interestingly—and very successfully—cast against type), and the entire, breathlessly changeable, multi-vectored scene wherein George Segal talks with psychiatrist Joan Hackett while the boys up behind the one-way mirror successively tickle his brain cells with every imaginable sensual and emotional impulse: Hackett’s specialty of combining fragile-girl helplessness and upper-class clout, concerned sensitivity and institutional cop-out, has never been more cunningly exploited; and when Segal dissolves in inexplicable childlike laughter at some neural zing, the men in the booth spontaneously join in, the thrill of triumphant manipulation honestly mingled with a surge of sentimental, barroom-style fraternity with the specimen below them.

Another thing about The Terminal Man and its particular modernity: Despite the many ways Mike Hodges might have gone wrong (and occasionally does go wrong) by giving in to the temptation of the facile Meaning, he keeps doing something very right—and commendable, and original—within that familiar framework of man-vs.-machine, man-becomes-machine. And he does it literally in terms of that very flashy, easy-come-easy-go cleverness that leads so many technologically infatuated filmmakers astray. The human crisis in The Terminal Man seems to me not so much that machines will take over men as that, rather, men have created an environment wherein only the capacity to assimilate, file, and contain signals at the rate and to the extent of computers will save a fellow from succumbing to sheer sensory overload. It is to this end that the film is, in Eisler’s phrase, “dressed to the nines.” And I disagree that the director is merely wallowing in chic gore when he observes Jill Clayburgh’s blood describe exquisite patterns on the tile floor of the bedroom where she is murdered. Michael Walsh’s trendy-sounding theory that “the movies made me do it” is, as Eisler deliciously demonstrates, silly. But Mike Hodges isn’t selling that theory himself. The (putative) icons from Kane and Mad Love, the late-night flashes of Them! on the telly, are—the editing makes it inescapably clear—neither more nor less relevant than the ebony polish Clayburgh is applying to her nails. Media piles up alongside media, the signals build, and when the digital clock turns 3:02, it becomes the ultimate “signal” to the movie audience itself and, perhaps, to a sleeping man whose eyes don’t even see.

RTJ

THE TERMINAL MAN
Screenplay, Direction, and Production: Mike Hodges, after the novel by Michael Crichton. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Art Direction: Fred Harpman; Set Decoration: Marvin March. Editing: Robert Wolfe.
The Players: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Michael Gwynne, Donald Moffatt, Matt Clark, Jill Clayburgh, Norman Burton, Gene Borkan, Burke Byrnes, William Hansen.

Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson