Based on one of Michael Crichton’s “techno-thrillers,” The Terminal Man deals once again with men of science crossing the boundaries of the natural world and the dire consequences such actions eventually lead to. The basic premise of this film involves the use of computers and brain surgery to, if not heal damaged brains, at least prevent them from acting out violently, and as this is your standard “cautionary tale,” the result will, of course, be quite the opposite and the protagonist will come to a violent end. That at no point in this movie does a character state, “There are some things man was not meant to know,” is the only proof that the screenwriters had any restraint at all, otherwise the film is just two hours of boring clichés.
We are first introduced to a trio of medical professionals: Dr. Arthur McPherson (Donald Moffat), Dr. John Ellis (Richard Dysart) and Ralph Friedman (James Sikking) as they discuss the use of a computer implant to curb violent behaviour caused by brain damage, their key subject being one Harry Benson (George Segal), an extremely intelligent computer scientist who suffers from a unique form of epilepsy. Whenever a seizure occurs, he blacks out only to awaken hours later with no memory of the violent acts he has committed. One dissenting opinion is raised that because Harry also suffers from the delusion that computers will “rise up against humanity” — a distinctly strange paranoia for a computer designer to have — that literally putting a computer inside Benson’s head could cause adverse psychological reactions. I’d certainly considered that a very valid concern, and how they got Harry to even consider this particular procedure is never even addressed, but this view is “pish-poshed” and they go ahead with the surgery anyway.
“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first non-violent man.”
I do hope you like watching surgery because this particular sequence lasts an interminable twenty minutes; it just goes on for fucking ever, and nothing really dramatic happens, we just get endless shots of Richard Dysart sticking little metal probes into George Segal’s brain. I may not be an expert in what makes scintillating drama, but this is surely not it. Now, eventually, the surgery does end — thank God — and we get Benson’s psychiatrist, Janet Ross (Joan Hackett), sitting down with him as technicians then trigger electrical impulses via the various implants in his brain to see which one will stop the violence-inducing seizures.
Unfortunately, good ol’ Harry’s brain becomes addicted to these electrical impulses, with the seizures being initiated at increasingly shorter intervals, and this eventually results in a continuous series of impulses that will actually trigger the blackouts they were installed to prevent in the first place. Then, in a rather leftfield moment, Harry gets help from a stripper girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) — because why not — to escape from the hospital. This leads to the doctors scrambling around in a vain attempt to track him down before he has his next violence-inducing blackout.
The Terminal Man is not a terrible adaptation of Crichton’s novel, as it is fairly faithful to the source material — they even fired Crichton from screenplay duties because his script did not follow the novel closely enough — but director Mike Hodges brought a very antiseptic feel to the proceedings and almost every character seems to be completely divorced of emotions. You really shouldn’t have a horror/science fiction/thriller where everyone looks as emotionally engaged as a person waiting in line at the DMV, and when we do get Harry’s violent attacks, they’re about as bland and boring as the rest of the film. I’ve seen more thrilling moments on episodes of Goosebumps.
When we eventually get to the film’s big moment, where Harry breaks into Janet’s home and we finally get to see the good doctor lose a bit of her composure, the scene is still a lethargic mess and is about as thrilling as a visit from a Jehovah’s Witness, but at least it does give us a break from viewing more medical procedures. What is strange here is that in the book, Janet used her microwave oven to disrupt the atomic pacemaker, the one that powers his implanted computer, while in the movie he comes at her and she simply stabs him with a kitchen knife before locking herself in the bathroom. That they decided to diverge from the source material in this area is truly bizarre as a psycho attacking a woman with a knife is about as unoriginal as one can get.
The idea of an implanted computer performing some kind of mind control over oneself is a terrifying prospect, one that Dr. John Ellis glibly counters with, “What do you call compulsory education through high school?” and Crichton’s novel does delve into some scary areas of medical science, but the movie is a collection of “talking head” scenes that never manage to engage the viewer; we just don’t care about anyone, and when we get to the laughable ending — which is definitely not from the book — where Harry just walks into an open grave, you can’t help but wonder, “What in the hell were they thinking?”
There have been many great science fiction movies dealing with the dangers of computer advancement — from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Crichton’s own Westworld and Jurassic Park — but The Terminal Man not only offers nothing new on the topic, it’s also guilty of boring the crap out of the viewer. If you want to see the idea of human/computer interface tackled in a more entertaining fashion, check out director Leigh Whannell’s 2018 sci-fi/action/horror film Upgrade, and though it may not be all that thought-provoking, it will at least keep you awake, while The Terminal Man could, at best, work as a cure for insomnia.
The Terminal Man (1974)
Director Mike Hodges is guilty of wasting an excellent cast and dealing with lofty sociologically and technical ideas in the most pedantic ways imaginable. The Terminal Man is dead on arrival.