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Friday, September 20, 2013

Terminal Man

Another of Michael Crichton's sci-fi novels as made into a movie. This time it was his 1972 book, The Terminal Man (TTM) The title character, played by George Segel, is "terminal" in the sense of becoming a computer terminal. Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart and Donald Moffat star as the cooly dispassionate scientists. Crichton's basic story, as adapted by director Mike Hodges, is a subtle flavor of dystopia.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Harry Benson was a brilliant computer scientist. He suffered a serious head injury in a car accident which left him with a rare disability: psychomotor epilepsy. When he had a seizure, he would black out and remember nothing, but went into violent rages. His battered wife divorced him. He could no longer work. He volunteered for an experimental surgery. It would place electrodes in his brain and a microchip computer in his neck. The computer would detect the onset of a seizure and stimulate his brain in such a say as to tranquilize him. The surgeons feel most of the badness in mankind could be cured with such surgeries. The procedure is done. The scientists test each of the 40 probes to see how Benson's brain reacts to each. From this input, his implanted computer can calculate which probes to stimulate. The scientists monitoring Harry note that his mind is learning to bring on seizures in order to get the pleasure stimulation. Harry is under police guard since he was convicted of prior violence. However, after the surgery, he manages to escape the hospital and the guard with clothes and a wig provided by Harry's girlfriend, Angela. She picks him up outside and takes him to her apartment. After a calm spell, Harry goes into a seizure and kills Angela. He seeks comfort in a church, but kills the priest when a seizure comes on. He flees to Dr. Ross's apartment. He has another seizure and attacks Dr. Ross. She stabs him with a kitchen knife. Wounded, he flees aimlessly, ending up in a cemetery just ahead of a funeral. He falls (or jumps) into the open grave. He has another seizure, but cannot get out. He is discovered by the funeral procession. The police come, and Dr. Ross, but a police sniper in a helicopter shoots and kills Harry. Fade to black. Dr. Ellis gives a press conference about the pervasiveness of violence and despite the failure with Harry, the need to continue research. An anonymous orderly quips about his coworker being next. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TTM is a dark and rather grim tale, so it's not so much fun as it is visually appealing. Director xx xx composes his shots, choses sets and costumes in such a way as to speak volumes with the visuals.

Cultural Connection
TTM falls into the category of Cautionary Tale films. Many of them warn of the dangers of dispassionate Science. This sentiment goes back Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" in the early 1800s. The technophobia of the early 70s was a fertile ground for new cautionary tales -- this time of medical science and computers both going horribly wrong.

Too Slow? -- A common criticism leveled at TTM is that it moves too slow. Granted, the pace is slow by modern (or television) standards. Getting Harry through the surgery takes the first half of the film. There are some action scenes, but xxx deliberately slows down the pace and even stretches many scenes out beyond the rapid-fire sound-bite format that modern viewers have become accustomed to. Rather than a flaw, this is a feature. Among the complex visuals and spare score, there are messages is the quiet. Quiet, however, is not a familiar dialect to many.

Hodges Vision -- While Crichton was involved in the project early on, he did not remain involved. Apparently, he felt the alterations to the script deviated too far from the plot of his book. Mike Hodges developed the screenplay and directedThese deviations do not hurt the film. The overall story is cohesive. Hodges' vision of ruthless science is well displayed in costume (the doctors are all very neat, or even in tuxes), and acting (the doctors are all stoic and calm). The sets and location shots are all clean and orderly. Hodges' image of dystopia is tidy while it is oppressive. It is dark while dressed in clean white.

A Crichton Orange -- Where Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange explored the dark side of psychological behavior modification as the "cure" for the badness in mankind, the Science establishment in TTS see their brain-probe computer implant surgery as the cure of the badness in mankind. Both establishments have the hubris to think they can "fix" man -- on the presumption that mankind is intrinsically "good" and it is only some fixable flaw which is the root of all evil. Like Alex in ACO, Harry submits to the dehumanizing "modern" process as escape from his violent criminal past. Both suffer from the solution as much as the sickness.

Cyber-Threat -- The 70s were a hotbed of technophobia films. TTM follows that path with computers failing man, medical science failing to save mankind from itself. Harry Benson is a sort of cross between Frankenstein's monster, Alex from ACO and the gunslinger from Westworld.

Bottom line? TTM is visually rewarding to the careful observer with an artistic eye. It is not a face-paced action thriller. It's depth makes it valuable to watch, even if its measured pace runs counter to modern tastes. TTM isn't a benchmark classic, but still worth watching.


Randall Landers said...

Really enjoyed this one. Not often you find George Segal in such a powerful role. Highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

Just to let you know that the link to this article from the '1974' page is broken. Thanks for all the reviews. I always read one after I watch an old sci-fi movie.

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Anon. Stray characters in the URL were the cause. Hopefully, they've been purged now. Thanks for reading the site!