A Depressing 70’s Classic: The Terminal Man

terminal man

I saw THE TERMINAL MAN late one Friday when CBS used to play ‘grown up’ scifi movies after the late news. Haven’t seen it for decades, but recall the chilly tone–lots of white, sterile corridors, Bach piano for a soundtrack–that was the norm for ‘serious science fiction’ at the time. It was directed by Mike Hodges, who directed the great Get Carter, after Michael Crichton got the boot. I liked the Crichton novel, and this is a pretty straightforward adaptation, losing a lot of detail but getting the basic shape right (except for the ending).

George Segal plays a man who has violent “episodes” in which he loses control, resulting in his wife being beaten and two people being killed. Scientists plant a device in his head to control these episodes by stimulating the brain centers. Unfortunately, in a pretty clever twist, the brain gets hooked on these jolts, and starts creating MORE violent episodes so it gets more stimulation. Trying to help humanity’s most violent cases, the scientists create a Frankenstein monster.

Segal is excellent in a role with minimal dialogue, and Jill Clayburgh is good in a small role as his girlfriend, but two supporting players stand out. Joan Hackett (who has a distractingly bad hairdo) is one of the doctors who objects to the procedure, and she’s instantly believable. Richard Dysart (who was always around sixty years old, apparently) is excellent as the surgeon who implants the device. During the (too long) operation scene, his attempts at humor actually make him and the other doctors seem even more inhuman, like robots trying to mimic human behavior.

I found one scene interesting because I don’t think it would be allowed to play out as it is if the movie were made today. Hackett and Segal are in a room being observed as the implant is being tested, which involves different areas of the brain being stimulated, resulting in Segal tasting a ham sandwich, needing to go to the bathroom, etc. Segal then begins to come on to Hackett in an embarrassing way, and we wait to see the male doctors yukking it up as they let Segal harass Hackett. But when we cut to the doctors, they’re just observing what Segal is doing as if he were a lab rat having an unusual reaction–they’re not even human enough to be acting like jerks.

The dominance of white in the color schemes is a good idea for inside the hospital, but I think it was a mistake to continue it when he escapes to the outside world–we need to see the contrast of the real world vs. the antiseptic one. The one bloody scene begins with a shock, but then turns into an expression of art direction, as we see bloody water pour over a floor. It’s a bit much.

I have had memories of this movie since I saw it as a kid, and it definitely made an impression on me. As an example of anti-science science fiction (a genre I’m not that big a fan of), it’s bleak and a downer, but as an example of real science fiction (as opposed to escapist sci-fi), I think it’s one of the best of the 70s.