I hadn’t seen Mike Hodges’ somewhat exceptional The Terminal Man for over 40 years, so naturally, that film I derided that long ago for its awful TV edit was quite the gloomy, rewarding surprise as a revisit a day ago as a complete film. As a kid, I can recall vividly the scene where George Segal, wearing a messy blond wig, white suit and whiter shoes was beating a large triangular-headed shiny metal robot to “death” and how it made me laugh as I retold the scene to a few amused school friends.
As you can guess, I want to kick my younger self a bit now (not too hard, though) because it’s one of a number of haunting images the film has and it comes a few minutes after a shocking murder mostly clipped from the TV edit. Initially to be directed by its author, Michael Crichton (who the studio felt was changing his own novel too much for the film), Hodges was given the task of getting it into the depressing, downbeat sci-fi thriller it turned out to be, writing and directing the project himself. Amusingly, I came into the film as a fan of The Andromeda Strain. The film version of that had me go take the book from the the library that past summer and I blew through it a few times (it’s a fast, tense read and took under a day to blaze through non-stop the first time). So I didn’t get the less conventional manner in which some of The Terminal Man was structured. Well, the edited network version didn’t help much, that’s for sure.
That initial derision from my younger self was also a definite case of being too young to grasp the film’s tone and my only exposure to Segal’s work being a few comedic and lighter performances. Seeing the film now reveals the range and rage on display, or an actor fully in charge of the character he’s inhabiting. As Harry Benson, a computer scientist prone to anger and seizures, he goes through an experimental surgery that has a tiny computer hooked into his brain to keep things under control.
Guess what? The early predictions of a successful recovery by his smug doctors? Yeah, they’re rendered into obsolescence when Harry decides to stop taking his meds and escapes from the hospital with the help of his girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) who has no idea Harry’s implanted computer (which she has no clue about) is going to misfire quite badly. There’s murder and mayhem to follow, but the film doesn’t go to places it doesn’t need to outside of telling its particular tale, clocking in at a lean 107 minutes before it ends.
Hodges was interestingly enough, partially inspired by the art of Edward Hopper, adding some impressive shot compositions I didn’t fully get at that younger age. The film also greatly befits from that particular look found in films like Soylent Green, Rollerball, THX-1138, the aforementioned The Andromeda Strain, and a few other productions of the period. It also had that sense of overall gloominess to its outlook that I strangely blew off when I was younger (yeah, that wig and Segal were killing me back then), but seen today, I realized that sense of ceaseless inevitability is something the film foreshadows from the beginning.
Performances outside Segal’s striking one are solid but intentionally quiet and minimalist most of the time, and fans of John Carpenter’s version of The Thing will see with both Donald Moffat and Richard Dysart as two of Harry’s overconfident surgeons. The film has a few familiar faces, in fact, but everyone is secondary to Segal’s work save for Joan Hackett‘s no-nonsense doctor’s need to play a very harried (or Harry-ed) damsel in distress for a few tense minutes as the story progresses. There’s a nod to Psycho and a foreshadowing to The Shining [or a throwback to 1921’s The Phantom Tollbooth, if your film history is up to snuff]) during one scene where Harry shows up unexpectedly, letting her know he’d gotten all the doctors’ addresses before he went under the knife. Eeep.
And yet, the film has a few low rankings on IMDB and other sites these days. Yes, it’s a slow burner, the body count is low and save for a key moment, relegated to an off-screen kill where death is implied (and no doubt takes place), most of the mayhem mentioned above is suggested (a friend who saw this commented that a modern mini-series could expand a bit with a good director and cast). But it’s also an affecting slice of a man going mad thanks to man-made assistance and his own mind’s imperfections. While the doctors eventually predict to a second when he’ll snap into his next victim, the size if the city he’s in makes him a bit tricky to track down, although it’s not too hard to figure who Harry’s after (he’s got a list in his head, you know). Maybe the film’s ending was/is too telegraphed and drawn out for some, or perhaps Harry doesn’t get to bump off those doctors and you might think he’s going to?
No matter, though. That film I hated with a passion as a kid is now one I really like. so that’s a good thing. Of course. if had time to revisit all the films I saw as a kid and experience them with older eyes and brain firing away on all cylinders (er, well, what’s left), I’d have a new (and better, probably) site to write for (chuckles). Or maybe not.
Score: A (90%)