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The Terminal Man

Year: 1974
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Mike Hodges
Writer: Michael Crichton/Mike Hodges
Cast: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart

I knew only two things about this film before I saw it. One, that it had come from the era when sci-fi was vibrant and challenging – in between the two ages when it was all about spectacle in the monster-obsessed 50s and the alien-obsessed 80s. Second, I knew it had a scientific theme that was about the idea rather than the visuals. What I didn't know was Michael Crichton had written the novel and I also didn't know it was directed by Mike Hodges, who'd go on to one of the biggest exmples of spectacle driven sci-fi of the post Star Wars era, Flash Gordon.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though Crichton didn't direct it (and was apparently fired as the screenwriter halfway through), it had a similar thematic and aesthetic approach to his best work – stark, clinical and almost emotionless, with the drama inherent in the plot, very smart and professional people not given to outburts of emotional histrionics caught up in it.

In fact, when things go awry and set the third act in motion, it's almost academic, the story having to go in that direction just to provide escalating drama and thrills to answer the demands of a three act structure. Much like another Crichton work years later, Jurassic Park, the best storytelling in the tale happens up until things fall apart, everything from then on a more generic chase thriller.

The theme is something that's futuristic even today over forty years after the film came out – cybernetic implants in the body (proving once again how prescient Crichton was). George Segal plays Harry Benson, a man suffering from seizures that make him black out and commit acts of unrestrained violence.

He submits to an experimental operation to attach computer chips in his brain to tamp down his violent tendencies whenever a seizure is coming on, and the first half of the movie deals with the administration and medicinal procedures to put them in place.

Soon after comes one of the standout scenes in the film, and one that showcases Segal's talent as an actor like you've seldom seen in his career. As he sits in a featureless interview room with the medical team's psychiatrist, Dr Ross (Joan Hackett), the controllers in the next room are adjusting the settings in the chip, prompting directed emotional states in Harry in response. As he goes from a predatory lust for Dr Ross to a virtual infancy of being terrified of monsters and wanting his mother to save him, he does so with a well controlled sense of nuance.

From there it goes into thriller territory. Harry finds that the serizures that still come regularly prompt the chips to give him intensely pleasurable senstations, and when it becomes like a drug for him he busts out of the hospital where he's still under observation and roams the city, a madman looking to attack and kill to get the next high like an addict.

But even then it's played very dispassionately. Like The Andromeda Strain it has a distanced view of what's going on and both the script and performances are fairly low energy, so The Terminal Man feels long and takes a long time to get anywhere. But it's a story about a good idea intelligently written and told, and if you love movies from the same time like Parallax View or Silent Running, The Terminal Man belongs among them.

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