Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Terminal Man (1974)

          The innate cinematic potential of the late Michael Crichton’s novels, from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park and beyond, stemmed from the author’s style of blending provocative scientific concepts with potboiler storytelling, essentially delivering highbrow content in lowbrow wrapping. That being the case, it’s interesting to check out The Terminal Man, one of the few Crichton adaptations more suited to the art-house than the cineplex; writer-director Mike Hodges’ movie is a cerebral meditation rather than a visceral thriller. Though admirable, the approach simply doesn’t work, because while The Terminal Man has all of the requisite ethics-and-morality philosophizing that distinguishes the best Crichton stories, it lacks any excitement whatsoever, dragging along at a sluggish pace before transitioning to a violent but pretentiously orchestrated finale.
          It certainly doesn’t help that the central narrative hook is obscure. Harry Benson (George Segal) has a cerebral abnormality that causes him to periodically lapse into violent seizures, so medical geniuses including Dr. Ellis (Richard Dysart) and Dr. McPherson (Donald Moffat) invent a risky solution: With Harry’s consent, they implant electrodes in his brain, powered by an atomic battery in his chest, to override the seizures when they manifest. Crichton’s fanciful subject matter is that of high-tech alternatives to lobotomies, and there’s undoubtedly a bracing suspense story to be made from this source material. Unfortunately, Hodges bypasses thrills in favor of chilly Kubrickian observation, resulting in a flat wash of antiseptic surfaces and soft-spoken interactions.
          The movie goes wrong immediately, because Harry is already preparing for surgery when the story begins; we neither see him suffer the brain injury that led to his condition nor see him experience one of his murderous rages. As a result, we have no real sense of the hardship he’s trying to overcome. Then, just before the surgery, Harry’s girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) brings him a disguise with which he plans to escape postoperative police custody. This murky plot ploint makes the whole story confusing: Does Harry plan to embrace the cure, or not? And if not, why is he going through with the surgery? Harry’s flirtations with sympathetic Dr. Janet Ross (Joan Hackett) further muddy the waters, because we can’t tell if his affections like with the doctor or his girlfriend.
          Worst of all, the first hour of the movie unfolds like a medical documentary, with barely any dramatic conflict in evidence. And then, once Harry escapes and (predictably) experiences rages because the surgery didn’t work, the movie becomes a trite killer-on-the-loose story delivered in ridiculously genteel style, via touches like a slow-mo stabbing montage set to melancholy Bach music. The Terminal Man has interesting ideas and thoughtful performances, but Hodges doesn’t even come close to approximating Crichton’s usual balance of intellectualism and escapism. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)

The Terminal Man: FUNKY

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