The Terminal Man
An early Michael Crichton adaptation, and one that makes the error – in this case – of a too-clinical account of its title character’s malaise, such that there’s little way in to feel for his plight. George Segal’s unnuanced performance doesn’t help at times either, but The Terminal Man veers too close to The Andromeda Strain’s stark lesson in the perils of science taking up the tools of God, when it could have better done with dosing itself up with a little more humanity. By the final act, you feel you’ve strayed into something closer to an intellectually precocious stalk-and-slash affair.
Dr Ezra Manon: I frankly feel that if somebody stuck wires in my brain, and a computer in my neck and an atomic battery in my shoulder, I’d wonder if I hadn’t been turned into a machine.
Which is shame, as The Terminal Man at its best represents an acute portrait of the unholy transhumanist creed. Indeed, it might be said to spell its position out too clearly. In his take on the film, and the author generally, in Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman referred to Crichton’s “especially deep suspicions of our increasingly complex society”.
I know I called this an early Crichton, but it was actually the sixth of his novels to be adapted (if you include TV movie Pursuit). He’d also written for TV and directed Westworld, so in Hollywood terms, Crichton was on the prolific side even by the mid-70s. As much as one might cite the author as a propagandist for the inevitability of the Elite paradigm – for example, dinosaurs or Pasteurian germ theory – there’s an abiding suspicion of unfettered scientific advance and, in particular, creeping computerisation both external and internal (accompanied by occasional outspokenness that seems directly against his masters, such as his climate change scepticism in State of Fear, way back in 2004).
The Terminal Man gets right in there, in terms, of the technological augmentation of the human machine, post-James Watts’ frontal lobotomies (referenced here) and looks to a brave new world of Gan’s inhibitor (Blake’s 7) via implants that can moderate behaviour. All in the best interests of preserving the health and wellbeing of the greatest number, of course.
The Wiki page will tell you that, in cases of mental illness, neurosurgery is currently looking to the area of implantation and stimulation in preference to destroying brain tissue, which is obviously just another way of hitting a problem with a sledgehammer. However, you won’t hear the holistic approach mentioned in The Terminal Man, or any intimation towards a viable alternative. It seems deep brain stimulation via a neurostimulator has been approved by the FDA for Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, OCD and epilepsy; Wiki notes the side effects thereof, which admittedly fall short of murder sprees but aren’t particularly encouraging for all that. And confidently, “The exact mechanism of action of DBS is not known”. Generally speaking, then, Crichton’s Cassandraic concerns seem well placed.
I’ll admit, The Terminal Man is one that impressed me more at first sniff. The austere, unforgiving tone and atmosphere does weave a certain spell, but it needs more than that. Its problem isn’t that it’s slow – commonly cited against it – but that it isn’t compelling in a manner that sustains such an assured pace. It seems Kubrick liked it (it’s nothing if not his brand of clinical, and has thematic kinship to A Clockwork Orange) – as did Malick – but it lacks the mesmerising, hypnotic quality of a Kubrick slow-burn (that said, Hodges casting Segal isn’t so far from Kubrick acquiescing to Ryan O’Neal). I guess John Carpenter dug it too (since Richard Dysart and Donald Moffatt would both appear in The Thing almost a decade later).
Most damaging is that we’re with Segal’s Harry Benson all the way; he isn’t exactly the most dramatically diverting of performers (Pauline Kael called him pitifully miscast, which is a little bit over the top, but with a role this minimally inscribed, it called for someone who could join the dots for us and make us invest in Harry). Ironically, I’m with the studio in terms of their qualms over the finished picture, suggesting there was no one “to root for”. Except that, I’d caveat that you don’t need to root for them, but you do need to care about the outcome (Kubrick was a master of such distinctions).
Hodges protested “I couldn’t believe that people couldn’t root for that Segal character. To try and appease them, I put in a pre-title sequence that shows his relationship with his wife. But it always aggrieved me that I agreed to do it, that I tried to make the character more appealing. It didn’t work, all it did was clog up the film”. In a sense, he’s right. It doesn’t add anything to Harry as a rounded person, in part because it’s reported rather than experienced. It serves to highlight that the issue isn’t so much backstory – “My American friends love backstory, but it’s something I can’t bear” – as who we’ve been allotted for this journey. Segal in a blonde wig, rolling his eyes when the seizures come on: there’s no real weight or substance to his performance or spasmodic zombie tics. He was a master of lighter fare. When he asks a nurse, pre-op, “Do I scare the pants off you?” it should, of course, be the case that we don’t see the unnerving side at that point. However, we do need to see it eventually.
Dr Janet Ross: Harry, do not do that. You are not a machine.
Further still, what we given is very linear in terms of progression. The side that doubtless appealed to Kubrick was the meticulous, painstaking clinical analysis of Harry’s condition and subsequent surgery and stimulation. We’re an hour into the movie before Harry goes AWOL. So he’s a guinea pig, and then he’s a time bomb, and at neither stage does he become a character (less still a person). He’s objectified in each case.
The last 45 minutes are, as noted, borderline slasher-on-the-loose territory, except that everyone is sitting around clueless about what Harry is going to do next. Silly stripper Jill Clayburgh busts him out of hospital and for her troubles receives a slow-mo stabbing frenzy on a waterbed – all the better for arty diluted blood getting into the ceramic grouting – while an unmoved parakeet looks on. White-suited and blonde-wigged Harry sets out for more violent ventures, visiting his technofear on the dopey computer – it has eyes that make it look like something from Galloping Galaxies – he helped design; “Let it stop!” he screams, pleading the words repeatedly.
A lapsed Catholic, Harry goes to a priest for fortification but slaughters him too after he is told “Christ will help us” (this might be seen as punishment for putting one’s faith in men rather than God, but however you look at it, it’s as gratuitously heavy-handed as the water-bed sequence). He calls on his shrink, Dr Ross (Joan Hackett of Support Your Local Sheriff), who, in typically movie fashion, turns into a fragile scream queen when confronted by Harry going all Johnny on her, attempting to smash down her bathroom door (she does manage to stab him, however). She then immediately develops Stockholm Syndrome and attempts to rescue him from himself.
Man Behind Door: They want you next.
That ending is no less overburdened on the symbolism front, as Harry topples into an open grave, from which he is finally taken out by a marksman in a police helicopter. Newman rated this development for its genre allusions: “Like the zombie veteran in Dead of Night, the Terminal Man finally crawls into an open grave in a desperate attempt to restore the balance”.
But if the pro/antagonist is something of a damp squib, there are greater dividends from the envisioning of the ambivalent, opportunistic or ethically indifferent scientists and doctors involved in his case (the police are simply idiots, their ineptitude leading to Harry making his escape in the first place). Even Ross is given to note the shaky ground of the hallowed sciences (“There’s a quotation by someone or other, worth noting: ‘Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist, ought to have his head examined’”).
McPherson: It’s extremely sensitive where the press is concerned. For reasons best known to themselves they become overzealous where psycho-surgery is concerned, especially if the patient is a prisoner.
Dr Ellis (Dysart) and Dr McPherson (Moffat) are keen to sell the potential of their advanced application, and the scope for those who are simply psychologically out of step and so need mechanical adjustment (“we feel this condition may be extremely common among those people who engage in repeated acts of violence. Certain policemen, gangsters, rioters …”). Those suffering from “pathological intoxication”. McPherson whispers the pruriently titillating side of all this, that of hypersexuality (“We had one woman who, during a seizure state would have intercourse with 12 men in a night and not receive satisfaction”). And in all, with potentially 2-to-4-million Americans estimated as suitable for treatment, imagine the profits (they don’t say this, but nevertheless. Preach the doctrine of gender dysphoria and there’s a not dissimilar goldmine, quite beside the similarly transhumanist – and Baphometic – over- and undertones).
Like Heinz, “We have performed this operation, successfully, on animals 57 times”. But also, like the actual application, there’s admittance that the procedure is hit and miss, that they “know roughly what part of the brain to shock… in the amygdala…” but without knowing exactly where: “We solve that by implanting a number of electrodes in the brain. Each incision carries 20 electrodes, so in this case 40 electrodes will be inserted”. This leads to a sequence where Harry reports the sensations of, successively, eating a ham sandwich, the terrible urge to take a leak, and inflamed ardour as they stroke a strong pleasure terminal.
Clinical detachment, we know, can only go so far: Ellis still pukes before he operates on Harry. And the underlying message, we are told – like Jurassic Park – is that “nature’ finds a way. While the computer successfully stops the seizures that lead to the blackouts that cause to Harry to commit acts of violence, it’s discovered “His brain must like the tranquilizing shocks. It’s initiating more seizures to get more shocks” and “if he has too many stimulation’s too fast then the shocks alone will push him into it”.
Dr John Ellis: We had 14,500 murders. We had 36,500 rapes, 306,500 cases of aggravated assault.
Interviewer: Yes I am, I’m good at numbers as well.
Dr John Ellis: All together a third of a million cases of violence. And that doesn’t include cases automobile death. A lot of violence is carried out with cars.
Interviewer: And do you think these figures reflect physical brain damage?
Dr John Ellis: In part. Yes. One of the clues pointing to physical brain damage in a single individual is a history of repeated of violence. Now there are many examples. Charles Whitman, who killed 17 people in Texas, had a brain tumour and told his psychiatrist for months before that he was having feelings about climbing the tower and shooting people. Richard Speck, who killed eight nurses, and Lee Harvey Oswald, both had records of repeated violence. Now of course, those are famous cases. But there a third of a million cases each year. That are not famous. See we are trying to correct this violent behaviour with surgery. Now I don’t think that’s a despicable thing. I think that’s a noble goal. And an important goal.
Interviewer: Isn’t that mind control?
Dr John Ellis: What do you call compulsory education through High School?
Crichton and Hodges are also diligent in summarising the situation so far and pointing barbs at the indolent status quo. Dr Manon (William Hansen) strikes a note of caution in the audience at the surgery’s introductory talk, warning of the ’40s and ’50s and their spate of prefrontal lobotomies (“They created an unknown number of human vegetables. Vegetables are easier for mental institutions to control”). He avers that the only thing stopping them wasn’t the government or peer bodies but “the development of new tranquilizing drugs!” Which in itself is a Hegelian kind of arrangement. Pick one, right or left, drugs or surgery. It’s this means of the prescribed societal structuring that Ellis alludes to when citing chapter and verse to support his methods (just imagine all those obvious psychos – none of them government-arranged psyops or MKUltra-conditioned perpetrators, naturally – who could benefit). And his retort to the suggestion that he is promoting mind control is to claim this is already the longstanding adopted process for raising good American citizens.
Dr Ross: About a year ago, he made what he calls a monumental discovery in his work. Benson is a computer scientist, specializing in artificial life, Machine intelligence. Apparently, he is brilliant in his field. He claims that he discovered that machines were competing with human beings. And that ultimately machines would overtake the world.
The Terminal Man’s transhumanist impulse is sketched in most acutely by making Harry both computer-smart and computer-terrified. He perceives the real threat of AI-gone mad (he’s Elon Musk, but without Mk I selling the computer implanted, Neuralink-“enhanced” human; Neuralink has recently been approved for human trials, even as Elon uses his platform to warn of the dangers of AI. Musk Mk II is nothing if not gleefully contradictory, simultaneously preserving shameless lies and tearing down facades).
Crichton would return to AI, most notably in humanoid form (Westworld). It has its most compelling antecedent here, in that it’s a tangible and reflective scenario. We can say there’s a world of difference between a criminal receiving implants and a full-on cyborg (or supersoldier), but that’s only based on the relative stages of tech; Harry is transhuman. He can be stimulated, controlled and directed (until he goes haywire). He’s a forerunner to Robocop. In that sense, the Frankenstein comparisons are less apt (although both utilise the brain of an offender). Just the confident description of how his inhibitor will work ought to provoke a chill in anyone not drinking scientism’s Kool-Aid; Harry’s brain will be “under the control of a miniature computer the size of a postage stamp implanted in his neck. The computer will be powered by an atomic power pack implanted in his shoulder. The connection to the brain will be direct by means of wires inserted in the cortical substance. Once the system is in place the computer will monitor Benson’s brain waves and watch for a seizure starting up. If that happens, it will deliver a tranquilizing shock, to abort the seizure”.
Detective: You can see the tears in the sheet. They continue out in a straight line. Now in my book, that’s perseveration. Automatic continuation of pointless movement. Like he was some kind of machine that kept going and going.
Ross will tell Harry not speak of his blackouts as “memory tapes erased”. She admonishes “Harry, do not do that. You are not a machine”, but she’s warning him out of fear rather than conviction. The point is stressed at the Angela crime scene (above) and the way the staff joke about monitoring Harry, representing as it does the fabric of an automated society in embryonic form: “You know, this really is amusing in a way. We’re telling Benson’s tiny computer how to work. It gets instructions from the big computer which in turn gets its instructions from Gerhard. Who’s got a bigger computer than all of them”.
Radio Announcer: But first this message of importance…
You know what I just realised. I’m happy. No kidding. I’m really doing well, I’m actually being successful in my profession. And even night school is getting to be fun. I mean I haven’t had a problem I couldn’t handle. Or had that old feeling of anxiety for some time. And I’ll tell you, I honestly give the credit to finding out about and using scientology.
Scientology is this philosophy. Actually, an applied religious philosophy which you use to increase success. Handle problems and anxieties and make just about anything go better in your life. And what a difference it’s made in my life. And I’ve only used it for about three months. You know I always knew I could be this way. The way you find out about scientology… the operators are really nice. And they’ll tell you how to find out more. the phone number is…
There’s a curious footnote in all this: the advert for scientology that plays during Harry’s initial escape from the clutches of science itself. A commentator on Moviechat forum (formerly IMDB forums) suggested this made The Terminal Man pro-scientology and anti-psychiatry, which seems like something of a stretch. One might suggest it equates science’s proofs with quackery through contrasting it to a (new) religion’s promises of sure and abiding change. Both are new fads, both entirely suspect. Sure, it’s possible Hodges was advocating the church, but without any overt steer, the ad seems more positioned as a compare and contrast. Certainly, though, you won’t find many such undiluted platforms for scientology in Hollywood movies. Its most famous member is (was), of course, a transformed (wo)man.
The Terminal Man was passed over for a UK release after bombing with critics and audiences in the US. Hodges opined that “It was interesting because the poster they designed was an image of George Segal with sparks coming out of his arse, flying through the air. It was patently obvious that they didn’t know what on earth to do with it”. Mike Kaplan enlisted Robert Altman to help out with a repositioning of the picture (“Bob looked at the ‘Harry’ responses on the button controls and said, ‘We’ll change the title and make up some credits. Call it What About Harry?’”) but you look at the proposed ad materials and you’d be forgiven for assuming he was actively trying to undermine it.
And, of course, there’s Kael, who had the daggers out for “One of those errors-of-science thrillers; it’s an even worse error of moviemaking… Of all the bad sci-fi movies of the 70s, this one probably has the least charm”. Sure, The Terminal Man isn’t a charming movie, but it’s far from a bad one, suggesting she simply wasn’t an admirer of the genre. The correct position is somewhere between hers and Time Out’s Nigel Floyd, who approvingly called it a “thoughtful and unusually pessimistic” picture. It deserves that characterisation, at least until it goes all killing spree on us.