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Review by
Kelly Parks

The Terminal Man
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THE TERMINAL MAN - 1974
Warner Bros.
Ratings: USA: PG

My brain hurts

THE TERMINAL MAN was directed by Mike Hodges (BLACK RAINBOW) and written by Mr. Hodges, based on the novel by Michael Crichton (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, WESTWORLD, JURASSIC PARK, THE 13TH WARRIOR).

A group of doctors discuss a patient over an expensive meal. We don't see their faces at first, just the photographs of the patient, a Mr. Harry Benson (George Segal). The pictures show pleasant family images of Harry and his wife. Later photos show Harry in police custody and his wife bruised and beaten.

The doctors talk about how Harry changed after an auto accident. He had no history of violence but after the accident he began having blackouts during which he committed a number of violent crimes. (Mini-science moment: cases like this – a head injury turning a normal person into a violent monster – are well known). As one of the doctors remarks about violent individuals, "Nobody ever thinks of these people as physically ill."

Dr. Arthur McPherson (Donald Moffat: THE THING [1982], CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) and Dr. John Ellis (Richard Dysart: THE THING [1982], SPAWN [TV]) agree that Harry is the perfect candidate for a new form of brain surgery. The plan is to implant electrodes in his brain, connected to a small computer placed in his neck. Much like an implanted defibrillator detects and corrects bad heart rhythms; Harry's implant will detect the start of a blackout and jolt his brain back to normal.

Harry arrives at the hospital in a police van. He's handcuffed and the two cops delivering him seem jumpy even though Harry himself is smiling and cooperative. On the way to his room, Harry asks questions about the hospital's computer system that reveals an expert's knowledge. Harry is a brilliant computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence.

He also has paranoid delusions about machines taking over the world. So says his psychiatrist, Dr. Janet Ross (Joan Hackett: THE POSSESSED), who is not crazy about this whole project. But Harry signs all the paperwork so there's nothing she can do.

The surgery goes well and this leads to a scene with Harry and Dr. Ross that is both comical and disturbing as the doctors begin randomly lighting up Harry's brain, not knowing exactly what the effects of each electrode combination will be. The results alternate from producing the taste of a ham sandwich to stimulating his pleasure centers. One cannot help but think what a useful tool this would be in the hands of a dictator. At the press of a button your people feel what you want them to feel. Eventually the right combination is discovered and the implanted computer successfully aborts an artificially triggered blackout.

The doctors put their tuxes on and go to celebrate, intending to continue the experiment the next day. But Harry, who is much smarter than he seems, has other plans.

This movie raises a lot of issues about human experimentation and controlling behavior through brain surgery. At one point a doctor points out the similarity between what they're doing to Harry and the unforgivable atrocity doctors committed in performing tens of thousands of lobotomies on the mentally ill. The movie has a distinctly dehumanizing feel to it, thanks to a combination of great restrained acting, and small details like the vaguely indifferent soft classical background music.

Ultimately Harry is a sad figure. He's aware of the danger he poses and is desperate to be healed. He hasn't seen his children in more than a year because he's afraid he might have an episode while he's with them. His desperation to be cured has driven him to accept a machine inside his body, something that validates his fear than machines are taking over the world.

Unfortunately his doctors have little sympathy for his plight, and see him as merely an opportunity to enhance their professional reputations. Even the sympathetic Dr. Ross makes only a token effort to save Harry. He's a tool, nothing more, which allows them to forget that Harry is a brilliant man in his own right, with his own agenda. Their reaction to his rebellion is a fear for their careers rather than what they've unleashed on the public.

And as for a
!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
It takes an effort of will to keep this short, not because there are mistakes that deserve mention – there are none – but because there are so many topics that apply. I'll limit myself by saying that, as is often the case when Michael Crichton is involved, this story is ahead of its time. The bulk of the public is unaware that the field of neuroscience is about to unleash a host of discoveries that will raise as many ethical questions as genetic engineering. We've come to understand enough about the brain that soon we will have infallible lie detectors, drugs that genuinely enhance your intelligence, and methods that would allow the kind of control seen in this movie. It's all closer than you think.

I give THE TERMINAL MAN four shriek girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2007 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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