In this forgotten early Michael Crichton techno-thriller, George Segal plays a computer expert who thinks that machines are competing with people and will take over the world. Since a car accident, minor brain damage has left him prone to blackouts where he commits acts of extreme violence. Aware of his actions, if unable to control them, he willingly agrees to experimental surgery in which a computer inserted into his brain will control his attacks with calming stimuli. In actuality, his brain instigates more seizures to bring on the sensations he has become addicted to, finally pushing him over the edge after he escapes from the hospital...
"This is the only work I know that's boring and nerve-wracking at the same time," says Richard Dysart's neuro-surgeon mid-surgery in a line that comes perilously close to summing up the whole movie. The Terminal Man is a film of considerable intelligence but little heart, making it hard to care what happens to the characters and draining it of much of its potential for suspense. In many ways, its dehumanising effect makes it like a Kubrick film with better lighting (interestingly, Mike Hodges' script cites the same killers as the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket). Even poetry and the Constitution are reduced to the level of a sound check.
To the doctors, Segal's trauma is a malfunction that can be repaired by mechanical adjustment, and they never really interact with him on a human level to dispel the notion. Even when he tells the closest to a sympathetic character in the film, Joan Hackett's psychologist, that his 'memory tapes have been erased', in the very act of telling him that he is not a machine she uses mechanical terminology - "We can fix you." For the rest, these are surgeons as movie-stars, playing to the gallery in operations, holding parties in their Frank Lloyd Wright houses and smoothly unrepentant press conferences when things go wrong. To them, surgery is an assembly line, computer controlled, and they seem unaware of what they have created. Segal's potential salvation turns him into what he fears most, pushing him into "automatic continuation of pointless movement, like he was some kind of machine that kept going and going" as he stabs his girlfriend.
Unfortunately, Hodges does not take the opportunity to let rip emotionally when he escapes from the sterile world of the hospital. Segal has probably never been better, but despite his superbly controlled performance, we are kept detached from his plight by the carefully composed and controlled images. At times the film is too much of a laboratory experiment under controlled circumstances, turning us into disinterested observers instead of involving us directly, though it has to be said that some of the images are outstanding, and the final one of him writhing in an open grave as he is cold-bloodedly shot at from a police helicopter is a stunner.
Yet it is hard to dispel the notion that Michael Crichton's novel could have benefited from a schlockier screen adaptation - his strongest point as a writer is his ability to put over big ideas in often superior pulp plots, as it witnessed by Jurassic Park and Rising Sun. This lacks the tension of his own directorial efforts, often over-intellectualising the material at the cost of the audience's own human response. Aside from a few throwaway touches such as a policeman breaking off from checking out the patient's room to check out his own reflection or a brief exchange between Segal and Clayburgh - "Did you get your tonsils out?" "No, I had electrodes planted in my pleasure cells" - it is a very spare film, with none of the extraneous detail or occasional moments of humour it needs to flesh it out.
Nonetheless, even as something of a failure, it is a fascinating and ambitious one that holds the attention and raises some interesting questions without patronising.
Review by TrevorAclea from the Internet Movie Database.