Attention: This article contains spoilers for readers who have not seen The Terminal Man.
Hollywood in the seventies was an incredible era for leading men of every type. Iconic movie stars who had graced cinema screens since the forties and fifties were still commanding lead roles, joined by up-and-coming actors from the New Hollywood phase which began in the sixties. One popular leading man at the time who embodied abounding charm and talent was George Segal. Though his career blossomed in 1966 with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and remained active up to his cast role as Albert “Pops” Solomon in the American television sitcom, The Goldbergs, George Segal, in his prime, helped define the cinema of the seventies.
Segal passed away 23 March 2021 at age 87 due to complications from bypass surgery. Born 13 February 1934 in New York City, the actor leaves behind a timeless body of work and countless memories for his fans. Whether he was on a shaky path to romance with Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), planning a gem heist with brother-in-law Robert Redford in The Hot Rock (1972), gambling with buddy Elliott Gould in California Split (1974), or hilariously dealing with his elderly mother, Ruth Gordon, in Where’s Poppa? (1970)…George Segal did it all exquisitely for audiences. He even tackled high adventure with the likes of Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, and a potential diamond swallowing ostrich in a fine 1969 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Southern Star.
In 1974, Segal appeared in a lead role against type. The Terminal Man can be considered a science fiction-horror film, merging both genres in a unique, somewhat clinical fashion. Originally a novel by Michael Crichton published in 1972, The Terminal Man confronts the author’s oft-expressed warnings of technological advances either faltering or gone awry. Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and Jurassic Park (1993) also deal with the dangers of faith and over-reliance in new, unproven technology.
When one thinks of science fiction merging with horror, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein often comes to mind. For sure, there are similar themes occurring in The Terminal Man. Whereas in Frankenstein a scientist fails at playing God in his quest to create life, the medical team in The Terminal Man fail in their attempt to cure a patient of aggression through computerized manipulation. The similarity exists in the depiction of medical scientists determined to perform experimental surgery without dwelling on ethical or moral consequences. Thus both stories describe the patient (or creation) as unwittingly becoming victim and victimizer due to circumstances beyond their control.
George Segal portrays Harry Benson, who experiences violent streaks sparked by periodic seizures which develop following a severe auto accident. His own wife (since divorced) is not immune, as he strikes out physically at anyone in his path. Benson has no memory of his uncontrollable anger after an episode. Now in confinement, he agrees to psychosurgery which involves a new procedure never performed on human beings previously. The surgery involves the placement of a computer microchip in his neck which delivers tranquilizing stimuli via wires implanted in his brain to counteract oncoming seizures. This, according to the researchers, will terminate any potentially violent behavior. Here is the irony of Harry Benson agreeing to the new procedure – Benson was a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence before his life completely changed, and now struggles with paranoiac thoughts that computers one day will advance so far as to dominate humans. Benson’s psychiatrist, Dr. Janet Ross, played extremely serious by Joan Hackett, is not convinced the operation is a good idea because of his ongoing aversion to computers. The team of surgeons in the film are portrayed by Richard A. Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Michael C. Gwynne. The opportunistic doctors are seen as steadfast and overzealous, while downplaying potentially serious side effects.
The Terminal Man was directed by Mike Hodges, who previously directed and wrote the screenplay for Get Carter in 1971. Michael Crichton was originally brought onboard to develop the script from his own novel, but left the production at the request of Warner Bros., as the studio did not feel Crichton was sticking close enough to his own material. Consequently, the film adaptation was ultimately written by director Hodges, who also served as producer. Reviews were mixed after its release, and The Terminal Man, undeservedly, slipped through the cracks as one of the well-made, essential, and realistic science fiction films of that decade. One definite standout of the film was the intense performance of George Segal. Known and loved by the moviegoing public as a box office star of light-hearted romances, comedies, and adventures…this time around Segal was far from his familiar ground. It was brilliant…and bloody.
While rooted in science fiction, the potential of a computer-aided surgical breakthrough puts the film extremely close to reality. Groundbreaking computer advancement was beginning to take hold in the mid-seventies and The Terminal Man expands upon this fact. What could go wrong in the realm of man relying upon machine? Plenty. As for the horror elements, that becomes evident as the film progresses.
Benson inevitably escapes from the hospital while he is recovering from the operation with the aid of a girlfriend, Angela Black (Jill Clayburgh). Soon after, his violent attacks return and begin to occur more frequently with intense fury. The reason stems from the fact his brain is now addicted to the pleasant stimuli induced by the microchip. Instead of deterring violent behavior, the computer chip has inadvertently increased this activity. Benson’s mind is actually becoming more unhinged as it craves the euphoric stimulation it now receives regularly. The experimental operation has failed and a killer is now on the loose in Los Angeles.
The second half of The Terminal Man shifts to a manhunt for Benson in suburban Los Angeles involving the police and his surgical team. Benson now sports a wild-looking blond wig to conceal his shaved head (due to the operation). Jill Clayburgh, looking quite glamourous, comes across very well despite having a much smaller role in the film. After assisting with his escape, she brings Benson to her apartment to rest and hide from authorities. The result is later horrific as his seizures return.
Benson’s murderous behavior is without reason or purpose. It is simply a brain malfunction. The uncontrollable stabbing of Benson’s girlfriend, Angela Black, on a waterbed, is as graphic as a giallo film but lacks the passion or perversion of emotions due to his condition. In this regard, the viewer may experience a level of compassion for Benson as he simply cannot control what he is doing. Here is a man who under normal circumstances before his accident was a law-abiding citizen, now transformed unwillingly into a killing automaton. George Segal excels here. There is a most effective, heart-wrenching scene where he continues to scream out, “Let it stop! Let it stop! Let it stop! Let it stop! Let it stop! Let it stop! Let it stop!”
Director Mike Hodges shot The Terminal Man entirely in the Los Angeles area. Benson is self-described as a successful family man who once had it all. Wife, three kids, two cars, house in Beverly Hills, property, yacht, pool, all the trappings that come with wealth. Now he is dangerously dysfunctional due to an auto accident and subsequent brain damage. His life falls apart. But how does that contrast to a formerly good life in Los Angeles? The film explores the aspect of an individual losing absolutely everything due to unforeseen circumstances.
Richard H. Kline’s cinematography in The Terminal Man is extremely bright and extremely white, strongly accented by black highlights. Apartments are clean, orderly, and seem as antiseptic as the hospital setting. Sporadic and symbolic colorful sequences eventually arrive involving a strip club, a church, and a mausoleum. Benson is dressed in pure white casual attire. He initially looks as if he fits right into the status quo of professional, sunny Los Angeles. But upon closer examination, he doesn’t anymore. His wig is askew, he appears disheveled, and the red blood of his transgressions contrast against his white outfit. The feel is complete hopelessness. The subtle, melancholy soundtrack featuring J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variation 25, performed by Glenn Gould, underscores the dire atmosphere. If you are in Harry Benson’s predicament, in the middle of suburban Los Angeles, there just isn’t anywhere for you to go anymore, except toward the grave. This is exactly where Benson ends up, crawling into a freshly dug grave, awaiting the authorities to end his misery.
The Terminal Man philosophically reaches beyond purely fantastical elements. We actually feel sympathy for a man who is committing brutal murders. Not an easy task for a film, but George Segal really delivers here. The film touches upon the indifference science often has concerning the human condition at a time of technological advancement. In addition, it suggests how humans may be actually willing to sacrifice part of their own humanity for technological gain. The Terminal Man remains quite contemporary as these issues are just as relevant, or even more so, nowadays. We get the feeling in the end that the medical researchers will simply carry on with their experiments well into the future…while Harry Benson is dead and buried in the past. The final dialog within the film reinforces this, as it suggests another potential patient is now being considered. Add to this an undercurrent of cold suburban alienation exhibited by all the characters involved, and The Terminal Man achieves on many different levels.
George Segal soon returned to comedic cinema following the release of The Terminal Man, including The Black Bird (1975), a spoof of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It’s a testament to Segal’s acting talent as to how he navigated so very different roles. As bleak and disturbing as his character of Harry Benson is in The Terminal Man, Segal’s charm and subtle smile still shines through. While George Segal’s charismatic screen presence was infectiously endearing to movie audiences, his wide range still enabled him to masterfully portray The Terminal Man bone-chillingly to perfection. George Segal also entertained throughout the years as a talented musician and banjo player. This writer has fond memories as a youngster in the seventies and eighties (in the USA) staying up late watching George Segal happily singing old tunes and picking his banjo on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. George Segal gave us laughter, romance, and adventure, he sang for us…and yes, he even scared us! Thank you, George Segal, and thanks for making us smile too.