An automobile accident leaves Harry Benson brain damaged, with severe epilepsy and bouts of violent behaviour. He’s put forward as a candidate for a revolutionary new procedure to surgically control his condition. Doctors operate on him and embed a series of electric neuro-stimulators in his brain and automatically regulate these using a computer chip (powered by a radioactive battery pack in his shoulder).
To foreshadow the impending tragedy, Harry Benson (a talented computer programmer researching robots and AI) already suffers from an irrational fear of machines taking over the world. With the operation appearing to be a success, the doctors excitedly use him as a guinea pig, using the implanted brain stimulators to trick his consciousness into experiencing a range of sensations and emotions. Realising that he has become little more than a plaything for scientists, Harry Benson escapes from hospital, but his neuro-pacemaker malfunctions, which makes him even more psychotic. After a bloody murder, he stumbles into a graveyard where police hunt him down.
The Terminal Man chronicles the surgical process and the ethical implications around surgical procedures that aim to pacify subject (such as lobotomies). The process is covered matter-of-factly, in an almost Kubrick-like documentary style. While this provides an intelligent background and psychological tension it gets in the way of character development and the dramatic action. The obvious correlation between Harry’s robotics work and his brain implant is never explored. His irrational fear of a robot takeover seems out-of-keeping for a talented AI genius actively investigating robotic intelligence. Harry Benson’s sudden lapse into psychotic behaviour instantly flips the story from an intelligent exploration of the man-machine interface, and the Philosophical ‘brain-mind’ problem into a crowd-pleasing monster story. In some respects, Harry Benson is a modern technological-monster, something along the lines of Frankenstein’s monster — the problem is that he fails to do anything particularly ‘modern’. He could, for example, interface with computers and use them to his advantage, but he doesn’t appear to have any significant character motivation. He goes crazy and murder’s someone.
The problem with The Terminal Man is one of focus. If it’s a tragedy about a failed surgical procedure we should spend more time getting to know Harry Benson, so we feel more empathy towards his character. The focus could be on the psychological and human consequences of his predicament, his relationship with his family or the mess of a disintegrating romantic relationship (echoing his own disintegrating mental state). Or, as a monster movie, the hero might instead be a doctor whose passionate warnings about the procedure go unheeded. Perhaps his excellent judgement is ignored a second time when he observes Harry Benson behaving irrationally. A corporation sponsoring the project might refuse to accept his findings because it endangers their highly profitable computer chip business. The tone could become conspiratorial if the chip company has an ulterior motive: using the device within the criminal justice system to pacify convicted criminals. When Harry Benson goes berserk the heroic doctor could track him down, and eventually be vindicated when the police arrive to save the day. Of course, shifting the focus changes the entire story. The issue here might be how the novel was adapted into a film: trying to do too many things. This dilemma highlights the critical nature of the planning stage. What is this story about? What is the best way to tell that story? Who is the hero? What do they want? Who or what is stopping them from getting that?
The Terminal man is a celebration and a warning about scientific progress. It contrasts the clinically rational world of the scientific establishment with Harry’s psychotic disturbance: attempting to merge an intelligent and realistic science-fiction story with an audience-pleasing monster-horror. And in the end, the rational forces of science are unable to tame nature’s inherent darkness.