Before I go on trips now I peruse iTunes to download movies for the trip, letting their somewhat odd selection guide me to things I might not otherwise have noticed. Such it was this time with this film, which I didn't even know existed, but soon learned is from the 70s, from a novel by Michael Crichton, promising somewhat concept-based science fiction, and is directed by Mike Hodges, of the amazing Get Carter and Pulp. By the time it was over I was reflecting on how thrillers from the 70s weren't necessarily as thrilling as we are used to now, and considering writing a much-needed essay called Why Good Directors Make Bad Movies.
So we open by seeing a bunch of photos of George Segal as Harry Benson being passed around a dinner table, and hearing voices discuss them. We see him as a happy and happily married scientist, then learn he had a car accident, got brain damage, and after that went on violent and uncontrollable rages. The voices are discussing this, in the context of how they can market his story after they give him an experimental surgery, which will implant a microchip in his brain. The subtext indicator starts flashing as we hear that Harry works in robotics and artificial intelligence, and came to believe that machines are competing with humanity, and would eventually overtake the world. The idea is that Harry will now be turned into somewhat of a machine, giving us a lot of very deep concepts to consider.
So we see Harry arrive at the hospital, and see that he is under the guard of two policemen. We then meet Joan Hackett (who?) as Dr. Janet Ross, who delivers an exposition-fest in the guise of explaining Harry's situation to a group of doctors. One old coot in the back raises objections to the whole thing, in such a way we know his warnings will prove profound if unheeded. Then Harry is brought out, and answers questions himself. Then he is taken upstairs, and his head shaved. We learn that he will have a microchip in his neck that will sense when he is about to have a violent seizure, and flood his system with some chemical that will stop it. Jill Clayburgh as his girlfriend Angela Black shows up, and leaves a case for Harry, which includes a wig he can wear after the operation.
Then the operation, a sequence which ultimately takes close to 15 minutes of screen time, and might have seemed fascinating back in the early 70s when such prospects as sci-fi brain surgery was exciting, but is just flat-out astonishingly boring now. You keep watching, like "okay, this is going on so long, obviously something is going to happen," but no, it's just a super-duper long and ultra-boring brain surgery. This is followed by a super-duper long and ultra-boring sequence in which Harry's new chip is tested by Dr. Ross, and he has different brain patterns fed to him, then several seizures induced, whereupon it is proved that the chip works. He's cured!
By this time we've been unable to avoid staring at Ross' hair, which has this center part and little wings off the top of her head, and looks nice while also quite odd. And we notice that Hodges is giving us some nice, somewhat artsy direction, with a repeating motif of these eyes staring through a peephole at Harry, as though he is some sort of specimen. This routine wears out its welcome the more it is repeated, and it's repeated quite often. And we've noticed that the hospital tower conducting the surgery is called Babel, and I think you know where THAT is going.
All of this has consumed the first HOUR of the movie, and you can't help but notice that this would all be covered by the first 20 minutes of most other films. We do get a nice little sequence of the doctors repairing to an artsy strip club to keep us interested, and finally Ross learns that--surprise--Harry isn't responding as hoped. It would seem that his brain is purposely setting off seizures in order to get the tranquilizing shots from his microchip, making him like a prescription painkiller addict with a pharmacy right in his head. Then, finally, Harry escapes! He wears the blonde nightmare wig, which makes him look somewhat creepy (though not quite creepy enough), and is picked up by Angela.
SPOILERS (THOUGH NOT REALLY) > > >
Okay, now it's ON right? Bring on the violent rampage? Well, yes and no. After Harry and Angela have made sweet, hot love (not shown), she is painting her Lee press-on nails black as she watches the movie Them! on TV. Perhaps this selection is supposed to provide some significance, but I'll be damned if I can tell what it is. Then Harry has a seizure, grabs the nearest snow globe, and bashes Angela in the head with it! Then he grabs the nearest knife and stabs her repeatedly, and keeps on going, delivering multiple stab wounds to the waterbed! The whole thing unspools in significance-enhancing slow-motion, as the waterbed... slowly... dies... although there is a nice touch as we see the red blood creeping along the pattern of the white tile floor.
The hospital folks soon learn that Harry is out there, and kind of pursue him in a very low-key way, while in evening wear (they were at a celebratory party). We learn one awesome thing--that Harry will have a violent seizure every 25 minutes, meaning he will leave a trail of destruction and murder in his wake until he he found and caught. He first breaks into his old lab and destroys the robots he was working on, then goes to a church and kills the priest there. Meanwhile you might be saying "Gee, I never know a microchip-enabled relentless murdering rampage could be quite so dull."
So Ross goes home, sleeps, takes a shower, and is drying her hair with her ice cream sandwich when--WHAT?! It's true, she has an awesome "futuristic" hair dryer that looks for all the world like an ice cream sandwich. Don't believe me? Look at the picture. Then she learns that Harry is downstairs, right in her own home. He has taken the phone off the hook! She is tense, and at a certain point she picks up the tiniest little knife, and he walks toward her, right onto the knife. Wow, that has to be one of the lowest-key stabbings in movie history. Then he starts to have a seizure, and she runs upstairs. She eschews the bedroom, with its multiple avenues of escape and telephone (which she has gotten working again), in favor of the enclosed bathroom. You see, even doctors with advanced degrees make stupid decisions in movies when lives are at stake. Anyway, she waits it out, and Harry escapes.
Alrighty, let's wrap it all up with an arbitrary climax! Harry wanders into this cemetery, gun tucked into his pants--now, where did THAT come from?-- and after a bit of wandering, jumps into an open grave. Blah, blah, eventually a helicopter comes and shoots him. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
Christ, what a fucking bore! I looked this movie up on the IMDb today, and was surprised to find that most of the (very few) reviews were quite positive, and saying that it is nice and slow and character-driven, before delivering ye olde "if you don't like it, go back to watching Transformers 12" or some such. Uh no--I have seen L'Avventura and Andrei Rublev, and this is legitimately boring. This is 30 minutes of story stretched to almost two hours, with elements--like high-tech brain implants--that might have been intrinsically exciting back in the day, but can barely raise an eyebrow now. Scenes, like the surgery and testing afterward, go on so long you start to think that there must be some reason, and have to conclude that ultimately there is not. I thought maybe it was just me, but I found the review from the New York Times at the time of release, where the critic says "The only fear the movie generates is that it will never end."
And what's it all about? We're primed to expect idea-based sci-fi from Michael Crichton, and maybe the novel had more of it (the ending has apparently been vastly altered), but this movie only makes a few feints in that direction, that never really amount to anything. Harry is a robot-maker who comes to hate machines, then becomes one himself. Okay as an idea, but just not developed enough. Or we can't control human nature? Biology wins out? None of it is focused enough to make a statement. Then there's a dollop of medicine marketing ladled over the beginning and end, but not enough to matter. What you're left with is a well-made thriller that, for some reason, made a conscious decision to way downplay its thrills.
I'm willing to concede that perhaps Hodges had some idea in making his film like this, which brings us back to Why Good Directors Make Bad Films. It's possible to have too many ideas, or have ideas that just don't translate into a film anyone would want to watch. This one is artfully directed, and set in bleached-out, white-on-white settings, which provides a feeling of being in good hands, but apparently hands that wanted to downplay any entertainment value, and forgot to substitute any compelling reason to watch.
It won't kill you, but there's still really no reason to.