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‘Terminal’ Review: Heavy on References, Light on Substance

The striking cinematography isn’t enough of a red herring to distract audiences from a convoluted story.
Margot Robbie In Terminal
By  · Published on May 20th, 2018

From the opening sequence, it’s clear the best part of Vaughn Stein‘s Terminal will be its star, Margot Robbie. We wait in anticipation to see her entirely as the camera cuts from her legs, eyes, and lips while she makes a deal with an unknown man. Every shot drenches her in color or darkness. Her character Annie is cool, calm, and gorgeous, everything we expect from a classic femme fatale; she and the other characters have more in common with famous noir characters we’ve seen before than we’d like.

Any noir, or even neo-noir, would stay with its star or lead us to the detective that is trying to solve the case, but Terminal does neither. In fact, the case is pretty unclear throughout the entire movie. Instead, we jump from character to character without any clear knowledge of how they have anything to do with the opening deal. One moment we see Bill (Simon Pegg) waiting for a train in an abandoned terminal when he encounters a very odd janitor named Clinton (Mike Myers) and decides to go to the station diner, which is still open. Then we go to a pair of what we later find out are assassins, Alfred (Max Irons) and Vince (Dexter Flecher), as they are waiting in an apartment. Annie is officially introduced, the first of several times, as the waitress in the terminal’s diner. Soon we see a woman looking similar to Annie, but with a black wig, presumably kill a man named Illig (Nick Moran) as well. If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

While the story is told in an unconventional and disorienting way, the characters are molds of noir characters that we are familiar with. Robbie’s femme fatale is the typical mysterious, yet irresistible woman reminiscent of Barabara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in Double Indemnity and Lauren Bacall’s Vivian in The Big Sleep. Her motivations are unclear and her past even more confusing, but her ability to attract men is undeniable. All of Annie’s dialogue is a cryptic approach to subtextual noir dialogue, but with modern actors in a jumbled world. In the end it all comes off as cheesy, with Annie ditsy one minute and able to philosophize with Bill the next. Without giving the ending away, Annie’s character is nothing we haven’t seen in noir or neo-noir movies before. She’s a damaged woman out for revenge, but the reveal of her intentions comes much too late in the movie and without any hints for us to even care. Her character is a clear example of the director and writer Stein’s attempt to bring everything he loves about noir into a modern story with disappointing results. The other characters, especially Alfred and Vince, seem to play with noir tropes without ever embodying them authentically enough for us to believe they are anything but a caricature.


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Stein’s love for film noir is clear in the way he wrote the characters, but Terminal draws from multiple other genres as well. There are elements of sci-fi in the eerie abandoned train station in an unnamed city. Myers’ character adds a surreal aspect to the film from his introduction, making it clear there is something weirder going on in this station than just a couple of assassins hanging out with a beautiful waitress in the diner. Where the oddness of Clinton and the setting could’ve provided a fresh take on a noir story, it just convolutes the already adrift story without much justification other than to delay the tell-all explanation at the end of the movie.

As an attempt to add to the creepiness of the film, there are references to Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland throughout, exclusively in dialogue with little imagery to supplement the references. Characters read from the book directly, express their love for the book, and bring it up in moments that have nothing to do with it. Those references always come in the most confusing aspects of the film, almost telling the audience, “If you’re confused, just look at it like this nonsensical book!” That’s not what audiences want from a noir movie; if you have to directly reference it for the viewer to make a connection, you’re not doing your job. Especially with the overwrought noir impact on the story, referring to a famous book takes away from the original story that is trying to be told.

Every filmmaker and writer is influenced by films and other works of art when they make their own, but creating something completely new should be the purpose of the project. Writing characters like former characters or creating a plot like something we’ve seen before doesn’t work because you’re too focused on making a copy of something else instead of serving the story as it is meant to be. Even combining multiple genres, like Terminal has done, it’s still obvious that forcing the genres together was the idea, rather than writing a coherent story. You can honor a genre, a movie, etc. without completely ripping it off. Movies like Terminal are the ultimate proof that using tropes and combining genres doesn’t always make a fresh story.

Terminal is available On Demand.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_