Terminus (1987)

What would you get if you remade The Road Warrior (aka, Mad Max 2) as a French artfilm?

Well, it would be pretty strange.  Maybe as strange as Terminus.

Except that the world of Terminus is not really post-Apocalyptic.  The one major city we see looks beautiful and largely undamaged, even if its residents look very punk — or considering the way they seem to be standing around posing when we we first get there, perhaps they look most like the models posing for the cover of a punk rock album.

What may give us at least a partial clue to what’s really going on comes at that very moment as our first glimpse of the city is a young woman working on a mural in a very familiar style which she labels, “Don’t disturb.  Enki Bilal.  Please.”  For those of you not familiar with Bilal, he was one of the leading cartoonists at the French magazine Metal Hurlant (which later became Heavy Metal in the U.S.), and yes, the mural does look like his work.  His comics featured decaying futuristic worlds where misery and degradation exist side by side with vast wealth, epic struggles for power and futuristic technology — with the occasional alien or Egyptian god thrown in to mix things up.

And I have to admit that Enki Bilal’s first two films — Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Tykho Moon (1996)(and to a lesser extent his third one, Immortal ad Vitam) come the closest of any movie I’ve ever seen to this one, in terms of mood, general atmosphere and overall look.

However, you might also compare it to the post-Apocalyptic films Quintet and Salute of the Jugger (Blood of Heroes), which both revolve around people playing an important game whose rules are left unclear.

Although one might also add the satiric Death Race 2000 as well, as this is a race between giant trucks where it doesn’t really matter what damage you do to either your opponent — or the surrounding towns you are driving through.

Not that this is a satire.  It is instead a dark and très cool film which knows it has something important to tell us.

Even if it can’t remember what it is right now.

Terminus is a major, annual event, that much we know.  A red truck belonging to one team, has to successfully avoid the grey trucks of the other team, which are released at intervals as the red truck gets closer to its destination.  However, only the driver of the red truck knows where that destination — Terminus — actually is.

The grey trucks are allowed to do anything they can to stop the red truck.  So far it has never reached Terminus in any previous year’s competition.

However, this isn’t just about a truck and its driver as the truck itself carries a powerful AI, Monster, which is becoming more human all the time, and was designed by a little boy genius named Mati, who was himself the creation of the mysterious scientist known only as Doctor.

All this is just a cover for a secret project, run on behalf of Doctor’s sinister boss, Sir.  This project has something to do with genetic experimentation and a second, secret truck which can make itself invisible, “Little Brother,” which they are trying to sneak through the same route unseen.

Monster is driven by Mati’s friend, Gus, who is played by Karen Allen.  Except that she doesn’t stay with the story for very long and turns Monster over to a one-handed prisoner named Stump who is played by French rock legend Johnny Hallyday.

What stands out most about the film is the strange sense of design, which varies from the battered and rundown look of most of this world to the extravagant and flamboyant when we see the city.  On the one hand, most of the towns they drive through have narrow streets and tiny houses and the people wear clothes which look like they came from some tiny middle European villages from the early Twentieth century — while on the other, you have Sir’s extravagant silk suit and bright red hair, the punk fashions and and the inexplicable (if practical and ordered) mad scientist lab at Terminus.  Perhaps the weirdest and most memorable design is Monster’s interface: a pair of what look like grey human lips with little metal actuators on the outside, and glowing lights — usually either red or blue — showing inside.

The truck itself looks very top heavy.  I suspect they built a drivers’ cab on top of an existing vehicle (there is a large, glossy black shape with a grill-like set of lines below the cab which is probably the real windscreen as it is the right size and shape).  This means we can see the stars of the film in the truck “driving” it while the vehicle is actually in motion.

Karen Allen is as appealing as usual, although it is a blow when she disappears from the film (and in a very dark way), while Hallyday is suitably battered and weary as Stump.  He looks a lot older than his actual mid-forties and is decidedly non-glamorous throughout.  Jurgen Prochnow has a very strange triple role, playing the mysterious Sir, the mad scientist, Doctor, and the violent driver of “Little Brother.”  I’m not sure whether they are supposed to be clones, but the rest of the staff at Terminus has a very cookie cutter look to them, thanks to the uniform dress code and all the girls with red hair.  We do learn that genetic engineering and experimentation is part of whatever Sir’s mysterious organization is doing.

Not that we ever get to know what that is.

However, one cannot help thinking that it is probably important that the license plate on Doctor’s car reads “P K DICK.”

The neighboring country Monster enters supposedly by mistake is meant to have a very Nazi look, although it seems less organized and disciplined, with what look like skin head bikers (complete with face paint and eccentric biker gang clothes) as the border guards.  There is a lot of Catholic imagery in their world, and we even see what appears to be an Eastern Orthodox priest on their side.  It all feels very out of place as Naziism was both saturated with Germanic paganism and very anti-Christian.

Although this may have come from Enki Bilal, whose stories have featured an “Obscurantist” league, where all the religions have banded together to oppress, ummmm…

Well, the sort of people who think all religions are obscurantist, I guess.


This was Pierre-William Glenn’s second feature, although he got his start as a cinematographer on films like Death Watch.  While IMDB claims it was an English language film, I have serious doubts about that.  Currently the only version you can find is the French version, and it isn’t obviously dubbed.  With these international productions it was common to dub many of the voices because the stars may not all have spoken the same language.

Still, my impression is that most of the film was not dubbed, and that the lip movements do seem to sync.  It wouldn’t be the first time IMDB got something like this wrong, and there may very well have been a Euro cut and an American one, as one saw with many of the Euro films of the era.  Certainly some of the plot summaries I’ve read seem at odds with the subtitled version I saw, and I saw no evidence to suggest that the little girl, Princess, is Mati’s sister as one source claims.

But she might be his sister in the U.S.

I’m not sure what I think about this film.  It is bold, colorful and full of weird design, it hints at a much larger world, and is full of a lot of lovely little details and minor science fictional gimmicks.

But it is a rather dark story, far darker than one normally finds in escapist films.  It has a very serious streak hidden beneath it all, and a very dark view of our current world.  The action scenes are reasonably good, even if we never have anything quite as big or well-staged as the stunts in The Road Warrior.

And even there, it is far darker, as we get to see the disastrous results of what happens to people when the grey trucks lose control.

I can’t hate a film this bold and thoughtful, even if I don’t think I’ll ever exactly like it.  It’s not a movie for those looking for a quick Mad Max fix and it will horribly disappoint anyone who expects a simple, violent post-Apocalyptic action film.

But if you are looking for a dark, old school, wickedly ironic French thriller of the sort they made before Diva and Luc Besson, you will find much to like here.

Particularly if you loved Enki Bilal’s films…



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