Written & Directed by Vaughn Stein
The great thing about the underseen independent film is that it can take chances. With huge mainstream big budget pictures, studios are forced to cater to their audience, who is expected to fork over huge sums at the box office to make it a hit. As a result, these blockbusters films, and looks I love them as much as the next guy, have to stay within a certain box, or they risking busting, which could result in financial disaster given their often huge budgets. The drawback, then, of the smaller independent endeavor is that the chances taken by these ambitious filmmakers don’t always work, which often means that some of the most underrated and underseen films of the year come from this bag, while some of the truly awful films are also sprung from these deep recesses. With Terminal, writer/director Vaughn Stein most definitely takes some bold and ambitious chances. Some of them work, but largely the film is a dud.
Taking place in a slick, neon-soaked city, Terminal follows the intersecting stories of multiple characters, led by Annie (Margot Robbie), an unassuming night waitress at a 24 hour diner outside the train station. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with a dying professor (Simon Pegg) as well as a romance with a contract killer named Alfred (Max Irons). Alfred and his partner in crime Vince (Dexter Fletcher) become entwined by the revenge-laden plot of an unseen criminal mastermind, who appears to be pulling all the strings. Mike Myers, an odd name not heard from in a while, also appears as an eccentric janitor in the nearby train station.
Written as a neo-noir, or rather in this circumstance a neon-noir, Terminal is stylish as all get out. If it has anything going for it, it’s clearly the visuals on display, which focus highly on darkness with pops of bright colors, lead by the high amounts of neon signage found everywhere you look. Really the cinematography and art direction is among the most eye-catching and impressively cool work I’ve seen this year. From a technical standpoint, the film really stands out for its use of style and seduction in telling its story. The story, on the other hand, is largely what lets this film down, despite its otherwise entertaining and engaging cast.
Margot Robbie shows once more she is confident and cool in what amounts to the lead role in the film as Annie. Her interactions with the dying English teacher (Pegg) are probably the best of the film, as she encourages him to live what life he has left to the fullest, or as they discuss the best ways for him to kill himself and end his misery quickly instead of succumbing to the creeping death that follows him around in the form of his sickness. The problem is that’s largely a side plot, with little to do with the real revenge plot turning its wheels in the center of this film. And that is where the film falls flat. In what should be a dynamic, ever-changing relationship between Annie, Alfred and Vince, I really hardly cared about whether she really loved Alfred at all, whether Vince was going to turn and kill either one of the other two. I didn’t even really care who the kingpin was pulling all the strings. I was invested enough in these characters to even care.
Instead I was drawn in by the visuals, which is the only thing of value I will take from this. Robbie and Pegg are fun to watch too, but this is far from either’s best work. When the inevitable twists do come, even without caring much about it, I was not all that shocked, as they are largely telegraphed from a mile away. All in all, Terminal becomes a sub-par attempt at neo-noir, though I certainly appreciate any attempt at the genre at all, especially one with such bright, lush and stunning visuals as this one. With two above average elements in the visuals and a few of the central performers, Terminal merely lacks an enticing and exciting narrative. Too bad the whole concept of making is a movie is telling a story worth telling because Terminal is not a story much worth telling.