“There are two things in life that we are never truly prepared for” says Margot Robbie, before a plot reveal a five-year-old could have seen coming. The irony was not lost on me. Terminal is a film that’s received a lot of flak, a lot of it not very fair (0-star reviews, come on!), and likely borne out of the critical hivemind that forms after a premiere screening. That said, it’s still not great: a Tarantino knockoff set in a colourised version of Miller’s Sin City.
Margot Robbie stars as a mysterious femme fatale in an unnamed city (which is clearly supposed to be an alternative vision of London), and works in a rail-side café. We chiefly follow her in two narratives: the first involves a suicidal English teacher, played by Simon Pegg, who has to sit around in the café until the first train of the day in order to end his life. The second involves two bickering hitmen (Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons) who have been tasked with figuring out a mysterious job from a series of clues.
The script is, by far, the weakest part of Vaughn Stein’s film. For the majority of the film, we flit between Simon Pegg and the hitmen, expecting the two worlds to crossover in some way. That they don’t gives Terminal an incoherent, overstuffed feel, despite being only 90 minutes long. The hitmen segments are painfully obvious attempts to invoke Jules and Vince from Pulp Fiction, except they lack chemistry or wit. The dialogue is crammed with silly pretense – e.g. “You’re standing here in the dark, waiting for a train that isn’t coming”, or “Death is the best part of life”. A railroad café is named ‘End of the Line’, and characters have an obsession with quoting long passages from Alice in Wonderland. It often feels like lines have been lifted straight from an angsty 14-year-old girl’s Tumblr. And then there’s the incessant use of transparent M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist. Terminal begins by telling us what Margot Robbie is going to do to at least two of the characters; Stein foreshadows the biggest reveal incessantly, so it’s clear throughout how the film will end. In between Terminal delves into wacky, crazed mayhem – but it’s exactly the kind of wacky, crazed mayhem that we were expecting.
I find hard to say whether, visually, Terminal is wonderfully exciting or excruciatingly dull. The lighting is spot-on: Argento-vision rainbow colours leaking in through rain-soaked windows and refracting through roadside puddles kind of spot-on. But the film was shot on sound-stages, and it’s pretty obvious. We never really get a sense of place from Terminal, because it looks so plastic, so artificial, so unreal. Multiple shots are filled with CGI. As there was no city set, the rooftops and exteriors have been crafted on computers – big mistake. The graphics are clumsy and obviously animated, making parts of the film seem cheap. It’s also true that, as nice as some of the neon-on-brickwork looks, it’s something that we’ve seen countless times before – no longer exciting, no longer original, no longer particularly praiseworthy.
Terminal is not irredeemable. It’s lit beautifully, and works as a piece of colourful, late-night entertainment. However, its cringey, Tarantino knock-off script, cheap CGI, and unoriginal visuals make Terminal a bit of a disaster for current critical-darling Margot Robbie.