The neon-lit, rain-drenched streets of Vaughn Stein’s Terminal, out Friday in theaters starring Margot Robbie and Simon Pegg, feels like a paperback graphic novel come to life. But unlike most of today’s visually arresting genre films, Terminal isn’t an adaptation of anything. It’s an original story written by its first-time director. And Stein tells Inverse even though Terminal looks like a graphic novel, there are huge nuances that separate comic book movies from graphic novel films.
“What’s interesting with the darker graphic novels, your Frank Millers and Alan Moores, you’re able to explore really interesting subject matter and imbue characters with really interesting things,” the director tells Inverse. “Satirical elements, political elements. Sci-fi has always been a commentary on our world just told through a different prism. Graphic novels do that brilliantly.”
Stein is no snob — he makes it clear to me he’s a Marvel fan. But Terminal aims for a different, older audience than the “universally acceptable” Marvel Studios epics. For Terminal, Stein says he “wanted to take those inspirations and aesthetic touchstones and give it a ‘grown up’ noir.”
“The most successful graphic novel adaptations in my mind are the ones that embrace the tropes and styles of a totally different world and give it filmic sensibility,” Stein says. “It’s about being hyper-real, being sensational, not being confined by naturalism. A sense of tone that an audience can buy into immediately. Something that operates in a heightened reality.”
Set in a nameless dystopian city reminiscent of the neon-soaked Los Angeles in Blade Runner, Terminal stars Annie (Robbie), a woman with multiple disguises who pulls the strings as two hitmen take on a high-risk contract for a mysterious client. The film also stars Mike Meyers (yes, THAT Mike Meyers) and Simon Pegg (Star Trek) as a cancer-stricken English teacher who wanders into Annie’s diner unaware of her true nature.
Stein cites every noir hallmark from 1927’s Metropolis to 1982’s Blade Runner, from Wong Kar Wai to Frank Miller, as the inspiration for Terminal, his first film as director after working as assistant director on films like World War Z and The Fifth Estate. In his freshman effort, Stein says he distills his noir obsessions “into one labyrinthine story about dark, dangerous, viciously funny characters warring with each other in this cityscape.”
At the center of the film is Annie, a character Stein came up with way before making his movie. “I loved the idea of an archetypical femme female character and imbuing her with power. She becomes the manipulator, the vengeful wraith,” he says. He also thought of her as “chameleonic,” shifting identities on a whim. Throughout Terminal, Robbie changes from “kooky waitress” to stone cold killer on a dime.
“Mags and I talked about it like a dress up box,” Stein says, their shared theory being that Annie “has a costume box in her room she can pull out amazing looks.” And it’s through Annie that Stein believes he achieves his graphic novel thesis, as the film reveals very dark twists in its hyper-real, very stylish world.
“I wanted to fuse the sensibilities of the graphic novel with a real, darker sense of character,” he says. “It was important these twists carried narrative weight.”
Of Simon Pegg’s Bill and his shocking history with Annie the film reveals, Stein says that’s what makes Annie to be this “mercurial, vengeful angel” with a cool facade. “All this vengeance came with a reason. The way she behaves towards people is defined by what they did to her. We wanted to heighten the emotional veracity of the script and combine it with a graphic novel pace.”
Terminal is in theaters now.