Tuesday, November 29, 2016

“Brainstorm” (1983) Dir: Douglas Trumbull

What I remember:

Without a doubt, “Brainstorm” was a prescient movie. I recall that the plot hinged on the invention of headgear that allows one to record full experiences; sight, smell, sound, feeling, taste. Then another person can replay this “tape” and relive that exact experience. The development of “Google Glass”, Smart Glasses and other similar devices proves just how visionary this was.

 I felt that the subject matter that this movie tackled was also very forward-looking. The idea that virtual reality could actually supersede true experience seemed in 1983 to be more science fantasy than predictive fiction. Nowadays it’s happening in every possible phase of existence. 
Virtual experience has permeated entertainment, business, sports, sex and even warfare. 

Famously, “Brainstorm” is NOT remembered for all this fascinating stuff, but instead for the death of it’s female lead during filming. The circumstances of Natalie Wood’s drowning were mysterious, and whether foul play was indicated has been debated but never proven. Her husband, actor Robert Wagner, was implicated by the Hollywood press, who, as we are all aware, are constantly in search of a scandal. It turned out that many years later, the boat’s Captain recounted his testimony, and interest in Wagner’s guilt waxed. 

That is a story for a different blog, however. I am mostly interested in how Wood’s tragic death affected the cast and crew, and of course the actually shooting of the scenes she may have had left. By most accounts, all major scenes with Wood had been completed by the time of her drowning. Yet one must assume that her death had a negative effect on everything and everyone connected to the production. How could it not?

Yet I still hold “Brainstorm” in very high esteem, thanks to its scarily accurate foresight, brilliant effects, and profound subject matter. 

Oh right….and the chance to see Christopher Walken act like a normal person. 

After re-watching:

“All my life, I never needed anybody... And now, because of this thing she left me, I'm scared. For the first time in my life, I'm scared. But the thing is, I like it. I want more. You're married to a man who has a chance to take a scientific look at the scariest thing people ever have to face. I've gotta do this... gotta play that tape, and you gotta help me.” Dr. Michael Brace


Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Dr. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) have developed a brand new experiential medium, one in which a headset can transmit all 5 senses from one person to another. Their work has excited the board members of the company they work for, and particularly their CEO Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson). As they continue to experiment more, they find that memories can also be transmitted. Brace uses these to mend his relationship with his estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood), and we can see the upside of this technology past the obvious entertainment factor. However, the military is also interested in using this invention for other means—including missile guidance and torture. 


We are definitely not there yet. We may be close, but the kind of things these folks are doing are still way beyond our technology here in 2016, 33 years after the release of this film. Sight and sound is no problem, of course. We’ve had that ability since the sound camera was invented. But the sensations? The memories? The taste and smell of things? The emotions? Nope.

There is much that is fascinating about “Brainstorm”. The concept that you can bring a broken couple back together by having them literally relive the best parts of their relationship is kind of a pipe dream, though. Once a flame dies, it can never be reignited in the same way. Still, this method might be a lot more effective than couples counseling!
    The funny thing is, I find that my memories of events are always romanticized way past the actual reality of them. So maybe reliving something fun or romantic might not actually live up to what you have constructed of it from memory. 

HEY——WAIT A GODDAM SECOND! Isn’t that what I am doing with this blog? Has this thing come full circle? Yogi….is this deja vu all over again? The point herein is that at my age I am far from the same person I was when I first saw these movies. Times have changed; I have changed! Couples who have been through the entire arc of a relationship are changed forever, so I doubt that Project Brainstorm would save a disintegrated marriage.

Yet when (SPOILER) Dr. Reynolds has a cardiac and records the actual experience of dying, the full potential of this technology becomes apparent. The tape runs for minutes after she “crosses over”, and if you can experience this without actually having the symptoms of a heart attack, then you might answer the big one. You see why I found this film so compelling! 

We also come to that part of the story wherein the new technology is used for nefarious means. Imagine—-we could torture someone and cause no actual damage to them. OK, so any of us who have listened to Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” know what that is like. 
      Seriously, think of how agonizing actually living through an endless full-on heart attack would be…
Yes, you can have my SS number and address. Yes all of my friends are card carrying members of Al Qaeda. Yes I was responsible for 9/11 and JFK’s assassination and “Jupiter Ascending” and Pitbull. Guilty as charged. Just make it stop, please. 


It’s curious how some movies that predict the future and our future technology just become laughable when that future arrives and they completely missed it. Others miss, but still look and feel pretty authentic (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), and some hit it right on the nose (“Idiocracy”- need I say more?). In “Brainstorm”, the future has a few real swings and misses:
  1. The center of all US high tech development would be the Research Triangle of North Carolina. As we now know, it is McCann's Irish Bar on 49th and 8th in New York. Ok...I keeed. It's in Silicon Valley. 
  2. We would still use tape to record things. Even back then in 1983 people were talking about the use of chips and compression for storage. It’s most jarring when someone in the movie actually splices the tape using an edit block and scissors!
  3. There would be less traffic, wherein rush hour would consist of one guy on a recumbent bike. Need I comment? Also the cars in this film are all late ’70’s clunkers. Wasn’t THAT in the budget?
  4. People would still be chain smoking at the office. Well, it does take place in North Carolina, so we need to give them a pass on that one.

Douglas Trumbull had made his name in Hollywood in the world of special effects. His resume includes some of the greatest and most innovative films of the genre, including “2001”, “Close Encounters”, “Blade Runner” and “Star Trek; The Motion Picture”. 

He gets so many things right in “Brainstorm”, and so many things wrong. The tension in certain scenes is squirmy good. I’m thinking in particular the death scene of Lillian Reynolds, and the moment when the Braces’ son puts on headgear not aware that he will be experiencing the world through a paranoid schizophrenic. However, in the latter sequence, Trumbull glosses over this quickly, the boy never reacting to the experience as a mad person would. Afterwards, you don’t see him disturbed, you merely hear about it from the doctors. In fact, other than the heart attack, many of the punches are pulled. If this film were remade, that would be the first change made; the audience would have to experience in full intensity the horrors and pleasures of this technology.

Trumbull uses convex lens to give the audience the sense that they are viewing things through the headgear, and then drops that pretense near the end. That’s weird and unsettling. He also has something akin to a TV test pattern to start the film during credits, which you later realize is the first transmission between people; one looking at the pattern, the other seeing it via the headgear. 
Really? Whose idea was that? A few minutes later, the transmitting person eats a bizarre combo of foods that our receiver correctly identifies. But since this is a full sensory transmission, why couldn’t the receiver hear and see what was being ingested? 

Overall the effects are well done as you would expect. Yet there is nothing transformative, nothing that sticks out as totally fresh and different the way his previous work had. I’m thinking of stuff like “The Infinite and Beyond” sequence in “2001”, or the amazing (if incredibly slow-paced) effects in “Star Trek”. 

Probably the worst scene comes at the climax, when the Braces have rigged the lab for chaos in order for Michael to experience the full length of Lillian’s crossing over tape. This sequence turns into a bad slapstick comedy with security officers facing off against robot arms and slipping on ball bearings, with soap suds everywhere. At another time in the film, it would have been fine, but at this point we are trying to find out the meaning of LIFE and DEATH, for Pete’s sake!!! 

The last 30 minutes of the film feel like that last part of the roller coaster, after the big drop and the crazy loops, when you have already had your thrills and are now wondering when it will stop. 


As Michael, Walken has his moments of Walken-ness, but they are thankfully few and far between. We are supposed to believe that he is a scientist, a calm and thoroughly reasonable soul. In one scene, he goes full on confrontational and we get to see the real Christopher. It’s perfectly utilized and fully believable when you understand that it is an act. So, yes— Christopher Walken has range. Or at least HAD range. 

Natalie Wood’s portrayal of Karen shows some roundness of character. She is part of the design team, and has to work with her estranged husband. She is the calmer of the two (shocker), but shows much passion when they reconcile. I don’t really see any effect of her death on the portrayal….it seems that all of her scenes that should have been in there are there. It’s not a terribly meaty part, but she plays it with full conviction. 

Louise Fletcher was 8 years removed from her Oscar winning achievement as Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The interim was not a series of great roles, sadly. When this part came around, she ran with it, and is the real reason other than the actual theme of “Brainstorm” to watch the movie. She is back in form, with a very convincing turn as the chain-smoking scientist who hates that her breakthrough will be used for something nefarious. Early on, she is poorly served by some bad continuity, wherein she lights about 4 cigarettes in a 2 minute span. I know they are trying to show why she would sustain a heart attack at such a young age, but really? Some comments I read complained about her death scene, but I felt it was superb. 

The supporting cast, headed by a slick Cliff Robertson as the caring (but not really) CEO is all excellent. You would think that a guy like Trumbull who has worked more with green screens and animations and the like would be ill-suited to direct acting, but ironically I feel the performances are overall much better than the effects!


Did Wood’s death negatively affect this film? Only the cast and crew can tell us that. I will say that the last part of it is a shambles, so depending on how it was shot, the answer could be “yes”. “Brainstorm” isn’t a bad film, in fact it’s a very compelling movie with some profound issues at its heart. Oddly, the things you would think would be its strength: effects, suspense, technique— are all a bit disappointing. What does come across well are the originality of it’s story, the lead performances, and the quick pacing. In retrospect, maybe the pacing is the problem…important moments are quickly glossed over and disposed with, dulling the impact of the overall experience. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭1/2