Neglected Films No.7: ‘Brainstorm’

The Arts

This column is about ‘neglected’ rather than ‘obscure’ films (if I started on those we’d be here all night), but ‘Brainstorm’ flopped in cinemas and has not been seen in its correct aspect ratio for years. However, Douglas Trumbull’s SF film has recently been released on Blu-Ray, although I returned to it with great trepidation because I’ve always had a soft spot for it and dreaded seeing how badly it had aged.

Well, thanks to the HD polish on the visuals and the sound mix, ‘Brainstorm’ can now be seen to have been ahead of its time, and Bruce Joel Rubin’s script is a pared-down gem. Ignore Cliff Robertson’s too-tight beige shirt (what is that – Bri-Nylon?) and Natalie Wood’s gypsy dress (which even Christopher Walken has the good sense to readjust for her) and you have a thought-provoking SF film from an age that did not require an action sequence every six minutes to keep flagging interest alive.

Because what we have here is a film about a technical idea and its ramifications, explored thoroughly from different points of view. A machine is invented that transcribes the senses and can be played back into another person’s head. What once seemed a faintly ludicrous idea is now within reach of science.

Louise Fletcher is the chain-smoking scientist for whom the project is a life’s work, Robertson her boss trying to fight off military interests. Walken was married to the kindly Wood, who’s now marketing the device as a virtual reality toy for adults.

But what started as an altruistic breakthrough quickly becomes compromised through human stupidity. Even during the first test, a staffer switches the cords to tape a chimpanzee’s brain, freaking out the device’s wearer. Someone makes a sex tape, and a project manager loops the orgasm, which sends his system into shock when he plays it back.

Now the military are sitting up and taking notice; if the human psyche is affected by what it sees, why not adapt it for torture? While the vultures gather, Fletcher suffers a massive heart attack and, ever the scientist, films her own death. Wood and Walken rebound as they take a side against big business, now aligned with the military.

There are missteps – the remote destruction of the system by Walken and Wood unwisely includes bit of slapstick, and there’s one disastrous effects shot that suggests we all fly to Heaven with big white wings (Hollywood just can’t keep Christianity out of science – see ‘Contact’) but on the whole the SFX are sensational. Whenever the tape is experienced and we see the wearer’s point of view, the screen ratio widens, which was a nightmare for cinema projectionists at the time.

And there’s a wonderfully intimate, poignant moment with Natalie Wood which makes you realise just what we lost when she tragically died soon after. This is rare example of intelligent popular SF, closer to Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ than your usual run-of-the-mill actioner. It paved the way for ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MInd’.

5 comments on “Neglected Films No.7: ‘Brainstorm’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Hollywood can’t keep “Christianity out of science” because if it did, it might set itself up for a revenue loss at the box office. Lost market fear.

  2. Rick D says:

    This was of course the last film poor Ms Wood made – I believe she died during its production. It seems to me the film’s script was adjusted to work around her tragic death. I wonder how that impacted the final product, and its reception?

  3. snowy says:

    What other films we might have had, if Brainstorm had received a better reception. But it effectively killed Doug Trombell’s career as a director. He is apparently working on a new project, but he again seems to be tying it to a step change in filming and projection technology. It has prevented him getting backing before and may again, sadly.

    The recording and replaying of the human experience had another outing in Kathyrn Bigalow’s Strange Days, it also did badly at the box office. Despite broadly positive reviews, it does suffer for being over long at nearly two and a half hours.

  4. Jez Winship says:

    I remember seeing this at my local ABC when it came out, a modest cinema which certainly wasn’t up to mid-film screen ratio changes. My young self was a little disappointed that what was seen when we finally entered the inner landscapes recorded via the helmet was insufficiently spectacular or fantastical – odd considering Doug Trumbull’s SFX background. Christopher Walken excelled at playing characters with a heavy dose of weltschmerz at this time – he was brilliant in The Dead Zone in the same year.

  5. Wayne says:

    Come on Christopher are you sure your not sneaking into my House and raiding my film collection… How many more are you going to pick off my shelf. Yet again you choose a favourite of mine.

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