Brilliant researchers Lillian Reynolds and Michael Brace have developed a system of recording and playing back actual experiences of people. Once the capability of tapping into "higher brain functions" is added in, and you can literally jump into someone else's head and play back recordings of what he or she was thinking, feeling, seeing, etc., at the time of the recording, the applications for the project quickly spiral out of control.
While Michael Brace uses the system to become close again to Karen Brace, his estranged wife who also works on the project, others start abusing it for intense sexual experiences and other logical but morally questionable purposes.
The government tries to kick Michael and Lillian off the project once the vast military potential of the technology is discovered. It soon becomes obvious that the government is interested in more than just missile guidance systems. The lab starts producing mind torture recordings and other psychosis inducing material.
When one of the researchers dies and tapes the experience of death, Michael is convinced that he must playback this tape to honor the memory of the researcher and to become enlightened. When another researcher dies during playback the tape is locked away and Michael has to fight against his former colleagues and the government lackeys that now run his lab in order to play back and confront the "scariest thing any of us will ever face" - death itself.
Christopher Walken ... Dr. Michael Anthony Brace
Natalie Wood ... Karen Brace
Louise Fletcher ... Dr. Lillian Reynolds
Cliff Robertson ... Alex Terson
Jordan Christopher ... Gordy Forbes
Donald Hotton ... Landan Marks
Alan Fudge ... Robert Jenkins
Joe Dorsey ... Hal Abramson
Bill Morey ... James Zimbach
Jason Lively ... Chris Brace
Darrell Larson ... Security Technician
Lou Walker ... Chef
Stacey Kuhne-Adams ... Andrea
John Hugh ... Animal Lab Technician
Ira David Wood III ... Barry (as David Wood)
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Codecs: DivX 5 / AC3
Everyone knows this was Natalie Wood's last film, and that some of her scenes were filmed after her death with a stand-in you only see from behind. Director Dondald Trumball, best known for his special effects work in Blade Runner, Close Enounters, and Star Trek, chose this time to build his story on plot and character development, a good choice given the enormous talent he had to work with. Trumball's battle with studio execs to finish the film after Wood's death, rather than claim the insurance proceeds and call the film off, ended his career in Hollywood, but assured that this gem would not be lost. It is somewhat ironic that Natalie's swan song should be a sci-fi movie, since she was hardly known for work in the genre, but she brings a grace and charm, as well as depth and beauty, to the genre that is usually lacking.
Most sci-fi films based on technology don't age well, and there are times where this is no exception. The idea of recording on tape, let alone making tape loops, must seem like wax cylinder recordings to today's MP3 generation. The tapes themselves were props borrowed from a film being shot nearby, and that film was itself a dismal failure. But the concept is timeless, and so well done that, all in all, the film still works as well as it did in 1983.
Lesser screenplays would have been content with the main story line; scientists invent a way to record brainwaves and play them back for a real life out of body experience, and for just such a stinker, check out Strange Days. But then along comes the incomparable, utterly fabulous Louise Fletcher, who, as one of the co-inventors of the aforementioned device, records her death when she suffers a heart attack while working late one night. For the rest of the film, people are either trying to play the tape or prevent others from playing it. Meanwhile, the technology gets hijacked by two-dimensional government lackeys trying to exploit the weapons potential of the invention.
One can easily pick out scenes of this movie to vilify or exalt, all these years later, and any object viewed over time eventually has a vanishing point. The almost slapstick scene where the assembly robots go berserk is one example of a scene that, while consistent with its contemporaries, is silly today. The death scene, though much maligned, is equally misunderstood, and provides the metaphysical underpinnings that elevate Brainstorm above mere gadget flicks. Brainstorm is about exploring experience, life, love, even death, from the point of view of others, and Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher allows us to do so through her consummate skill in presenting a death scene of sufficient awe and wonder to warrant exploration.
If you want to find out what else happens, watch the film, but when you do, don't ignore the beautiful, delicate interplay between Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood. Their careening relationship seems somehow tied to the invention they helped make, and there are sequences so beautiful that I sometimes take out the DVD just to marvel at them.
Despite changing styles in special effects, this is a timeless and beautiful story that transcends the genre and, with Walken, Wood and Fletcher, becomes more than just a story about shiny gold tapes that record brain waves. It's more about immovable objects and irresistible forces and what happens when they collide. Intrigued? Good. Go watch it.
Brainstorm is an amazing and beautifully crafted film, worth watching more than once. From the opening credits and the music that never quite resolves, it is one of those experiences that leaves one unsettled, but not untouched. The images, the stories, and the issues keep this film from succumbing to the temptation of being more science than fiction. The subtle performances and direction, although sometimes underrated, are intriguing and lend a sophisticated air.
Watch it as an experience rather than as a scientific treatise and you will surely have a great ride.
I first watched Brainstorm when I was barely a teenager and was fairly impressed, an impression that lasted to date. For the first time, I'd seen a movie where someone was presented with amazing options, and the movie actually covered everything I'd have thought of. Unlike in those flicks where someone would get three wishes and never would wish to get as many wishes as they wanted (or happiness ever after, or instant death, or whatever), "Brainstorm" explores all possible consequences of the introduction of new, ground-breaking options:
A team of scientists comes up with a way to *really* share experience, to let each other in on how they experience the eternal essentials; love, life, sex; even death. And then, it doesn't stop there, taking into consideration the dark side as well -- what happens if you share your pain as well? What happens if The Wrong People(TM) monopolize the Amazing Secret(TM) first?
I love this movie. It ties up eternal questions and hopes with fun F/X and combines them into a touching and thrilling plot that makes other movies (mostly of the "cyberpunk"-era) like "Strange Days" that exploit a similar theme seem anemic in comparison at best.
* Natalie Wood died before filming was complete, thus the ending had to be constructed from scenes shot earlier. The film was dedicated to her memory.
* When actress Natalie Wood died near the end of principal photography, studio executives tried to kill the film and claim the insurance, saying that director Douglas Trumbull could not complete the film. However, Trumbull's contract gave that decision to him, and he insisted on completing the film, using a stand-in and changing camera angles for the few remaining shots of Wood's character. The resulting hostility between Trumbull and the studio executives meant that this would be Trumbull's last Hollywood film. He has since devoted his efforts to effects work for IMAX films, theme park rides and the like.
* The "tape machines" were loaned to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983), which was being filmed on an adjacent set.
* The shots of "Heaven" were done by poking a hole in a piece of sheet steel, putting a quartz bulb behind it, and a piece of very scratched plastic in front of it. The rivers of "angels" were made with high-speed, backlit footage of a dancer wearing a long costume which was twirled about on two poles.
* The tape used in the tape machines is a variety of decorative tape made by 3M. 3M only sold it in four-inch widths, so it had to be slit by hand to two-inch widths to fit in the tape machines. When filmed, they were astounded at how gaudy it looked, so to dampen its brightness, the prop crew wound the tape back and forth across a sander to dull its brilliance. "One of those things that actually looked a lot better on film when we finished with it," Douglas Trumbull commented.
* Douglas Trumbull originally wanted to film this movie in "Showscan", a 60-frame-per-second widescreen process he'd developed, but the costs of retrofitting theaters to show it proved prohibitive. If the "Showscan" version had been made, each non-"Brainstorm" frame would have been printed twice to create a 30-frame-per-second "normal" film rate to compliment the cropped, non-widescreen shots. The intent was to create an experience similar to what the onscreen characters were "viewing."
* Several more shots of "Hell" were created but cut from the final print for pacing. One of these was termed "Condo Hell" and featured many rapidly changing faces drifting slowly towards the viewer against an austere, high-tech looking background. Some of this can be seen in the trailer for the film. ("Cancer Hell" was the crew term for the gory-looking shots of tormented souls)
* Lillian's line to Alex "Your hotshots Evans and Wetmore failed on that one year after year" is a reference to the film's consulting engineer Evans Wetmore.