Movie: Brainstorm (1983)

I remember commercials for Brainstorm when I was a kid and wanting to see it.  I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to drag my parents to take me to a screening, nor why I never bothered to look for it in the intervening decades.

But now I have seen it, and I’m glad I saved myself and my parents the trouble.  This is a bad movie by anybody’s criteria.

Well, almost anybody’s criteria.  Elementary-school-aged me would have been thrilled to briefly see boobs in one scene, which is why we don’t let children review movies.  That is, we didn’t used to, at least.  Thanks to the internet, anybody can and will be a critic nowadays.  Even rambling old guys casting long essays into the black abyss of cyberspace.

Anywho, that particular scene illustrates one of the major flaws with

this film—it doesn’t know what tone it wants to take.  Most of the picture wants to take the high road and is a dry as dust, while other part delves into pure melodrama, while a third part wants to appeal to 10-year-old boys (not just those who are that age, but the 10-year-old boy still residing in every adult male).

Anywho again (remember, I’m old and prone to rambling), Brainstorm is ostensibly about a helmet that can record all of a person’s senses for a while.  The tape of the recording can then be played back by somebody else who will essentially live that other person’s experience.  Neat idea, but it quickly goes from recording flights and racing cars to preserving a sexual experience.  There, I finally got around to describing that scene where we see boobs (and in a PG movie, no less).  Are you happy now?

Christopher Walken plays one of the geniuses on the project that developed this consciousness-recording device.  Weird how this was around the time he was excellent in The Dead Zone, and while there is a bit of the same vibe here, I didn’t believe him in this role.

Same with Natalie Wood, who plays his estranged wife.  One of the few things I knew going into this film is this was her last picture, and she died while it was still being made. 

Maybe that explains why it is all a bit of a mess, with her sudden death necessitating rewrites and reshoots.  At least, I’m willing to give the filmmakers that easy out, though I suspect nothing could have salvaged what is fundamentally an interesting idea.

Also, I usually try to overlook minor flaws, even logistical goofs, in most films, but there are some here too egregious to ignore.

For example, after several scenes where we see people manually loading data tapes onto drives, we get a scene where a guy walks into another room to press a button that makes a robotic arm in the same room pull a tape off the wall and put it on the drive. This may be an ironic commentary on technology, but I don’t think the movie is smart enough for it to be that.

Another example is the repeated footage of the helmet being used to record somebody in a flight simulator. I’ll admit I may have missed a stated reason for this, but I finished the movie at a loss for why somebody undergoing flight training wouldn’t just train in the simulator themselves (if that was the purpose). If anything, it makes some sense to me if they recorded pilots flying actual planes and then had students play back the experience as part of their training.

Louise Fletcher is cast as the only character of interest, and it is almost as if a real person wandered into something otherwise cast with androids.  It was neat to see the actor most famous for the role of Nurse Ratched do a 180 and play a chain-smoking, wisecracking scientist.  As soon as I realized how good she is in this, I wondered how long it would take for her character to be killed off.

I didn’t have to wait long!  She suffers what I assume is a stroke and, instead of trying to save herself, she drags herself across the room, in a bizarre act of altruism, to record her dying moments using the helmet.

Which leaves everybody wondering what will happen if they play back the tape.  I guess this isn’t too much different from the cursed videotape in Ringu, except the most likely result would happen much quicker here.

But before we can get to that, we need all kinds of shenanigans with the military seizing control of the project, and Walken getting fired, and he and Wood rekindling their love and blah blah blah.  It would have been one thing if either Walken or Wood were especially good in this, but it’s a whole other mess when I couldn’t detect any chemistry between them.

Even worse, the movie leans hard into that fatal change in tone in the final third, as an evil organization that was diabolically brilliant until now inexplicably becomes deeply stupid.  It’s like if Scanners suddenly become a slapstick comedy towards the end (though I would like to see somebody get hit in the face with a pie so hard their head explodes—hey, this might work).

And it isn’t just the antagonists who get stupid.  All of the robots assembling the helmets on a production line start getting into wacky hijinks.  It’s like they just needed a tiny nudge to become sentient and then suddenly become vaudeville comedians.  Also, why are there so many large ball bearings around?  And are all the shipping boxes filled with nothing but Styrofoam packing peanuts?

Last, and definitely not least, the alternating aspect ratios seriously grated on my nerves.  The screen goes super-widescreen when we watch what somebody wearing the helmet is seeing.  There is also usually a fish-eye lens used for this footage, but I don’t think it was used every time.  Then the screen goes back to a more standard aspect ratio for everything else. 

I have long since acclimatized to letterboxing and pillarboxing, but I couldn’t help but notice the sides of the screen with each change in aspect ratio.  I know the shift was to give this OH MY GOD!!! sensation to the helmet footage, but it didn’t work for me.

Also, the helmets are recording a person’s first-hand experiences, so why wouldn’t every frame of the recording be from that first-person perspective? I lost count of how many times the helmet footage went to a third-person view or, even more confusingly, to the perspective of the person the helmet wearer was talking to.

Brainstorm has the kernel of a brilliant idea, but seems determined to sabotage itself.  Maybe the end product was all that could be salvaged in the wake of Wood’s demise.  Yet even if that tragedy had not happened, I still doubt a decent film could have resulted.

Dir: Douglas Trumbull

Starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson

Watched on blu-ray