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BRAINSTORM (1983)

"That lab is sacred ground and with all due respect to you all, I don’t want to muddy it with any boots from outside, military or civilian..."

brainstorm

Director: Douglas Trumbull

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

Screenplay: Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina, from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin

Synopsis: Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) head a team of scientists who have developed a device capable of recording and playing back sensory experience and even emotions and memories. Michael uses the device to effect a reconciliation with his estranged wife, Karen (Natalie Wood), by replaying to her his feelings about their relationship.

Although their boss, Alex (Cliff Robertson) promises that their work will not be misused, it becomes clear to Lillian and Michael that the project is being sold to outsiders. Lillian suffers a fatal heart attack. While dying, she records her experience for Michael. Lillian’s death allows the take-over of the project by the military. Michael discovers that the device will be used for brainwashing and is banished from the project. Increasingly obsessed both with sabotaging the project and with experiencing the tape Lillian left for him, Michael conspires with Karen to destroy his work.

Comments: Over the years, I have found that a good rule by which to live life is: Never watch a science fiction film that opens with an angels’ chorus. From the opening seconds of Brainstorm, the second of special effects expert Trumbull’s two attempts at directing (the other is the intriguing Silent Running (1971), where again Trumbull shows an inability to deal with the concepts his material raises.  That said, the film is much better than Brainstorm), we know that we’re skating on thin metaphysical ice. For as long at it concerns itself with its science, Brainstorm retains some conviction, despite the cliches of the plotline; but as soon as the focus becomes Lillian’s after-death experience, the film loses its grip.

Many science fiction and fantasy films that suddenly find themselves skirting religious or quasi-religious matters suffer from the twin flaws of uncertainty of tone and an inability to visualise their intellectual concepts. (One which comes readily to mind is Roger Corman’s X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963), made on such a miniscule budget that its technical shortcomings are infinitely more forgiveable than Brainstorm’s.)  The final sequence of Michael being called back from death by Karen’s love is bad enough (it was during the making of Brainstorm that Natalie Wood was tragically killed. This fact makes the final sequences of the film acutely uncomfortable to watch), but Brainstorm’s presentation of "heaven" via ooh-ahh sub-2001 light effects is fatal.

While these factors are enough to kill the film, my real objection to it is not that its special effects are inadequate, but rather that the way they are used is an outrageous cheat. If the recording device is attached to Lillian’s presumably soulless corpse, how is it we’re able to see heaven? If the device is playing back someone’s personal memories, why is that individual visually present in the playback? Obviously, the viewer is supposed to be so impressed with the visions themselves that these issues never arise.

Ironically, Brainstorm works best when it has its feet firmly on the ground. The highlight of the film is the scene in which Michael and Karen conspire to destroy the project by hacking into the controlling computer system, covering their actions with a telephone conversation so nauseating and maudlin that the people bugging their phones barely listen to it.

Surrounded by character actors trying to make something out of their cardboard-cutout bad guy parts, the three principals turn in fair performances, although Natalie Wood's role, aside from the above-mentioned scene, is pretty thankless. The film's best performance comes from Louise Fletcher, whose death about an hour in robs the film of what little edge it had. One quibble, though: perhaps I'm being naive, but I actually doubt that a doctor on medication for a heart condition would smoke the way Lillian Reynolds does here. On the other hand, I do know that no scientist would smoke all over her pet project like that. Sloppy, sloppy.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB