Director Douglas Trumbull’s background in the special effects industry has given him a unique perspective on film making. It is said that he made Silent Running with its humane and environmental message as a direct response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he saw as stark, cold and clinical. Brainstorm again takes a technological story and adds a very human angle. The production was delayed by the death of lead actress Natalie Wood and the studio was somewhat at a loss as how to sell this film once it was completed. Everyone else at the time was still making space operas and this cerebral piece of cinema was very much ahead of its time.
Brainstorm is an innovate take on the traditional conflict between science and big business. Brilliant researchers Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) develop a system of recording people’s experiences, feelings and emotions. It is not long before this breakthrough attracts the attention of the military and Michael soon finds himself at odds with his employer. His devotion to his research also costs him his marriage. When his colleague suffers a fatal heart attack, she manages to record her dying experiences. Michael has to consider the risks to himself if he plays back the recording. In the meantime the Military have other ideas regarding both the tape and the future of the entire project.
Brainstorm is a thoughtful and somewhat sentimental film. Despite the technological setting, it deals with traditional themes such as love, death and taking responsibility for our own actions. Walken is ideally cast as the obsessive and driven scientist who neglects his family’s emotional welfare. Natalie Wood gives a warm performance as his estranged wife. The script is somewhat old school and adopts a rather conservative moral tone. The production design also reflects what was considered to be cutting edge technology in the early eighties. It’s interesting to see the reliance on telephony and mainframes in the days before the internet, as well as the lack of optical or solid state media.
Brainstorm features several sub plots that are not fully developed. This may be due to the re-editing that had to be done to accommodate Natalie Wood’s death. There is also a rather incongruous sequence where a production line is sabotaged. This descends into slapstick, with security personnel desperately trying to cope with the mayhem while wading around in a sea of fire retardant foam. Yet despite these minor criticisms, Brainstorm still manages to engage the mind in a thought provoking manner. The optical effects are outstanding for the pre-digital age. The ending with its glimpses of heaven and hell are very intriguing. Apparently a lot more footage was shot for these scenes but omitted from the final edit, possibly for ratings reasons. There is definitely footage in the trailer that is not in the theatrical release.
I saw Brainstorm on video on its initial release. At that time it was only available in 4:3 pan and scan format. The current Blu-ray release shows the film in two aspect ratios. 1.85:1 for the real world scenes and 2.20:1 for the “recording” of others peoples experiences. Sadly rather than switching between ratios, the print is formatted to the larger format and thus shows majority of the movie is a picture box presentation which is far from satisfactory. Douglas Trumbull wanted to film the entire movie in an experimental format that ran a 60FPS but studio vetoed this idea for financial reasons the. Despite a difficult production and it’s narrative inconsistencies Brainstorm still merits viewing and will appeal to the more thoughtful and discerning viewer.