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Brainstorm (1983) – film review

May 2, 2014


One Step Beyond.

brainstorm opening titles

Directed by Douglas Trumbull. Screenplay by Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina, story by Bruce Joel Rubin. Starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson. Year of release: 1983. Running time: 106 minutes.

A team of scientists perfect a device which is able to record one person’s sensory experiences and replay them in the mind of another. When one of the scientists dies while still attached to the device, it is surmised it may have potentially recorded a glimpse into the afterlife. When the military move in to weaponize the technology, it becomes a race against time to play back the recording before access is denied.

Brainstorm is the second of only two movies directed by special visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (following his debut with Silent Running in 1972). Best known for his pioneering effects work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Blade Runner; Trumbull envisaged Brainstorm as a feature film project meant to introduce the world to Showscan; his innovative new High Frame Rate Format (70mm film stock shot and projected at 60 frames-per-second) – which he had hoped would enhance and perhaps even revolutionize the cinema-going experience (in much the same way big-screen Digital Imax 3-D has done today, particularly with purpose-designed material like Avatar and Gravity). Although the studio ultimately canned the idea of shelling out extra funds to employ Trumbull’s High Frame Rate Showscan Format purely for one movie (which may or may not be successful box office-wise) – the filmmaker decided to approximate a similar effect anyway by utlizing 65mm Super Panavision film stock (in conjunction with using an Omnivision fisheye lens) – for the experiential sequences each time the Brainstorm device is used. The increase in image clarity and the added vibrancy of color of Super Panavision (not to mention the wider aspect ratio of 2:21 to 1) really does create a palpable sense of immersion for the viewer during these sequences. As Trumbull revealed to Fantastic Films Magazine, at the time of the film’s release, “What we have tried to do is make a movie that will feel like a dream. You don’t simply watch a dream as a passive observer, you fall into its world. A dream surrounds you, and at the same time penetrates at a sensory level. If we’ve done our job right, you won’t simply see Brainstorm. You will feel it.”

The story idea which eventually became Brainstorm originated as a screenplay written in 1973 by Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder scribe, Bruce Joel Rubin. Entitled The George Dunlap Tape, Rubin’s original draft was quite different to what was eventually produced. “I was attempting to write a film that brought a certain metaphysical viewpoint to the attention of a wide audience.” – Rubin revealed at the time of Brainstorm’s release, “I wanted to write a film that posed problems that were not normally dealt with in commercial cinema. The film was my attempt to explore the nature of consciousness, but to do it in such a way as to make it accessible to a mass audience. The essential idea of the movie, for me, was to use the metaphor of this machine that could record and play back full sensory experience from one person to another, and then to wonder: if you could be anybody, if you could experience any other person’s reality and the loss of your own reality, who are you?” (it’s interesting to note that director Alex Proyas also explored a similar idea of interchangeable memories in his 1997 film Dark City). Rubin had planned to direct The George Dunlap Tape himself in 1976 – as a low-budget feature, however; when his sole investor withdrew the $400,000 needed to make the film, the project collapsed. It was soon after this that Douglas Trumbull optioned the screenplay – but jettisoned much of Rubin’s original material during subsequent rewrites with writer Philip Frank Messina (followed by an uncredited Robert Getchell; who fleshed out characters, with a final polish by Robert Stitzel). Rubin again, “What Trumbull pulled out of my script at least had some spiritual content. I’m thankful for that. I could do an entire sequel to Brainstorm just from the script material that wasn’t used. But, of course, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get that chance. There’s a major flaw in our copyright system, that fertile ideas can be bought and sold, and left to decompose in studio vaults.”

Interestingly, the concept of a device capable of recording a person’s experiences and replaying them in another mind was again later explored by director Kathryn Bigelow in her 1995 Ralph Fiennes-starring, James Cameron-conceived sci-fi thriller Strange Days (although the idea as used in Bigelow’s film is more of a straight McGuffin – than the life-changing tool envisaged by Rubin; engaged in the exploration of existential and metaphysical concerns).

brainstorm -1983 cast

As the movie opens, we are introduced to Karen and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood); a married scientist couple living and working in a science and technology park in North Carolina. From the outset, it is clear they are at odds with one another and are currently experiencing uncertainty in their marriage (they     are in fact going through the process of separation as the film begins). Although it is never emphatically stated; their differences seem to stem from Michael’s inability to understand how his behavior affects others. And it is the reconciliation of their relationship which is the emotional core of this story. The catalyst for their reconcilliation occurs when Michael (who suspects the device also records a person’s consciousness and emotions – as well as their sensory experience) – plays back Karen’s recording of her thoughts regarding their relationship and realizes what a     self-absorbed ass he has been. In response to this epiphany, he then records his     own tape (highlighting the good times they have shared over the years) and their relationship is saved. The chemistry between Walken and Wood is clearly present here and it is so easy to believe these two are really a couple. The moving score by James Horner, by the way, is also effective during this particular sequence; being less bombastic than usual and it perfectly accentuates the emotions on display.


Douglas Trumbull directs Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood.

Sadly, with only weeks to go before her involvement with Brainstorm’s principal photography would come to an end; Natalie Wood mysteriously drowned off the     island of Catalina during Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. She only had four minor scenes left to shoot. Trumbull fought tooth and nail to convince the studio that, with slight modifications here and there (ie: giving Wood’s dialogue to other characters), the film could indeed be completed and still make narrative sense. So affected by     the struggle to get Brainstorm released was Trumbull, that he never again directed another picture for a major Hollwood studio.

Of the rest of the cast; Cliff Robertson as the research team’s enthusiastic financier, Alex Terson, is also very good. His gleeful reaction to first experiencing the demo tape (“You blew my socks off!”) – is priceless. Indeed, one of the nicest aspects of the movie is the way the scientists are portrayed. As Trumbull told Cinefantastique Magazine back in 1983, “One of the things we wanted to show in the movie was that scientific, technical people are human beings with feelings and lives of their own, isolated though they may be.” And it’s true – the entire cast of characters do indeed seem like real people and less like ‘stock, frizzy-haired, bespectacled weirdos who don’t have any humanity.’ (Trumbull’s own description of how scientists are usually portrayed in movies). And Louise Fletcher (Academy Award winner for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) – is wholly believable here as the socially-inept, chain-smoking Lilliane Reynolds; the head scientist in charge of the research project. The dramatic centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly Lilliane’s death scene (where, after accidently burning herself on a soldering iron; she suffers a fatal heart attack, and in her final moments; struggles to connect herself to the recording device). Trumbull’s understated direction, combined with Louise Fletcher’s incredibly convincing performance; utterly sells the horror of the scene – creating an intensely visceral experience for the viewer.

brainstorm memory bubbles

There are many visually astounding sequences scattered throughout the film; with     the most recognizable perhaps being the so-called ‘memory bubbles’ which Lilliane perceives after her death (a literal representation of her life flashing before her eyes). “That idea came from an earlier script I wrote called Quasar.” Rubin explains, “In it people who had just died would speed alongside their memories, which were like running trains, intersecting with them in a kind of chromosomic network. To me that’s a very real image, and very exciting.” But it was Trumbull himself who reworked the concept and arrived at the bubbles idea, “It was just my artist’s way of trying to visualize the human memory. I had the idea that if you had a mind’s eye view, at different points in your brain you stored little scenes. You could move into one of them and see a whole scene played out, then you would realize that it was surrounded by thousands of others.” Despite the effects budget for the entire film being as little as $1.5 million (which was less than half the FX budget for Close Encounters) – the visual effects by Trumbull’s own Entertainment Effects Group company (also ensconsed, at the time, in producing VFX for Bladerunner) are top notch as one would expect. Particularly impressive are the film’s opening titles which combine computer-like graphics with a curving typeface (shot with the fisheye lens) which blooms out towards us – lending the sequence an almost 3D effect. The use of the super wide-screen, 65mm fisheye photography and stereo surround sound (meant to heighten the actual ‘brainstorm’ sequences themselves) was startlingly impactful back in the day – especially when contrasted with the smaller screen ratio and mono sound of the ‘real life’ segments (making up the bulk of the film). The various brainstorm sequences which constitute the scientists’ demo tape; filmed in Super Panavision and combining POV fisheye lens footage shot from inside a fighter jet simulator, a loop-the-loop roller coaster, the cockpit of a Formula 2 race car and a bob sled run on an icy track were incredibly visceral when projected onto a huge theater screen back in the day (although, naturally, the impact of these scenes is much less effective on a home theater system). I know it goes without saying – but this is a film truly meant to be seen in cinemas on the largest screen possible.

brainstorm angels

The film’s ending where Michael replays Lilliane’s death tape (at the Wright Brothers monument at Kitty Hawk, no less) – and sees a vision of heaven; was often criticised upon the film’s release as being too ‘on the nose’. As Trumbull said at the time, “We wanted to have this sort of euphoric release at the end, like the birth process. The sequence is open to whatever you bring to it. If you are religious, maybe those are ‘angels’ that Walken sees. I don’t see it so narrowly. I see it as getting in touch with a more expanded consciousness or awareness of life, of matter, the universe, energy itself. A lot of people have speculated about this. The people who are really into quantum mechanics and particle physics are starting to meet up with the philosophers in discussing what the hell is the nature of the universe.”

As Philip Frank Messina (the second screenwriter charged with making adjustments to the script based on Trumbull’s input) – related to Cinefantastique regarding the ramifications of creating such a device, “Our scripts emphasized the idea that this machine could do anything, eradicate poverty, ignorance, god knows what else. Our protagonist goes up against The Corporation because he realizes through his own experience with the device that the machine’s potential is far, far greater than the development company realizes; that it’s not just another toy for a bored public, but     an invention capable of far-reaching social impact. The whole implication is about humanity evolving itself more rapidly through technology.” In a sequence sure to elicite schoolboy sniggers; one of the scientists, Gordy (Jordan Christopher) gives a home-made tape of himself wearing the device while having sex with his girlfriend to his co-worker, Hal (Joe Dorsey). Hal then edits the tape – creating an orgasm loop, which almost kills him. During his subsequent recovery, he tells Michael that he has somehow become a changed and better man due to his experience with the tape – an odd reaction to an event which could have killed him. Messina again, “Hal overdosed on several tapes – he didn’t just play the sex tape in my draft. What that meant was that he had grown and evolved as a person. He suddenly had insight to see that the human being he once was, was based on limitations he had imposed on himself. So, while his first impulse was to satisfy an adolescent need, what he came away with was far more profound. What is evolution, after all, but the coming to higher levels of consciousness and learning how to deal with them?”

Despite Trumbull’s playful interplay with different aspect ratios (intercutting between 65mm Super Panavision and standard 35mm) having less impact on the small screen (although the film itself remains visually arresting) – the filmmaker’s ruminations on existential and philosophical concepts are indeed compelling enough to make Brainstorm an entirely unique, thought-provoking and uplifting experience.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


From → film reviews

  1. I loved this film when I first saw it. I can see its failings now but still have a soft spot for it. Some of the performances are wonderful, almost art house movie stuff in a film that could have been considered just a silly sci-fi flick. I think it has James Horner’s best score too. Considering the problems following Woods death, its a wonder the film works at all.

    I’m torn about a remake. I think Walken and Fletcher are extraordinary and the music sublime, but with Imax and the new possibilities of CGI and a more sophisticated script, a remake might be even better. Imagine what Terrence Malick might do with something like this.


    • gregory moss permalink

      I had the great pleasure of meeting Douglas Trumbull at a Master Class here in Adelaide during the film festival a couple of years ago … really gracious guy … he was very proud of Louise Fletcher’s death scene … I could gush for hours about my admiration for the guy … he did mention he was developing a new movie about an interstellar mission which he planned to direct – but it seems Christopher Nolan has since stolen his thunder – which is a shame … I for one, would love to see him direct one more time …


      • Doug Trumbull is one of those guys that I would just love to be able to sit down and chat with. And yeah, count me in for any future movie with his name on it. Loved SILENT RUNNING.


    • Couldn’t agree more with your comments here, ghostof82.

      Liked by 1 person

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