Brainstorm (1983)

Brainstorm (1983)Brainstorm (1983)

Starring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher,  Jordan Christopher, Donald Hotton, Alan Fudge and Uncle Ben Parker.

Directed by Douglass Trumbull.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

My mother-in-law is convinced that Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner killed Natalie Wood.

I mention this because it’s a bit of a running joke at the International House of Johnson; whenever Walken’s name comes up (and it does), one of us is likely to say “He killed Natalie Wood, you know.”

Robert Wagner’s name almost never comes up, ((Because Robert Wagner is simply not Christopher Walken.)) and when it does there’s no mention of his involvement in the alleged homicide.

Laura and I don’t honestly believe that Natalie Wood’s death was anything but a tragic accident, ((For those who may not be aware of the circumstances surrounding Wood’s death in late 1981, she drowned after falling overboard from the yacht Splendour, on which she had been cruising with Wagner (her husband) and Walken. The coroner concluded that she was intoxicated at the time of her death. Wood’s death was ruled an accident, but some people are convinced otherwise.))  but the fact that my mother-in-law is so convinced and is, consequently, so creeped out by Christopher Walken amuses us.

I guess we’re just morbid people.

Brainstorm was Natalie Wood’s final film. When my wife asked if we had anything interesting to watch Saturday night, I said, “We could watch Brainstorm. It stars both Christopher Walken and that woman he killed.”

Yeah. Morbid.

But it worked. She took the bait and we watched the movie. “Ohhhh,” she said when Louise Fletcher’s named popped up in the opening credits, “she plays a good bad guy.”

I think that’s part of why I didn’t like Brainstorm. See, Louise Fletcher—Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; she does indeed play a good bad guy—doesn’t play a bad guy. Sure, she’s cranky and she chain smokes, but there’s nothing at all malevolent about her character. Hell, she’s Walken’s love interest, for cryin’ out loud! Talk about failing to meet expectations.

*Psst! Spoilers ahead!*

I can’t blame Fletcher for playing against type, but if ever there was a movie that needed a bit more malevolence, Brainstorm is it. You’ve got a bunch of scientists working on a device that can record and play back everything a person experiences, complete with all five senses (and the promise of adding emotion and thought to the mix). Of course the military wants it! Of course there are shady back room deals and underhanded tricks and Michael Brace (Walken) is locked out of his own lab, denied access to his work…but none of it amounts to anything.

Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher), Brace’s partner, insists that she doesn’t want the military to use her work to kill people—which, of course, is exactly what they plan to do with it; they create Project Brainstorm based on Reynolds and Brace’s work. Brainstorm contains tapes that, among other things, can cause the viewer to experience psychotic episodes. When Reynolds suffers a fatal heart attack while working alone in the lab, she chooses to record the totality of her own death with the device…and leave it for Brace to view. When Brace begins to view the tape, he starts to experience a cardiac event and intends to modify the device to allow him to view Reynolds’ death safely.

Brace’s boss, Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), forbids the scientist to view the death tape. Brace is locked out of the lab and must use every bit of early-1980s computer technology to get back in, hacking the system so he can view the tape remotely and destroy the lab—along with Project Brainstorm—in the process.

Ultimately, Brace is his own worst enemy. He puts himself in far more peril by insisting on viewing Reynolds’ death tape than anything threatened by the government goons (who plan to arrest him). And why does Reynolds, who was so adamant about ensuring that her technology wouldn’t be used to harm people, record her own death, an experience that she must know could be fatal to anyone who relives it with the device? Why, so Brace can get a glimpse into the afterlife, of course. Well, a 1981 version of the afterlife, that is. Lots of pretty lights and stars and nebulae and more lights that might be angels flying around a brighter light that’s probably heaven. ((This is to be expected. Director Douglas Trumbull also helmed Silent Running (1972), which features similarly bedazzling special effects. Between directing Silent Running and Brainstorm, Trumbull supervised visual effects for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Blade Runner (1981). The visual effects in these films have not all aged well—Blade Runner being a notable exception—but as Chris Miller points out in Episode 0020 of The Secret Lair (wherein we discuss Silent Running) Trumbull and his cohorts were revolutionizing modern visual effects. ))

Brace, of course, appears to die as a result of this experience, but his formerly-estranged-almost-ex-wife, Karen (hey, there’s Natalie Wood!) brings him back with—what else?—her newly-rediscovered love for him.

See what I mean about the need for malevolence? How about having Reynolds somehow imprint herself on Brace with her death experience, then editing that experience and using it to kill all the military-types who are after her technology? Better yet, have Reynolds imprint herself on Brace’s almost-ex-wife and do the same, leaving it to Brace to figure out what’s happened and stop her? Or just do something sinister with the military application, rather than hinting at it and destroying it so Brace can see a fancy LiteBrite.

So it was the expectation of something more sinister that led to my being so disappointed with Brainstorm. Terson’s motives for locking Brace out of the lab aren’t anything more than a desire to protect his friend. Sure, the government has nasty plans for Project Brainstorm, but it’s rendered almost entirely peripheral to the story by Brace’s insistence upon viewing Reynolds’ death experience. The journey wasn’t nearly as suspenseful as I wanted it to be and the ending was (to me, at least) a major anti-climax.


Portions of this review originally appeared on the Whateveresque forum.

4 thoughts on “Brainstorm (1983)”

  1. For me the lack of inner-circle malevolence was a plus, a nice contrast to the cliche’d military roughshod acquire-and-weaponize attitude (why couldn’t they think of espionage/interrogation applications first?). What is the first thing the gadget does? It puts a marriage back together. Cool. (And who wouldn’t want to be reunited with Natalie Wood?)

    I had understood that the physiological effects of the technique came as a surprise to the researchers, who merely expected to observe the recorded memory but wound up experiencing every part of it, including hormonal/neurological events. (If you were watching a guillotining, would your head drop off? Gad, I hope not.) This being the case, then Reynolds would not have known that a recording of her death would be lethal to Brace or anyone else.

    For me the flaw in the movie is the logical error contained in Reynolds’s recording and thus underlying the second half of the film. Their system was built to record all brain phenomena, assuming that memory is itself the result of brain events. But all such events end at the moment of physical death; the most that should have happened is that output would simply cease. Instead, the observer follows Reynolds’s consciousness past that point to reliving of significant life events (okay, perhaps they’re premortem recollections), to a quick skim through hell/purgatory, and past that to the Beatific Vision.

    In other words, we’re to understand that the new technology doesn’t just “tap into the old noodle,” recording physical events only, it goes beyond them to tap into the spirit–and follow the spirit even when it parts company with the body. A nice idea, and one yielding FX that were spectacular for the time…but it isn’t supported by anything in the first part of the movie.

    But it was a nifty show, wasn’t it?

    1. @Michael Spence — First, thank you for the comment. You’ve put more thought and consideration into a single comment than I did into my entire review.

      Second, on the matter of cliché, you are absolutely correct: Brainstorm certainly veers away from the acquire-and-weaponize attitude. Granted, the existence of the “psychotic episode” tape is a definite indicator of the military’s ultimate intent, but the actions of those involved in the more covert activities were definitely not as extreme as we might expect if the movie were released today. In twenty-first century cinema, we would be treated to Nomex-clad commandos with night-vision goggles surrounding the Brace residence, or a high-speed car chase with the almost-ex-Mrs. Brace frantically dodging minivans and hybrid SUVs while her not-quite-former husband jacked into his wireless-broadband-connected laptop and raced against time and midtown traffic to hack Project Brainstorm’s firewall.

      Man, I love cliché.

      And tropes. I love tropes, too.

      Sorry. Moving on…

      I, too, felt that Reynolds’ death tape ought to have ended long before it did. The machine would have to be significantly more powerful than its creators intended or even suspected. Well, apart from Lillian Reynolds. I mean, why would Lillian bother with the recording if she was under the impression that it would capture only what her five senses experienced? Yes, she thought, as she realized the nitroglycerin pills would not work their magic this time, I need Michael to feel my head hit the floor, hear the *thunk* and then see everything go dark. Clearly, someone has guessed that the machine’s recordings have another dimension; and most likely Michael has, too, else why would he be so insistent upon viewing the recording? But even so, it’s a pretty big leap from being able to record and replay emotional and physiological states to being able capture post-death experiences. It’s all a bit much.

      And yes, despite it all, it’s still a pretty nifty show.

  2. Brainstorm ranks as one of the most influential films I experienced in the 1980’s. Not for the sub plots, nor the special effects,but for the courage to explore ideas of life and death; and the imprints that may be left behind. Existential in a way; and the end of life sequence of life ‘bubbles’ flashing as life ebbs away, still echo with me. How about a remake?

    1. @Maria — For a special effects guy, Douglas Trumbull made movies that dealt a lot with the more personal issues of life and death. Silent Running, though it takes place on a spaceship in deep space (Is it deep space if it’s still within our solar system? I don’t know.), is a film about a guy who kills two people and then spends the next 80 minutes or so dealing with the emotional and psychological consequences of his actions.

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