Deneb does Brainstorm

“I’m more than I was, Mike. More.”

The Scoop: 1983 PG, directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, Natalie Wood, and Cliff Robertson.

Tagline: The door to the mind is open!

Summary Capsule: Scientists invent a brain-recording machine. Things get trippy.

Deneb’s Rating: 4.75 steaks with peanut butter out of five.

Deneb’s Review: Pure science fiction is an increasingly rare thing in movies these days, a vanishing species, as it were. Like many others of its kind, it’s being crowded out of its native habitat by an invasive interloper that’s pushing it out of the food chain – i.e, what we tend to think of as science-fiction these days; spaceships and robots and things going boom and stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching against any of that. I love me a good slam-bang sci-fi movie as much as anybody – heck, who doesn’t? They’re fun, and fun is good. If nothing else, the genre gives filmmakers a shiny new sandbox in which to play in, and the results can often be greatly enjoyable.

That being said, however, a true fan of science fiction should not forget that its original intention wasn’t to dazzle people with special effects – it was to make them think. Stripped down to its core, it is the presentation of a scenario that takes scientific theories and concepts, and uses them to ask the most simple and yet most tantalizing question the human mind has yet to conceive of: ‘What if?’ ‘What if we could do this?’ ‘What if we did do that?’ ‘What if we went here?’ ‘What if we lived there?’ Entire careers have been based on such simple queries.

Most of them don’t come with ready-made answers, just possible ones. The point is not necessarily the answers, if any, it’s the questions. It’s the half-visible clue, the manuscript with one crucial word missing. They’re meant to foment argument and discussion; they’re meant to make you sit back in your chair and go ‘hmm…’

That doesn’t happen as much anymore. But it’s still out there, and you can still track it down if you care to. And that, in a roundabout sort of way, brings us to Brainstorm, which, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, is exactly the sort of thing I’ve just been talking about.

As the film begins, scientist Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) is right on the cusp of making history. He and his partner, Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), have just perfected a device that can tap into someone else’s mind – not like telepathy, more like a VCR. This thing literally records experiences on tape for someone else to check out. It’s not like watching a video clip of them, either; we’re talking sights, sounds, smells, everything. If it’s the experience of eating a delicious hamburger, you will taste that hamburger. If it’s bungee jumping, you will feel the sensation of falling, and the tug of the cord on your ankle.

Needless to say, this is a huge breakthrough, and their boss, Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), is delighted. Imagine the possibilities! From recreation and relaxation to training pilots how to fly airplanes, the sheer number of applications this little doohickey has to offer is astounding. The two are hailed as geniuses, and overall the future looks rosy.

The device isn’t quite finished yet, though – there’s still some fine-tuning to take care of, and as they continue with it, they begin to realize that there is much more to this thing than they thought. After all, there is more to the brain than sensation – there are also emotions, thoughts, memories, passions. Given the right circumstances, it seems, the device records these, too; meaning that you’re not only seeing what someone else has seen and feeling what they felt, you’re also experiencing their thoughts to some degree, as well. Not true telepathy, perhaps, but not far off.

At first, this merely opens up a new and fascinating field of study and experimentation – Michael even uses it to patch up his long-decaying marriage to his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood). But they are not alone in this process, and the intentions of their corporate sponsors are not as pure as they seem – the military, for instance, is taking an unsettling amount of interest in the project. And as events progress and unsettling developments come into view, they will come to realize just how far the implications of their discovery reach…

I ain’t gonna lie to ya, folks, this is a weird one. It’s not weird in the way that a lot of the movies on this site are, though; it doesn’t aspire to reach the heights of what-the-heck-is-this that, say, Three Caballeros specializes in. No, this is a more calculated form of weirdness. This is the sort of weirdness that is weird by design, because weirdness catches your attention, and once the movie’s done that, it can get to what it really wants to talk about.

What’s that? I ain’t tellin’ ya. What I will tell you is that at a certain point you get that feeling of dawning oracular bewilderment. Not the one where you sense something so monumentally stupid on the horizon that your jaw automatically starts to drop – nope, I mean the good one. I mean the ‘waaaaaait – are they going there?’ feeling.

You know the one I’m talking about. You’ve felt it before. It’s the one where your Spidey sense starts tingling, and you get the feeling that things are going to bypass the usual course of events and plunge headlong along the road less traveled by. Unfortunately, that feeling is often wrong (or just senses a grandly missed opportunity), but in this case, it is dead right. That road is taken, and once it’s taken, you will realize that the entire movie was leading up to it – but you won’t recognize which road it is until the driver starts putting on the turn signal.

Honestly, this is going to be a rather short review, because Brainstorm is one of those movies that is really best served by letting you discover it for yourself. As such, I’m just going to go through the basics.

So – basics. Good stuff? The acting is fairly decent (I’ll go into more detail when I get to the actors), the script, while no masterpiece, is well-enough written, and the very specific setting (North Carolina) and on-location shooting sets it apart from the herd somewhat, considering that something like two-thirds of such movies seem to be set either in New York, L.A, or some metropolis of equivalent size and stature. It’s not an important part of the movie or anything (although there is a specific reason for it), but it’s a nice change of pace. (If nothing else, North Carolina looks like it was a darned pretty place to live back in the early ‘80’s.)

The real reason to see this movie, though, is the special effects, which range from impressive-for-the-time to downright beautiful. I wish I could tell you what the latter are, but that would spoil the surprise; suffice it to say that there’s a reason why Douglas Trumbull is primarily known as a special effects guy rather than a director. He’s not half bad in the latter role, but the dude knew his stuff when it came to the former, especially considering that the film was made years before computerized assistance for such things was even an option. He accomplished everything you see on screen through good old-fashioned visual trickery, and it looks terrific. Good for him.

Bad stuff? Well, the pacing is kind of off. The first part of the film is good enough, but it’s slow up to about the halfway mark, with, at times, things moving at a maddeningly leisurely pace. It’s spiced up some with the addition of special effects sequences here and there, but things really do take their time to get going. Furthermore, the movie’s ending is a tad disappointing, as there’s not really much of a wrap-up – there’s a climax of sorts, but not much beyond that. Mind you, I’m not sure where else things would or could have gone following said climax, but narratively speaking, it’s just not all that fulfilling.

On to the actors. The main draw for most people, of course, will be Christopher Walken as Michael Brace, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s as weirdly intense as ever, but he’s actually playing a fairly complex role here, and one that he handles pretty well. Brace, as you may imagine, is not your standard straight-laced hero – he can be rather insensitive at times, and displays occasional bouts of egotism. At the very least, he’s clearly become so wrapped up in his work that he’s more or less let his marriage fall by the wayside. However, this is clearly intentional – he’s a flawed but basically good-hearted person, and over the course of the movie learns how to better himself, and to reach for greater things.

Louise Fletcher is not half bad as the chain-smoking, no-nonsense Dr. Reynolds. While she’s not the main character of the movie (that’d be Michael), she is, at the very least, an important one, as the mind-recording doodad is mainly her creation, and her and Walken’s relationship forms a major part of the backbone of the movie. Beyond all that, though, she has a likable personality, a devotion to her work and a steadfast refusal to let people jerk her around. She’s also flawed, but she’s more on the idealistic side of things, and you can understand why her coworkers like her and want to continue working with her.

Getting to the more minor (but still important) characters, we have Natalie Wood in the role of Michael’s wife. Wood was never the world’s most accomplished or versatile actress, but she had that undefinable something which can only be termed ‘stage presence’ – throughout her career, she radiated warmth and likeability in most of her roles. She brings those same qualities to Karen Brace, a pleasant but basically ordinary woman who has grown apart from her husband over the years. Their reconciliation and rediscovery of love is one of the nicer parts of the movie, and ultimately becomes an important element in the plot.

While the film, to put it mildly, does not like the military-industrial complex, you can’t really pick out one clear villain. Alex Terson would seem to be the obvious choice, but aside from a tendency to kowtow to those in authority, he’s not really all that bad of a guy – he does care about the safety of his employees, and he’s clearly gotten on well-enough with Michael and Lillian for them to have a fairly amiable working relationship. Donald Hotton has a memorable role as a smarmy, dislikable government scientist, but he’s ultimately a minor player. Really, the film’s ‘villain’ is more of a general class or subgroup of people – those who would look more to their own pocketbooks than basic morality or the wonder of discovery – than any one man or woman.

Final analysis? Brainstorm is definitely worth a look. It’s not a masterpiece; it does have its flaws, but it’s one of those movies that is clearly dedicated to the story it was telling and the issues it was exploring, and overall it does so very well. If nothing else, it’s a treat for fans of old-fashioned special effects. It’s not for everybody, but if you’re curious, I’d say it’s worth at least a rental.

Now then, put this thing on your head, will you? Yes, just like that… good… Now, if you would be so kind as to click that little button and go do something interesting – what? Oh, I don’t care; anything. I’m bored.

“No, frankly, Lillian, I did NOT find that last tape funny. No, not even the slightest. Yes, yes, I know you thought it was hysterical at the time, but you know how awkward it is being the one sober person in a room full of drunks? The same applies when you’re in a brain, Lillian. Don’t drink and tape.”

Intermission!

  • This was Natalie Wood’s last film – she died during production. This set off a major conflict between Trumbull and MGM, the latter of whom wanted to use Wood’s death as an excuse to shut the project down and claim insurance money on the grounds that Brainstorm could not be completed due to the lack of its main actress (the film had had costly production difficulties up to that point). Trumbull ultimately managed to get the situation sorted out, and finished the movie using a rewritten script and a stand-in for Wood (thankfully, she had already completed all of her major scenes). This explains some of the pacing issues.
  • In preparation for the film, most of the principle cast and crew visited the Essalen Institute, an experimental research facility known for its New Age classes and workshops.
  • At one point during a discussion with Alex, Lillian mentions “your two hotshots, Evans and Wetmore”. This was a reference to the film’s consulting engineer, Evans Wetmore.
  • This was the second and last film that Douglass Trumbull directed.

Groovy Quotes:

Karen Brace: …It was you!
Michael Brace: No no, it’s you! That’s not me you’re looking at – it’s you!

Lillian Reynolds: Don’t ‘G******’ me, sweetheart! Just don’t ‘G******’ me!

Michael Brace: I’m scared. For the first time, I’m so scared. But the thing is, I like it. I want more.

Gordy: Sweet target in sight…!

Michael Brace: Why do you still see him?
Karen Brace: Because he’s a perfectly wonderful, thoughtful, uncreative guy.

Alex Terson: You want a doctor?
Lillian Reynolds: I am a doctor!

Hal Abramson: I’m more than I was, Mike. More.

Karen Brace: What is it?
Michael Brace: It’s me.

Michael Brace: We made it. We made it. Look at the stars…

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Altered States
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Millennium
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