Warner Bros. // 1983 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // February 13th, 2009
On paper, any movie that combines Christopher Walken with special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) and 1980s pre-virtual reality technology has to be a winner. Now remastered on DVD to preserve its ambitious technical presentation, Brainstorm is a near-perfect slice of 1980s-style science fiction, back when computers promised to unlock every secret of the human psyche -- not just run Excel spreadsheets.
Imagine a machine that can download one person's thoughts and sensations and record them for playback by another individual. For Michael Brace (Christopher Walken, The Dead Zone) and his scientific team, this fantasy has become reality with the development of "the hat," a virtual reality device that allows users to experience sensation projected directly into the brain.
Michael is elated at the success of the project, although his enthusiasm is tempered by the involvement of his estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood, West Side Story) and the paranoia of his chain-smoking coworker Lillian (Louise Fletcher, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). Once the device is demonstrated to investors, the potential for the device becomes apparent once the military usurps the project for their own ends.
Michael finds another use for the device by capturing his own memories of his wife and presenting them to her as a present. The two rekindle their romance by sharing in private memories. But when a tragic death at the office leads to suspicious motives, Michael uses the hat to delve into the final moments of death itself -- with grave consequences.
In the great annuls of cinematic history, Brainstorm is a film overshadowed by its own politics, technology, and tragedy, best known for its extenuating circumstances than the actual film itself. Actress Natalie Wood passed away during filming of Brainstorm, and her final sequences are constructed using stand-ins to replace her. Pressures from the studio to halt production after her death lead to conflict with the director, special effects guru Douglas Trumbull, and the ensuing stalemate delayed the release of the film almost two years. It also drove Trumbull out of Hollywood altogether. Trumbull had grand visions for his project, even going so far as to develop his own film projection system specifically for the film called Showscan (a form of Super Panavision 70). Recorded on 70mm film designed to project images at rates of 60 frames per second, the process resulted in spectacular fidelity and definition, but the cost of upgrading theatres to the Showscan technology was prohibitively expensive and was never implemented, despite promises made by the studio. When Brainstorm finally hit theatres almost two years after its completion, it became clear that audiences were more interested in the gossip surrounding the production than the film itself. Having moved on to juicer stories, audiences were fickle and ignored Brainstorm at the box office.
Brainstorm is a fantastic science fiction film, ahead of its time if only for its prophetic vision of virtual reality. Filmed in 1981, Brainstorm was far ahead of the curve in imagining technology progressing to the point where experiences, sensations, and emotions could be projected directly into the human brain via (you guessed it) a big clunky helmet with steam shooting out the side. Audiences may not have found the idea particularly interesting at the time, but ten years later found virtual reality research on the cutting edge of scientific research. Sure, it didn't really go anywhere in mainstream culture, but it was a heck of an idea.
Science fiction aside, Brainstorm focuses on the dissolving and repairing of a broken marriage between Michael and Karen, who use the technology to discover their own feelings about each other, and allow the other intimate access to the recesses of their heart and memories. Executed with surprising tenderness and heartfelt emotion, the film opens some interesting philosophical doors by using the helmet to share with each other things they cannot express in words. Were it not for the machine's ability to capture their true essence and beam it directly into the other's brains, the marriage would end -- but lo, the technology saves the marriage. It's an intriguing, frightening idea; the very notion of full disclosure to another person, and it works well, despite the flimsiness of the characters (especially Karen's character, who remains surprisingly alien and aloof the entire film).
Michael also uses the helmet to explore the final moments of the life of his co-worker Lillian, with frightening results, and here the film delves into the realm of the afterlife, with mixed results. Others -- like Jacob's Ladder, Altered States, and Flatliners -- delve into similar ideas, but Brainstorm resists the temptation to turn the film into a mediocre thriller by making Michael come back a zombie or some silly thing like that. Instead, the exploration is spiritual, personal, and introspective, a perplexing sequence of flashing special-effects trickery symbolizing a transient journey from Hell to Heaven, all the while with Christopher Walken twitching and muttering and staring into space.
A psychedelic, hallucinogenic journey into death is fun, but the film also (and predictably) harps on about the military aspects of the technology, with the government wrestling control of the project away from the designers into a top-secret black ops project codenamed (you guessed it) Brainstorm. This part of the film is less fun, because it feels like we should be watching Real Genius, doubly so during the slapstick sequence where mechanical robots get reprogrammed to spray water on security guards, soap the floor, and trash everything in sight. We could do without this part. It feels tacked on, something to secure a PG rating when the film ought to be delving deeper into more profound notions of its technology.
Still, one cannot deny there is something undeniably fascinating about the ideas and explorations of Brainstorm, even when acknowledging that the film cheaps out on its promised climax. We get tantalizingly close to profundity, but the film backs away, opting to avoid explanation or rationalization by offering up sequence after sequence of flashing lights in panoramic widescreen. The final interpretation, as always, gets left to the audience -- and perhaps this is for the best in the long run. Had the film tried to spell things out too much, perhaps Brainstorm today would be nothing but a laughable Christopher Walken science-fiction film from the 1980s. By leaving things ever-so-slightly ambiguous, Brainstorm challenges its audience just a little to ponder the meaning of it all.
Though dated by modern CGI standards, the special effects in Brainstorm are undeniably impressive, especially considering how the effects predate most computer-generated technology. By modern standards, the special effects in Brainstorm might appear Lilliputian, but at the time, this was amazing stuff. Here is where the director shows off his technical wizardry chops; after all, the man did do the effects for Blade Runner and 2001. While the introspective journey into the recesses of the human mind might be a bit New Age for some, it is an undeniably flashy journey, full of strobing lights, pulsing sound effects, surging flashes of colors, and kinetic energy. Watching this film under the effect of drugs must be one heck of a trip. Trumbull's direction is surprisingly deft, and one would have no idea of his relative directorial inexperience watching Brainstorm.
Trumbull's technical ambitions for Brainstorm presented unique challenges for modern-day formats, and this release of Brainstorm actually improves upon previous releases -- although you might not realize it at first glance. The "memory" sequences recorded for the film were shot in Trumbull's Showscan, a.k.a. Super Panavision 70 (at a massive aspect ratio of 2.2:1) with the rest of the film filmed on standard 35mm. The intention was to have the theatrical curtains pulled back wide, and when the film cut to the special sequences, they would be displayed in the full 60fps, resulting in a mind-blowing, high-resolution experience. It would be akin to cutting away to IMAX-recorded footage back in 1983, which would have been a heck of a thing indeed. Alas, the death of Wood, costs, and a strained relationship between director and studio scuttled the plan before its release. Unfortunately for Brainstorm, most television sets don't come with adjustable theatrical curtains.
Previous releases of Brainstorm on DVD have presented the film in a constant aspect ratio of 2:35:1, letterboxing the Showscan footage and spoiling the director's intended effect of panoramic immersion during the memory sequences. This release "fixes" the problem by a unique method by letterboxing/windowboxing the standard footage and allowing the Showscan footage to expand to the entire length of the screen. It is a strange solution to a unique problem and carries its own benefits and drawbacks -- but more on this later.
The transfer is clean and detailed, especially during the Showscan footage, with muted color tones and washed out black levels. The picture looks very nice for its age, but dated; it lacks the modern punch and black levels of films recorded in later years. The remastered presentation does the film justice -- nary a scratch or mar to be found. A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is primarily center-channel focuses, with clear dialogue and moderate bass response. Where the full surround track does the film justice is during the more science-fiction special-effects sequences, with rear channels coming to life in swooshing effect. The score is a fantastically dated electronic string-driven affair, beautifully complementary to the film.
The film comes with no supplemental materials beyond a theatrical trailer.
I really wish Brainstorm came with a disclaimer or an insert, something that explained to audiences why the film is presented in its peculiar aspect ratios. Once you understand the intention of the director and the desired effect being simulated, it all makes sense, but I had to go digging on the Internet for an explanation. It is an alarming thing to see a film suddenly switch between glorious anamorphic widescreen and crummy letterbox without warning; so much so that I actually spent a good 20 minutes fussing with my A/V settings, convinced the problem was (ahem) local.
The downside to preserving the director's intended effect on DVD is that you have to watch 95 percent of Brainstorm in windowboxed widescreen -- big black bars on all four sides of the picture, regardless of your television size. No, you can't adjust the picture to compensate, because if you do, you'll miss out on the larger-than-life Showscan footage expanding the entire length of the screen.
Purists may consider this a small price to pay for preserving the intention of an ambitious director, but the final effect is (for lack of a better word) really @#$% strange. After all, who wants to watch 95 percent of a film windowboxed on all four sides?
Brainstorm is an ambitious film in both scope and presentation, pushing the boundaries of cinematic imagination and filmmaking techniques. Though dated by current standards, there is something undeniably profound about the film, something impressively meaningful and relative, even for modern audiences. It pushes its borders into three radically opposite subjects -- spirituality, technology, and romance -- and manages to come with something that almost feels united and harmonious. Plus, it's got Christopher Walken, baby.
A surprising treat of 1980s science fiction, Brainstorm receives a well-deserving remastering on DVD, provided you can wrap your head around the peculiar aspect ratio.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer