Judge Clark Douglas once vicariously smoked a cigarette simply by watching Don Draper with great intensity.
Our review of Brainstorm, published February 13th, 2009, is also available.
The door to the mind is open!
"Why do you have to die to let go?"
Facts of the Case
Scientists Michael Brace (Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) have just developed an exciting new kind of telepathy-based technology. With the use of Michael and Lillian's complex new headgear, one person can essentially live vicariously through another. The breakthrough is tremendously exciting, but both scientists grow uneasy when they learn that the U.S. Military is interested in weaponizing their technology. Meanwhile, Michael and his estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood, West Side Story) make a valiant attempt at working together on a professional level in the wake of their bitter split.
Whatever its merits may be, Brainstorm will always be best-remembered as the movie that was being made when Natalie Wood died. That's unfortunate, but it's particularly difficult to escape given that Wood's death actually did have a significant impact on the finished product. When Wood passed away before the film was completed, studio executives wanted to scrap the movie and collect the insurance money. Director (and noted special effects wizard) Douglas Trumbull was horrified at the notion and insisted on finishing the movie, using stand-ins and adjusted camera angles to compensate for Wood's absence in the scenes he needed her in. The movie effectively demolished Trumbull's career (he wouldn't work on another major project until he was tapped to consult on the visual effects employed in Terrence Malick's 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life).
Given the film's ambition and my ceaseless admiration for Trumbull's work in the realm of visual effects, I wish I could tell you that Brainstorm is an unsung gem. Unfortunately, that just isn't the case. It's a movie with some compelling ideas (and unsurprisingly, some spectacular images), but after an intriguing first hour the whole thing begins to fall apart. The third act of Brainstorm is an exceptionally disheartening and somewhat incoherent affair, an ungainly fusion of lofty yet underdeveloped spiritual themes (including Trumbull's visions of heaven and hell) and clumsy, chaotic action sequences involving wacky robots and bubbles.
Still, things are interesting before they fall apart. The telepathic device the film invents presents a number of compelling possibilities, and the film explores the assorted rewards and consequences as the scientific team begins testing their device. It's initially regarded as a source of breezy fun, as we see a variety of scientists vicariously experience a roller coaster ride, a speedway race, a drive through the countryside and even a savory meal. Trumbull highlights the thrill of experiencing these things through another person's body by squeezing most of the film into a cramped letterbox frame and then opening up the full length of the screen during those simulated point-of-view shots. But what happens when the activities get a little more extreme; when someone is experiencing pain or an orgasm or even death? It's just as the film starts to plow into that theme that things begin to disintegrate, which is a shame considering how thoughtfully the movie addresses these notions early on.
Trumbull assembled a fine cast for his film, but the characterization tends to be pretty thin. Natalie Wood mostly just stands around, delivers her lines and gives people incentive to say, "Hey, that's the girl from The Searchers!" Cliff Robertson isn't able to do much with his undercooked corporate man, and Louise Fletcher smokes vigorously for the entirety of her screen time (a running visual gag of sorts which the film exploits for a cheap, ill-timed joke later in the film). The only player who gets some meaty material is Christopher Walken, whose otherworldly oddness is perfectly suited to the material. It's a sensitive performance from the actor; much closer to his turn in The Dead Zone than to his more quirk-driven work of recent years. He's required to hit quite a few notes over the course of the film and never misses a beat.
Brainstorm (Blu-ray) arrives sporting a rather respectable 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which faithfully recreates Trumbull's unusual visual structure. As I mentioned earlier, the aspect ratio actually shifts back and forth between full-blown 2.40:1 and a boxed-in image (you'll be seeing a lot more of the latter than the former), so be prepared for that going in and know that your Blu-ray player isn't spazzing out on you. While it doesn't seem that any special work has been put into remastering the film, the image is far cleaner than you might expect for a film nearly three decades old. Clarity is strong throughout and detail is exceptional (though there's a good bit of softness on occasion). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track has some real kick during the "brainstorm" sequences, blending whooshing sound design and an exquisite score courtesy of James Horner with vigor. Some of the dialogue can be a little soft, but it's generally clean and clear. Sadly, the only supplement is a theatrical trailer.
Brainstorm is worth a glance for sci-fi fans, as it contains some notions and images that are worth seeing and remembering. Unfortunately, as a whole it's kind of a mess. Here's hoping Trumbull steps behind the camera once again someday and gives it another try.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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