Friday, February 21, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Brainstorm (1983)

Although deemed “provocative” and at least somewhat “redeemed by its special effects” (according to a review by Hal Goodman in Psychology Today), Douglas Trumball’s Brainstorm is nonetheless one of those genre films that never quite gets its due. 

In part, this lack of widespread appreciation may result from the fact that the 1983 movie seems to defy easy categorization.

Is Brainstorm a science fiction film? A horror movie? Or is it fantasy? 

Like Altered States (1980), and Dreamscape (1984), Brainstorm seems to straddle all those genres. There’s even a “head film” aspect to its trippy visions of the after-life, and the movie’s final moments of cosmic transcendence.

Secondly, Brainstorm is the final film of beloved actress Natalie Wood, who died in unfortunate circumstances before the movie was completed. And the film’s very subject matter -- regarding the death experience – seems distinctly uncomfortable in light of the real life tragedy.

Watching the film today, it’s difficult not to think about what happened to Wood.

And yet despite such concerns, Brainstorm is indeed a provocative and meticulously-crafted work of art. With intelligence and dedication, the Trumball film imagines what might happen once scientists develop a machine that blows “communication as we know it right out of the water.”

In the year1983, that colorful-sounding achievement probably felt rather remote and woefully futuristic. 

Yet in 2014, we reckon with -- on nearly a daily basis, too -- the myriad ways that new communication technologies change how human beings relate to one another. 

In the span since Trumball made his film, we have seen the rise of cell-phones, social media, the Internet, and even the first steps towards virtual reality.

This sense of a rapidly-shifting communications landscape wasn’t always clear to audiences in the context of Brainstorm’s original release in the early eighties. However, time seems to have at last caught up with the forward-thinking film. Viewed now, it is plain that Brainstorm gazes meaningfully at the ways that a revolutionary communications device (one that records and transmits brain impulses…) impacts every aspect of human relationships, and even our belief systems. 

Commendably, the film is even-handed and judicious in its musings. Unlike WarGames, Blue Thunder Superman III, Never Say Never Again or Nightmares, which all worried about a future of computerization and increasingly inhuman technology, Brainstorm suggests and visualizes the idea that new technology can actually repair relationships, or bring peace of mind about our ultimate dread: death itself. The yang to that yin is that such technology can also be used to hurt people, albeit sometimes inadvertently.

Seen in light of everything that has come down in the pike in the world of “communication” since the Trumball film premiered, we might today regard Brainstorm not just as provocative, but actually revelatory.

“We blew it, didn’t we?”

Scientists Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) have developed a revolutionary new technology. They have created a special helmet-like device that can read and record the impulses of one human brain, and then make those impulses available (on a copper-like tape…) for other humans to view. 

But it’s not strictly a matter of viewing the world through another person’s eyes. While experiencing a pre-recorded tape, a percipient also feels everything that happened during the recording. They can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel those experiences.

Lillian and Michael’s boss, Terson (Cliff Robertson) is determined to get this new device on the market as quickly as possible, but also invites the U.S. Government to participate in the research. This act spurs a flat-out revolt on Lillian’s part.  She is certain the device will be applied to purposes of spying and war. A new weapon is the last thing she wants or desires.

Meanwhile, Michael learns that the machine is helpful in another way. He and his wife, PR expert Karen (Wood) have been on the verge of separation and divorce. But the new machine allows them each to “see” one another in a new light.  The invention saves -- and renews -- their romantic, intimate relationship.

When Lillian suffers a devastating heart attack in the laboratory, she puts on the helmet and records the death experience itself.

Afterwards, Michael becomes desperate to screen her last tape, but again, the U.S. military stands in the way.

“There’s more to it than just practical application and packaging.”

In Brainstorm, Douglas Trumball utilizes the brain impulse device as a vehicle for exploring human relationships, and the way that advancing technology in the field of communication can affect those relationships.  If the film seems somewhat episodic (and occasionally incoherent…) it is because, primarily, the screenplay charts the device’s impact on several different aspects of life, and upon several different characters or groups.

For example, the U.S. government sees the device as something that can be used in war, to torture prisoners.

At one point in the film, Michael learns that the military has recorded a mental patient’s experience of a “psychotic break,” and that this tape can drive a man or woman to the brink of madness. Michael’s own son accidentally views the tape, and goes insane.

For a moment, just imagine being able to impose a psychotic break on a political enemy, or rival. Such an assault would appear to outsiders as a natural problem, not as an external attack.  Today, our country has debated about what constitutes “torture,” and Brainstorm seems to understand the terrible danger of a device that can destroy the mind, or cause terrible physical suffering, but leave no physical marks.

But in terms of communication specifically, our government has also entered into clandestine relationships with commercial giants like Verizon and Google so that it can access their data and learn more about their customer base…us.  This very brand of government-business alliance is forecast here, as the military is given total access to the privately-constructed communications device and Michael’s laboratory. The military’s intent is to weaponize the brain impulse device, and possibly even use it against the public. The point, however, is that in a world of governments launching cyber-attacks on other governments, this idea hardly seems far-fetched anymore.

One of the other scientists on Michael’s and Lillian’s team sees the device in another way. He watches a tape of a fellow scientist engaging in sexual intercourse, but then cuts the tape so it is a repeating loop of the moment of orgasm.

Like a drug addict, this scientist eventually loses all interest in life, his job, and his family, and simply re-plays the tape, experiencing moment of ecstasy after moment of ecstasy. Nothing else matters.

This subplot is no doubt Brainstorm’s spikiest and most outré application of technology, but we know today that it is also not terribly far-fetched. A generation has grown up watching readily-available Internet porn.  In other words, Brainstorm forecasts the ease and speed at which a communications device, like the Internet, can deliver sexual imagery. Today, we often read of people being addicted to “Internet porn,” or Internet porn ruining a marriage. In Brainstorm, an intervention is necessary when a new brand of porn is invented, and it becomes irresistible to the “user.”

The aspect of Brainstorm that I admire most, perhaps, is its consideration of a new communications technology as a tool for psychological therapy; for generating empathy. At one juncture, Michael experiences life through his wife’s eyes, and is suddenly granted a view of himself that no one has ever been afforded in real life. 

Suddenly, he understands what it is like to live with himself; with a man who is obsessed with his work, emotionally distant, and sometimes even emotionally absent. The key to empathy is being able to put yourself in the mind-set of another person, and the machine permits that. It is the ultimate in role-playing. You don’t have to imagine your partner’s feelings anymore, you can actually experience them. Brainstorm thus suggests that this machine could change the nature of our most basic relationships; that it could be a useful and productive tool for therapy.

There are long sections of Brainstorm that concern Michael and Karen’s relationship, but the strife is resolved when they can really understand each other’s point of view for the first time.  I don’t know about you, but my wife says she often wonders what I’m thinking (!).  Perhaps all couple relationships could be improved if we could feel what our spouse or significant other feels.

In its denouement, Brainstorm goes big…and trippy.

Lillian’s death tape is played, and Trumball escorts viewers to the very edge of creation, and beyond.  The death tape reveals Lillian having an OBE (out of body experience), looking down at herself from outside her own eyes. Then the imagery resolves to a series of tear drop-like bubbles. Each one seems to represent an isolated but accessible moment from Lillian’s life.

Once this imagery is left behind, the film cuts to a brief view of humans trapped -- and writhing -- in fleshy-outgrowths like organic prison cells. This composition symbolizes not merely the possibility of Hell, but the fear that comes with being separated from the material or physical universe.  We go through our lives trapped in our bodies, and physically separated from one another, the imagery suggests.

Finally, we follow Lillian’s disembodied soul on a journey through galactic space. We see her soul join a million butterfly-like -- or angel-like -- organisms (more souls) as they move gently and slowly into a warm and welcoming light.  This is what comes at the end of life, finally: a new interconnectedness, a new togetherness not fully possible in our mortal, separate, individual form.

What I find most fascinating about this view of the afterlife, is that it is, simply, an augmentation of what Lillian and Michael’s machine already accomplishes. 

Their “revolutionary” form of communication allows a different brand of togetherness. It permits empathy, as opposed to physical (or energetic, I guess…) connection. But that empathy, that understanding, is a real step closer to the cosmic union portrayed in the film’s final phantasm. In this case, a communications technology allows us to “reach out and touch someone” in a way previously unimaginable

In the end, Brainstorm suggests that Heaven is not a place. Instead, it is the accumulated light of our all our souls together, shining as one. And the communications breakthrough wrought by the film’s scientists not only reveals this truth, but in some senses mimics aspects of that togetherness. 

As I noted above, Brainstorm moves in episodic fits and starts. Yet, at the same time, it is never anything less than wildly cinematic.  There’s an incredible P.O.V. journey on a rollercoaster (and through a water slide…), for instance, and other visual wonders here. 

Accordingly, one can’t help but wonder if Trumball is suggesting that the communal experience of movie-watching (another form of communications technology) is the real antecedent to the machine depicted in the film. We see through the eyes of several characters in the film, including Lillian as she faces her own death.  Given this first-person or POV perspective, the idea of feeling their emotions hardly seems out of the realm of possibility.

Brainstorm is, perhaps, a good deal better than its reputation suggests. Louise Fletcher delivers a brilliant performance, particularly during her heart attack scene, and the film ends on a cosmic high-note, explicitly comparing (with its North Carolina locations…) the Wright Bros. achievement of flight with Lillian and Michael’s discovery of what exists beyond the boundary of death. The only place the 1983 film creaks is during an extended action sequence at a manufacturing plant, where an assembly line goes comically -- and interminably -- haywire.

Other than that low point, Brainstorm lives up to its device’s PR/advertising pitch. The Trumball movie plays (commendably) like “research for a better tomorrow.”


  1. Anonymous4:44 PM

    Another excellent and well-written review, John. Keep up the excellent work.

  2. Well said and I absolutely agree. "Brainstorm" is a criminally underrated and much like another 1983 film , David Cronenberg's prophetic masterpiece "Videodrome", it is a movie that was years if not decades ahead of its time.

    The performances are first rate and the film is a technical marvel on every level including James Horner's magnificent score. Considering he made this and "Silent Running", I really wish Douglas Trumbull had kept making science fiction films.

  3. Gotta agree with you on this one too. I haven't seen the whole film in years, but some of the images have really stayed with me, ever since my first viewing of the film. Oddly enough it was part of a "Christopher Walken" double feature. This film and "A View to a Kill". Harder to find two Walken performances at opposite sides of the spectrum. :)

  4. Hey JKM;

    Totally agree, an underrated film, one of my favorites from the era and I'm glad I got to experience it in the way it was intended, on the big screen in 70mm (Trumbull was anticipating IMAX!) It's interesting how prescient the film was about the interaction of humans and technology; myself, I viewed the film as a statement about the power of "psychedelic" experiences (its interesting the the "orgasm addict" eventually attained a sort of spirtual experience) - ALTERED STATES came out around the same time, more or less (considering how long Trumbull worked on it), and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was what he worked on immediately before and Timothy Leary himself had become an early exponent of tech-gnosis in the early 80s. I have several zines from the 70s where Trumbull discusses his post "Silent Running" plans and he would have continued in a mind-expanding vein; it's a pity that he had such a Terry Gilliam-esque filmmaking nightmare on Brainstorm. Trumbull had (and has) an excellent grasp of how FX could induce an almost spiritual experience - 2001, CE3K( the arrival of the mother ship is still a special-effects pinnacle, gave me chills at the time) BRAINSTORM, on into THE TREE OF LIFE. It's a loss that he hasn't worked more.

  5. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I don't think I agree that the film is underrated at all, though I appreciate the effort to make it look good. Most of the film has nothing at all to do with the device -- it's just another film where the military-industrial complex is out for itself and the brave little band of heroes tries to thwart them. The device would have been a lot more interesting if it occupied more of the film


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