Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Brainstorm (1983)

Title: Brainstorm (1983)

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Cast: Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson, Jason Lively


Troubled productions, they always have an interesting story behind them. Reading about these fiascos lets us see the nature of Hollywood filmmaking, and how frustrating and money oriented it can all be. I’ve read various books on filmmaking, and trust me; all of them have a very acid outlook on Hollywood. Take for example David Mamet’s book on his experiences in Hollywood filmmaking called Bambi vs. Godzilla. The title alone let’s you see the kind of battle you can expect while making a Hollywood production. You are Bambi and the Hollywood system is Godzilla. I’ve never read a book with a more acid hatred for Hollywood then that one. And it was written by a writer experienced in both writing and directing various big budget Hollywood films! These books will always tell you how frustrating making a full length multi-million dollar feature film can be, if you want to get into that game, you gotta really want to be in that game because it can swallow you whole and then spit you’re puny little Bambi carcass out. Yes my friends, Hollywood can be one cruel mother for those working behind the scenes. Case in point: Douglas Trumbull and Brainstorm, a film with an original concept that half way through completion was shut down by the studio. Why did the studio want to shut down Trumbull’s film?  

In Brainstorm we meet a group of scientists that are experimenting with a new kind of machine, a helmet that can record whatever your experience. The innovative part of the whole thing is that someone else can later watch the recording and relive the experience, all sensory input included. This means that you can smell, see, hear and feel anything the original person recorded! Commercial and military applications immediately abound for an invention like this one. But like any new invention, there’s always a dark side, for example, what happens when someone decides to record their death? And what happens when someone wants to play that recording? Would you want to experience what it feels like to have a heart attack, or to die? Well, these are some of the questions that arise when one of the scientists decides to record her death. The inevitable question pops up: can this new invention record what happens after death?

When Brainstorm was made it was an extremely original concept, there had been nothing like it before. Correct me if I’m wrong my dear readers, but I can’t remember anything like Brainstorm before it was made. After Brainstorm is another story, after it various films have copied it’s premise, which reveals Brainstorms influential nature. For example we have Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) the first one that pops to mind. I’ve always seen Strange Days as a remake of Brainstorm because it plays with some of the same ideas and situations, but takes things a bit further and is a more complete film in my opinion, I highly recommend that one. There have been other films about machines that explore the human mind, for example, Dreamscape (1984), The Cell (2000), Videodrome (1983) and The Lawnmower Man (1992), but Brainstorm is unique because it presents us with the idea of a head piece that can record your experience. But what if someone decides to record a murder, or a torture? What if someone forces you to watch these recordings? Brainstorm explores these possibilities, especially the possibility of having to experience someone’s death. Strange Days explores that idea, but is a bit more intense, it goes more into the dark side of the techonology. In fact, Strange Days can be seen as a sequel because it shows us a world in which this technology has become common; there’s even a black market for recordings with highly sexual and violent content!

In Brainstorm the technology hasn’t gone to the mass market yet, it’s still on its experimental phase. Scientists are still trying to figure the invention out, work out the bugs; they still don’t know what they got in their hands. But Brainstorm does go into this tangent that I liked. In the film, Christopher Walken’s character is going through a divorce, but in order to save his marriage, he makes a recording of these beautiful memories he conjures up in his mind of him and his wife falling in love for the first time, which helps them fall in love all over again. Reminded of what they once had, they reunite, really tender moments there, loved that about it. Walken and Natlie Wood (the actress who played Walken’s wife in the film) really achieved an onscreen chemistry that worked; their moments are some of the sweetest in the whole film. So the film is not only about technology and its possible applications, but also about saving a marriage and rekindling a love that was once alive.  

There is this moment in Brainstorm where the scientists perform a show for the investors to try and “knock their socks off”, so they can really get a taste of what the technology can do. Those scenes felt like I was visiting the website for Google Glass. Yes my friends, it looks like technology is once again catching up with our imaginations! You don’t know what Google Glass is? Well, look it up, it’s this new thing that they are cooking up, basically, it’s these glasses you wear that can record anything you are seeing in an extremely similar fashion to the technology presented in Brainstorm. The only difference between Google Glass and the technology presented in Brainstorm is that while in Brainstorm you can relive all of the sensory input including smell, touch and feel, with Google Glass we can only relive the visual and auditory aspects of someone else’s experience. But I’m wondering if it’s only a manner of time before that happens! So anyhow, Brainstorm was kind of prophetic in that way. Anyways, the Google Glass thing (same as the technology in the film) is still on its prototype phase, only a few people in the world where chosen to use it to test them out and see how they perform in the real world. If it all works out, Im sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of these glasses soon. Something similar to Google Glass also showed up in Iron Man 3 (2013), there's a couple of scenes in which Iron Man actually controls his suits with the help of these ultra technological glasses.

But going back to why Brainstorm was such a fiasco, well what happened was that Natalie Wood (one of the main actresses in the film) died during filming, MGM seeing an opportunity to make some money shut down the film and filed an insurance claim, hoping to get some of that insurance money. At the time, the guys running MGM though it would be more of a benefit to them to claim their insurance money then finish a film that was already midway through completion! MGM claimed that because of the death of one of its main stars, it was impossible to finish the film; which was a flat out lie, because most of the film had already been shot, MGM just wanted to get their insurance money. So whatever, their claim was denied and Douglas Trumbull managed to finish his movie by using a body double and rewriting parts of the script. But the film was destined to be a failure, MGM didn’t promote it enough and only released it in a minimum amount of screens, so we can chalk up this films failure to a vengeful movie studio. But the film still lives on, it’s been released on various formats and has currently been released on Blue Ray and DVD, as it deserves to. This film was directed by Douglas Trumbull, the effects genius who was responsible for some of the brilliant photographic effects work in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982). Sadly, his sour experience with making Brainstorm made Trumbull give his back to Hollywood, he vowed never to make a huge Hollywood film ever again. And he’s kept his promise. In the end, Brainstorm is a movie that explores some interesting themes and philosophical ideas, my only gripe with it is that the ending felt a little inconclusive, probably due to Natalie Woods death, but as it is, you want to know what was going to happen to these characters after the shit storm they created, the films abrupt end leaves us wanting more. I guess the best thing you can do is watch Brainstorm and Strange Days back to back, you’ll feel like you’re watching more or less two films that take place in similar worlds

Rating:  4 out of 5 


Jennifer Croissant said...

Francisco, maybe you didn`t fully realise because you`re not old enough to remember, but Natalie Woods death in November of `81 (at the age of only 43) hit a lot of people really hard (just as Heather O`Rourkes death just over 6 years later hit a lot of people very hard as well). Natalie had been an incredibly popular actress for over 35 years at that point (since she was a kid), she really was like Americas sweetheart and snuffing it the way she did really upset a lot of people. The ONLY reason people watch Brainstorm is to see Natalie, even now almost 32 years on they still try to bring Natalie back to life simply by watching the film.

eddie lydecker said...

Francisco, its interesting to note that Brainstorm and Videodrome were filmed at exactly the same time, the last few months of 1981, Trumbull and Cronenberg having similar ideas at the same time, as it were, although Cronenbergs film is by far the best of the two movies.

Mary Quant said...

Admittedly Natalie Woods looks did seem to last longer than some other birds, when the bird was 32 she seemed to be just as desirable as she`d been when she was 18 (and thats incredible believe me), only in this film (her last unfortunately) at the age of 43 were her looks just beginning to fade.

Franco Macabro said...

Jennifer Croissant: Your absolutely right, I am not very familiar with Natalie Wood's work, I do remember role of Maria in West Side Story though, that's about all I had seen her in besides Brainstorm, but I can imagine her death affecting a lot of people.

Im sure a lot of people see Brainstorm for her, but also because Christopher Walken is in it, both of them together are great on this movie, their scenes when they fall in love all over again are one of the best things in the movie, my favorite scene being the one where she's singing to Walken beneath the bed covers.

Eddie lydecker: Yeah, they were both released in the same year, but are a bit different. Videodrome deals with a show that alters your sense because of its violent content while Brainstorm is about a machien that records your experiences. Both films deal with different themes and messages.

While Videodrome concerns itself with the effect the media can have on our brains, Brainstorm seems to be more concerned with romance, though it doesnt seem to be that kind of a film. It deals with how easily we can forget the love we had for a person at one point in time and also about curiosities about what happens after we die. Is there a heaven or a hell?

The ending for the film actually reminded me of the ending for Disney's The Black Hole, where once they depicted the black hole as a way into heaven and hell.

But I see what you mean, they are similar in that they deal with the mysteries of the human brain, this is why I mentioned it amongst other similarly themed films in the review.

Thanks for commenting!

otis rampaging heterosexuality said...

I still feel sad about Natalie snuffing back in `81, when she was a young bird she was one of the most stunningly gorgeous birds who ever lived.

teddy crescendo said...

Francisco, i cannot believe Ray Harryhausen has snuffed it, i know the geezer was pushing 93 but i was hoping he was gonna` live forever, Hollywood was Ray Harryhausen, without him it will be nothing.

Franco Macabro said...

Otis: Agree.

Teddy: Yeah, I am a huge fan of his films, he left an incredible legacy and he was an extremely influential artist with many pupils....he will be missed for sure.


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