Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at sixty frames per second)?
I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although, Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mean it’s anything less than an interesting failure, though, even as the finished piece was compromised by the death of one of its lead actors, budget cuts and completion delays.
The concept of Brainstorm, of simulated or virtual reality – or more precisely re-experienced reality – would later be explored in a much grimier, seedier environment with the SQUID devices in Strange Days; the essential idea is the same, that the user is enabled to experience whatever the individual making the initial recording experienced, including touch, taste, sensation, smell. There, its origins were rather mundane (the FBI developed it for undercover work instead of wearing a wire, then it hit the black market). Here, the cause is much nobler, ostensibly: that of pure research. And, inevitably with pure research, its application for less scrupulous purposes is instantly seized upon.
Trumbull is best known for his effects work on such seminal pictures as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, of course. He also made his directing debut on a much less recognised, humanist, eco-cautionary science-fiction tale, Silent Running, a minor classic even if you aren’t a Joan Baez fan. Unfortunately, the tribulations of bringing Brainstorm to the screen would put him off directing cinema (almost) for good.
He initially developed the project at Paramount with Showscan in mind; his theory behind the process was that the higher frame rate increased the viewer’s emotional response, which feeds perfectly into Brainstorm’s POV concept (it was intended that only these sequences utilised the technique, much as the finished film opts for different aspect ratios and switches between 70mm and 35mm to distinguish between experiences).
The chief reason for Showscan not taking off was cost; fast forward three decades, and it needed James Cameron to crystallise the rebirth of 3D, and a vast uptick in cinemas upgrading equipment off the back of Avatar. Which piqued audience interest enough to spike the takings of any old post-converted rubbish (and given that boom is fading, one wonders how he will regalvanise interest for his four sequels, his intension is to offer a digital version of Trumbull’s pioneering process).
Other attempts at experimenting with frame rate have proved unsuccessful; The Hobbit trilogy infamously met with an extremely negative reaction, and Lee’s Billy Lynn, as mentioned above, was also greeted less than enthusiastically (one wonders what difference, if any, a higher frame rate on film as opposed to digital may have, in terms of Trumbull’s cited emotional response). Interestingly, even though he swore off directing, Trumbull is apparently planning a feature shot with a camera that can record up to 120fps, shot mostly with miniatures.
The problem with Brainstorm doesn’t derive from these technical considerations – the virtual sequences remain highly impressive, and leap out in clarity thanks to the use of different film stock (the title sequences seems to offer an almost 3D effect, and the fisheye lens provides a heightened immediacy to the POV).
Nor is it a result of the death of Natalie Wood towards the end of shooting, although many assume the repercussions of this were far more significant than they actually were (Trumbull maintained there were only a few more scenes to shoot with her, none major, and they were easy to work around… which rather frustrated MGM, the eventual backer of the picture, as they were in financial straits and looking for a quick-fix insurance claim).
Wood’s drowning resulted in Brainstorm becoming something of a footnote to that incident, one that retains an air of mystery (in brief, Wood, hubby Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken were partying on the couple’s yacht. It has variously been suggested Wagner threw a fit over what he perceived to be her affair with Walken and that Wood ended up in the water. Other versions have it that Walken and Wagner had a tryst, Wood was disgusted and threatened to tell all, leading to the same conclusion).
No, the problem with Brainstorm is that Trumbull seems unable to get a firm grip on the type of movie he’s making; he’s so dedicated to the technique that the flow is impeded. Individual elements work extremely well, but they don’t hang together. Is it a serious science fiction piece (the actual mechanics of the device are never thrashed out in sufficiently lucid fashion to suggest so)? Is it a conspiracy thriller (the shutting out of the architects of the device, and spectre of its military application, are engrossing and eerie respectively, but they mostly fail to develop towards a palpable level of increased stakes)? Or is it a metaphysical rumination, an affirmative speculation on the afterlife (Lillian – a movie-stealing Louise Fletcher – records her death experience, and the back third of the movie revolves around Michael – Walken – attempting to play the entire tape)?
With the latter, the thematic fingerprints of Bruce Joel Rubin are all over the picture, to less than startling effect. Rubin has dug himself something of a niche as the go-to for slightly facile, Tinseltown spiritual uplift. On occasion, this has worked like gangbusters (for all its cheesiness, Ghost simply comes together as a movie, even with Patrick Swizzle). On others, adapting from someone else’s idea, the results have been almost profound (The Last Mimzy).
But you also get a rather synthetic, quick-fix feeling from the likes of Deep Impact and My Life, along with slightly pat solutions lapped up by the writer’s pseudo-Christian philosophy. The heaven-hell dichotomy is a constant in his work, and features strongly in Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder (hell on earth, little Macaulay waiting in heaven) and, rather jarringly given its science overcoat, in Brainstorm. Even Michael’s basis sounds hokey and lacking in rigour (a “scientific look at the scariest thing a person has to face”).
Great credit is due to Trumbull in his visualisation of these POV sequences, in particular the gnarly, pre-Matrix hell ones we glimpse (the grisly imagination would make even Clive Barker yak up his chips). The winged angels of the finale, though, as Lillian bypasses the “other place” and goes towards the light – as do the leads in Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder. Rubin is evidently convinced the light is where it’s at; let’s hope he’s right, for his and undiscerning viewers’ sakes. This leads to a positive, life-affirming experience for Michael (“She made it”), and lends itself to the glib, like much of Rubin’s unfiltered approach, attempting to hook the audience with sugary visual homilies.
Rubin had first written Brainstorm as The George Dunlap Tape back in 1973, part of his premise being “if you could be anybody, if you could experience any other person’s reality and the loss of your own reality, who are you?” The screenplay was rewritten by Philip Frank Messina and then Robert Stitzel to reach its final form, but there’s more than enough here that’s definably Rubin: “What Trumbull pulled out of my script at least had some spiritual content. I’m thankful for that”. Alas, that spiritual content may be the most hackneyed part of the movie. Certainly, other uses for the tech are more arresting and/or disturbing.
The sexual feedback loop Hal (Joe Dorsey) experiences when he splices together what becomes a never-ending orgasm from the encounter Gordy (Jordan Christopher) has recorded is a very believable sensory overload (the addictive potential of the device is redolent of the dream-recording apparatus in Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World; the visualisation of dreams in Ridley’s Prometheus, on the other hand, might be the most unimaginatively pedestrian rendering of that basic idea). Hal attests, cryptically, that the experience was “More than just a sexual fantasy. It was a feeling I had. I’m more than I was, Mike. More”. To Mike’s evident dismay.
Mike: We’re interested in tapping into the higher brain functions. Thought, emotions, that kind of thing.
Landon Marks: We’re working on that too.
Lillian: Shut up, Michael. You don’t know what’s going on, do you?
Then there are the near-heart attacks experienced by Michael, and then by Gordy playing back Lilian’s death rattles. Altogether creepier are the mostly implied military uses. Michael is nebulous about the potential of the device (“With a thing like that, you could finish the seventh grade in about five minutes”), but it’s clear from the Project Brainstorm he hacks into that the device is being weaponised, to potentially torture and brainwash its subjects.
Options include Early Trauma – Random, Selected, Dream States – Negative and Positive, Physical Pain – Threshold Series Subdivision Moderate to High, Anxiety States, Catalyst Field Series, Coercive Imprinting Series, Negative Memory Retrieval – Moderate to Extreme, Depression – Moderate to Extreme, and Play Psychotic Episode. There’s also, curiously, suggestions of other projects relating to NASA and heat shields. Accompanying is a series of warnings: “In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness” and “Warning this tape must not be played by government personnel. It can be extremely harmful and result in extreme trauma. You have five seconds to terminate this tape”.
All this is extremely ominous, so it’s a disappointment that the picture soon reduces to Walken racing around attempting to play the tape with some sub-WarGames (a much better movie, released the same year) hacking leading to a production-line robot going crazy apeshit with a fire hose and foam (possibly it had been watching The Early Bird). Talking of racing around, though, Mike’s bike would have – and probably did – thrown Sir Clive Sinclair into a sublime reverie.
I was inspired to revisit Brainstorm after listening to one in Aug Tellez’s seemingly endless stream of YouTube videos. Tellez is an interesting guy with a whole lot in his head he clearly needs to unleash. He claims to be a clone subjected to the Elite’s MKUltra-style processes and rituals but is now being allowed out there to help initiate a process of change.
It’s easy to see his confessionals/ revelations as a flipside to the Corey Goode coin, since they cohere on a couple of subjects (there’s a secret space program, AI is a very real threat) but, almost as if two guys who admit to having had their minds messed with are being encouraged to bleed disinformation, present oppositional view points on others. Goode is all about the aliens, Tellez rejects them (in a literal sense, at least) and sets out his store on time travel (something Goode suggests is of limited efficacy) and parallel worlds. Both, to a greater or lesser degree, might be construed to be propped up on the infinite possibilities of science-fiction literature (soft disclosure all, like this movie, we are told) and both may be unknowingly positioned to obfuscate.
Anyway, Tellez’ thesis is that Trumbull’s movie represents “standard soft disclosure” of classified information (to the devout conspiracist mind, no movie can actually result from a fertile imagination – I’m guessing this extends to literature too – but must have been dictated), and is “literally, exactly what went on”, a “god helmet” being used that led to a “holographic, fractal mind virus” (based on the orgasm loop scene) leading to “spiritual degradation of the human”. He attests “They had it all back then”, meaning the early ’80s, including the realisation that, rather than merely recording, they could go into peoples’ minds with the system (the memory bubbles we see being accessed).
The feedback loop Tellez describes actually sounds a lot more Strange Days than anything in Brainstorm, though. He further offers the abstruse explanation that we are all currently experiencing past events through memory that are being called up as a virtual environment (and the world itself, the product, of this system, is only a few thousand years old). It seems we’re trapped in a delayed response, pre-programmed virtual reality system; he believes the Brainstorm equipment exists and can be used to imprint and access a person’s mind.
Naturally, there’s a time-travel aspect involved – “We were told some of these details would be generated in the future and sent back to the past, so that they weren’t really there until now” – so if you remember the picture at the time, or even just the Starburst cover, that’ll be the Mandela Effect. I’d assume Tellez’ explanation for the rather hacky “kid gets a nasty download” scene, is that they (kids) were the intentional subjects of such experimentation.
Essentially, Aug shows a similar enthusiasm towards the movie’s perceived veracity that David Icke does for They Live(!), but Icke is overlaying his reading on a really good movie while Tellez is announcing ramifications for an interesting if faintly underwhelming one.
Walken, Mr Wacky, is good but not great here. Wood likewise. Donald Hotton (Landan Marks) comes on as a superannuated tech version of Andy Warhol, entirely out of his depth. Cliff Robertson, always better when cast as antagonist, is suitably insidious in his reasonability, but this is really Fletcher’s movie, and it’s a shame she’s so impressive in a picture hardly anyone ever saw (which is why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest casts such a pervasive shadow on her career). It was reported two years ago that Diane Lane would be producing and starring in a remake, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Perhaps Ang Lee should have teamed with her instead, in order to explore his frame rates?