A few years back, The second thing I thought of when Facebook snapped up “virtual reality” headset maker Oculus was this flawed but still incredible 1983 sci-fi film directed by Douglas Trumbull. Unfortunately, Brainstorm slipped into theaters under the dark cloud of Natalie Wood’s mysterious off-set death as a work that some at the time debated should have been scrapped entirely. At the time, I liked Trumbull’s technical mastery more than the cast’s straightforward performances. Upon seeing the film again recently, I liked it more, but I also think it’s one of the few films where a modern remake would fix a few things such as sofa-sized and room-sized computers and those super-bulky tapes and that huge headset helmet prototype. Then again, that old tech is kind of what makes the film so effective, as it sure looks like all that wiring and doodads do something.
Despite some workman-like performances from its cast, Trumbull’s direction and his blending standard 35mm camerawork and outstanding widescreen shots of real life vistas and indoor locales plus assorted visual effects that predated IMAX in its use of dynamic screen ratio changes. The often stunning widescreen sequences were shot in Super Panavision 70 with an aspect ratio of 2.2:1 are the real stars here. Still, there’s an air of gloom that hangs over the entire film thanks to one character’s on-screen fate that makes you wish the thought-capturing device in the film actually existed, but had a ‘rewind life’ function added. As dry as the pedestrian plot is, the imagery is at times, some breathtaking stuff that mixes in mundane to high flying activities as the assorted fantasy to nightmare sequences play out.
The film has the old “researchers create innovative tech, but it gets abused in a few ways” plot working away, but it’s also still timely even today thanks to the corporate funding angle that still works in this new era of crowdfunding and other modern methods of successfully getting projects off the ground. Can you imagine how many people would want a device that could record brainwaves and such and turn them into vivid dreams they could share with others or relive any time they want to? Hmmm… Then again, the economy would collapse virtually overnight because people would be at home all the time living out fantasies and sharing them all the time instead of working, unless we all have the same dream every night and everyone gets bored with cats eating pizza or whatever that dream is.
Anyway, the principal cast is okay, with Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, and Cliff Robertson doing fine with what they have to work with, although each has done better in more expressive roles in other films. That said, they do some fine dramatic sequences when the film calls for them and the film does make an intriguing triple feature with Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) and Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984), two films that I also saw upon their initial release. The late James Horner’s score for Brainstorm is still quite thrilling to hear overall, and you can tell where some scenes were meant to go widescreen in some parts where the music seems to soar.
Although her parts had been filmed, after her death, Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, doubled for her in scenes shot for a bit of continuity. I’ll need to see if her face is shown in them, but that’s a project I don’t feel like doing just yet. Memories tend to be pesky things in certain situations. Still, if you haven’t seen this yet, take a look. It’s a forgotten gem, warts and all.
I saw this one at a Cinerama theater in San Diego back when it was released…hoo boy, did it look good on the big screen! I watched it for only the second time in my life a few years ago, and it didn’t hold up quite as well as I’d hoped (man, there are some silly scenes!), but I really do like the story and the idea behind it, and the ‘this is what death looks like’ moments are quite incredible (visually and spiritually), to me anyway. I never knew the Lana Wood tidbit, either…quite interesting.
It’s a film that pops up on TCM on occasion, so I’ve seen it again a few times. Yeah, some of the silly stuff is a bit annoying, but I was looking at some VR stuff a while back (research!) and yeah, fantasies are going to sell any device for its gimmicky nature first. Humans are weird like that when it comes to tech.