Skip to main content

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.

Brainstorm
(1983)

(SPOILERS) 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 60 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, if 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 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 the writer’s pseudo-Christian philosophy laps up. 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), leading to a positive, life-affirming experience for Michael (“She made it”), lend themselves 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, who claims to be a clone subjected to the elite’s MK-Ultra 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, Teller 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 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 says “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 to explore his frame rates?




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.