Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Director Douglas Trumbull’s film of Brainstorm had a troubled production history. The director was best known for his special effects mastery, on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and for directing the cult science fiction movie Silent Running. Expectations were high for Brainstorm, especially since the film and its effects were in part designed as a showcase for the new Super Panavision 70mm film technology. Tragically however, one of the film’s main stars, Natalie Wood, died in a drowning accident during production, with only some of her scenes completed. The production shut down and for some time, the studio contemplated abandoning it completely. However, Trumbull was dedicated and script rewrites were used to mould the film around the scenes of Wood they had, effectively making her presence rather minor. After a delayed release to take into account the modifications, Brainstorm opened to an indifferent response from critics and public. Most critics felt that the film was too familiar, despite the novel special effects work, and tired as a human drama. Indeed, the film quickly dissipated the initial expectations.
Brainstorm essentially concerns two scientists (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) who have developed technology which can record onto tape and play back the sensory perceptions and even memories, of people wearing the cumbersome apparatus. Their boss (Cliff Robertson) is eager to show off their discoveries and orders a demonstration be prepared that will “knock my socks off”. The team assemble a collage of sensory experiences to be experienced by potential buyers of the apparatus. Among this team are military representatives who in effect commandeer the project much to the dismay of Fletcher. Fletcher has a heart condition and one day in the lab injures herself, triggering a heart attack. She puts on the apparatus and records the experience of her death and whatever happens afterwards. Walken learns of the tape and is determined to play it, even though his first attempt to do so nearly kills him. The tape is locked up by Robertson, who considers Walken’s interest macabre, and soon Walken is removed from the project completely. With help from his estranged wife (Natalie Wood), he contacts a co-worker and tries to tap into the computer system from outside, still determined to see what he can of the experience of death.
Although the premise involving the clash between scientific and military interests is familiar, the film manages to spin some intriguing theses on the idea of technology as a communication breakthrough. The equipment has the potential to increase learning and understanding through a unique form of empathy – by wearing a helmet connected to a machine, the wearer can experience the exact sensations and emotions of another person – making the film a forerunner to the likes of Strange Days and even anticipating the virtual reality phenomenon of such films as The Lawnmower Man. It also ties into the scientific obsession with alternate perceptions (a theme give a very different spin in Altered States for instance), with technology as a means of freeing perception from the purely subjective and individual. Ironically the device that has such potential to create human empathy is used first for gimmicky vicarious thrills and then for military research into stress, trauma and psychosis. These efforts are seen by director Trumbull as moves against the true prospect of liberation by technology: unlike much technophobic science-fiction, it is not technology itself which is malevolent, but human nature. It is in human nature to seek transcendental experiences, and at its most provocative, the film charts the role of technology as an aid to metaphysical discovery and enlightenment.
Indeed, it is in the film’s parallel between sex and death that it truly succeeds. Thus, what begins as a subplot involving the use of the technology for a new kind of pornographic experience slowly takes on greater significance. A lab worker is obsessed with a sex tape capturing an orgasm, and loops the recording so that he in effect will remain in a perpetual sexual state. Although a fantasy at first, he later admits that he is a different person, more aware. In a way standard addict rhetoric it nevertheless starts to obsess Walken in a way he eventually displaces. Estranged from his wife, he seems to have more emotional attachment to Fletcher, who is both substitute mother and perhaps even something more Oedipal although the film is careful to keep this at the level of implication alone. Thus, Walken’s obsession with experiencing the death tape is in effect the next stage of the same desire to experience the sex tape – the desire for an intense, transcendental experience. The little death of the orgasm is a prelude for the big death in a kind of metaphysical progression with death as the ultimate form of sensory awareness – thus the special effects are reserved for Walken’s playing of the tape as evidence of life after death, and seem an orgasmic experience. Walken’s desire to see the tape is an expression of his personal obsession with death almost as a displaced sexual experience – a desire he must confront even if it will threaten his family.