Brainstorm

Brainstorm will always have a reputation–among those who are familiar with it at all–as a film maudit. Casual film buffs know it as the sci-fi picture Natalie Wood was shooting when she drowned at the age of 43, under circumstances that remain clouded by mystery. Some of them know that it was one of only two narrative features (Silent Running being the other) directed by special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, whose work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner is the stuff of legend. Real movie nerds remember that Brainstorm was intended by its director to be one of those landmarks that forever changes the future of film–like The Jazz Singer debuting sync sound, Becky Sharp employing three-strip Technicolor, or The Robe introducing CinemaScope. As a movie partly about the afterlife, it is a weird kind of eulogy to Natalie Wood, yes, but it also memorializes Trumbull’s enduring dream of a new breed of cinema that would make moving images more likelife, and more mind-expanding, than any photographic process that had come before.


Brainstorm is about science, government, and commerce, and how the latter two so often get in the way of the first, served up with a heaping helping of some-things-man-was-never-meant-to-know. Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher, and Natalie Wood are working on a device that allows human experiences to be recorded and played back–not just the visual and aural components of an event, but the sensory components, too. Nobody seems sure, exactly, what will be done with the technology, and it’s first used to record P.O.V. shots that provide first-person sensations for the person wearing the device. There are other applications, though, less wholesome and more tantalizing. When the government takes notice, deciding that the Brainstorm device could be used to train super-soldiers, the scientists are pushed to the side.

The narrative alternates, throughout, between blandly-filmed science-fiction drama and expansive, often otherworldly widescreen vistas that depict the enveloping world conjured by the Brainstorm machine. This scenario gave Trumbull the opportunity to exploit a pet project he’d been developing at Paramount: ShowScan. The ShowScan process ran 65mm film through a movie camera at a blistering 60fps, yielding an intensely detailed image compared to the industry standard of 35mm film shot at 24fps. Trumbull’s idea was simple: he would shoot Brainstorm’s experiential sequences in ShowScan, giving them a hyper-real quality. Well, that didn’t happen. Exhibitors wouldn’t spend money on ShowScan equipment until ShowScan movies were available, and studios didn’t want to pay for ShowScan movies that couldn’t be projected. So Trumbull compromised: Taking the project to MGM, he shot the majority of Brainstorm on 35mm film while photographing the experiential sequences in the Super Panavision 65mm format. In movie theatres, the picture widened substantially and the surround sound system roared to life whenever the audience was experiencing a Brainstorm playback. (The effect is a little different on a television screen; more on that in the Blu-ray details, below.)

While Brainstorm didn’t end up as a showcase for ShowScan, Trumbull nonetheless captured the aura of a cinematic technology start-up in the film’s first act, showing the creation of a This Is Cinerama-style demo reel that puts images of a water slide, sweeping vistas, and girls in bikini-tops to clever, calculated use. I really love the quick cuts that juxtapose the wild, fish-eye P.O.V. footage with the backs of the heads of venture capitalists assembled at a boardroom table, still as death, as the camera tracks mechanically through the room behind them, silent but for the muffled bleepity-bloopity chatter of the brainstorm machine. The device is designed to resemble a flatbed film-editing machine loaded up with thick reels of rainbow-striped recording tape, making it a perfect nostalgia trigger for anyone who lived through the early days of videotape and remembers how it seemed to make everyone’s movie memories more accessible than ever before.

But even in its compromised form, Brainstorm was a rebuke of the videotape aesthetic. I saw Brainstorm twice in the theatre on its initial release. Alas, it played only in 35mm in my podunk town, but I remember certain sensations very clearly. The opening titles, for instance, which curve out towards us as though attached to an invisible balloon being inflated in front of the camera, had a startling, almost 3-D quality that’s mostly lost on home video. A helicopter shot that tracks low over an oceanside highway and then out above the water far below is edited together with footage of traffic in a way that gives the impression the viewer is in a car that has plunged over the edge of a cliff; if you see it on a big enough screen, it’ll drop your stomach into your shoes. Brainstorm is intoxicated with these images, and anyone who knows much about Trumbull will understand why the director might feel that way.

Trumbull is a technologist at heart, and maybe a bit of a dreamer, but he’s also a realist. Brainstorm allows itself indulgent thrill-ride moments, but there’s an ominous undercurrent to its futurism from square one. The film’s opening scenes depict an early technology test, with Walken donning a prototype version of the Brainstorm hat in a lab environment to experience a live feed from another lab rat–a prankster who loads up a juicy steak with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and a cherry on top just so his colleague will have to taste it. It’s dry, funny stuff; the image of a blank-faced Walken chewing a virtual steak sundae gets a chuckle. But next the jester does something that’s not quite so funny: He puts the helmet on a lab monkey, and when next we see Walken, he’s trembling in his chair as though experiencing a kind of mental seizure. It’s not played like a scene from a horror movie, exactly, and there’s a bit of comic relief as Walken scolds the techie. (“There is something wrong with you,” he declares, in perfectly deadpan proto-Walken form.) It’s clear that something’s amiss, however–that for all the good the Brainstorm device might bring into the world, it has the potential to channel deeply disturbing experiences as well. Some of the tapes are even labelled as “toxic.”

In the film’s downward-spiralling second act, the machine is put to one of its most obvious uses, as the joker from the first reel creates a sex tape with it. (A colleague edits the orgasm into an infinite loop, with physically debilitating results.) Eventually, someone working late in the deserted lab has a heart attack, but retains the presence of mind to put the unit on and hit the “record” button before checking out. The contents of that recording, seemingly depicting the first part of the decedent’s passage into the afterlife, become the engine that drives the film to its climax.

I don’t have much to say about the performances: Wood and Cliff Robertson are both pros; Walken and Fletcher are more engaging but notably uneven. That’s not necessarily their fault–Trumbull had his hands more than full with production, and he wasn’t what you’d call a seasoned director by any stretch. But his special effects, which dominate the final section of the piece, are pretty remarkable. Trumbull’s idea of a life flashing before one’s eyes was prescient in a visual-design sense–key memories are visible in an array of spherical lenses that hover in space like so many thumbnail icons on a computer screen. And Trumbull’s startling and spooky visions of Inferno (entrails, suffering) and Paradiso (flotillas of angels) almost transcend the death’s-door clichés they shamelessly ape and exploit. (I don’t have a clue about Trumbull’s religious beliefs; certainly, these images exude a contemporary-Christian vibe that verges on Hallmark-card kitsch, but maybe that’s just the collective unconscious talking.) They do make an interesting contrast with the similar, albeit more resolutely abstract sequences that closed 2001–this time, Trumbull has posted mile-markers and erected helpful signage to aid viewers in navigating the ultimate trip.

Intercut with these bravura SFX shots are scenes from a more pedestrian action film, featuring Walken and Wood using trusty dial-up access (The Internet: The Early Years!) to control tape-library robots and disable security systems, fending off the authorities by sending ribbons of brainstorm tape flying every which way as Walken, locked out of the lab after his bosses turn the project over to the government, struggles to stream the entire snuff tape into his noggin from afar. These are basic 1980s PG action-movie story beats; I half-expected a goony, WALL•E-looking robot to exclaim “Number five is alive!” and hose down a rent-a-cop. Yet Brainstorm gains a step or two on its competition by threading a kind of, yes, supernatural romance through the proceedings. (The project had its origins in a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, now the reigning king of supernatural romance but at the time an unknown.)

We learn early on that Wood and Walken are a couple in the process of divorcing, but their status changes when he plays back a recording she made and suddenly sees himself the way she sees him: self-absorbed, frustrating, quick to anger. He also sees her memories of happier times, rekindling his own emotions. Immediately grasping this new mode of communication, he makes his own Brainstorm tape to affirm his love for her. “It’s a gift,” he says. “What is it?” she asks. “It’s me,” he answers, before letting her dive into his own memories of the way they were. James Horner takes a lot of flak for supposedly recycling themes from film to film, but I really like his work here, particularly the way he gives the full-on strings-and-heavenly-choirs treatment to the couple’s reconciliation. The sequence works for me every time. There’s something so charming about the idea of scientists as overgrown adolescents exchanging mix-tapes of the mind–not to mention the unassuming remarriage comedy those scenes constitute–that it plays nicely against the film’s more pretentious life-after-death concerns. Trumbull is a believer in cinema as a harbinger of new technologies that will affect the ways we see, think, and feel about the world around us. (At one point, he claimed to be developing “multi-spectral” camera technology to photograph UFOs “for real” as part of a documentary project.) Brainstorm has a rep as a gimmicky science-fiction movie, sure, but here’s a movie where even the gimmick feels like the stuff of personal filmmaking.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

Brainstorm arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video in a no-frills package with dopey, generic-SF front-cover art and a back-cover blurb that appears to have been written by someone who’s never actually seen Brainstorm. Still, it’s what’s on the disc that counts, and I’m happy to report that Warner has (mostly) correctly formatted this release. The image, in its entirety, is presented in the 2.40:1 ratio of 35mm theatrical prints. That means the Brainstorm sequences are letterboxed, and stretch all the way across the screen. The non-Brainstorm footage is “windowboxed” to a ratio of 1.66:1 in the middle of the widescreen frame, with black bars on all four sides. (Think of it as roughly equivalent to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, which expand vertically during scenes shot on IMAX stock before reverting to letterbox for the bulk of the films’ running times.) This accurately reflects the theatrical experience. The most attractive alternative would involve nearly filling the HD frame with the 35mm segments and letterboxing the 65mm material into a smaller widescreen frame, meaning the picture would get smaller during the Brainstorm sequences–exactly the opposite of what Trumbull intended. And yet for years this was the only way to see the film on home video in the U.S.. (A U.S. laserdisc was briefly in print with the correct formatting, but it was superseded by an incorrect DVD version.) I’ve noticed some whining about this from reviewers who should know better, but kudos to Warner for getting it right despite the inevitable backlash.

My praise has to be qualified, though. The Brainstorm footage looks pretty decent, if not nearly as sharp as you’d expect from something shot in 65mm. The rest of the picture looks pretty drab; I eventually paused the disc and turned down my brightness settings, which seemed to help punch up the look of the 35mm passages. (I have my set pretty well-calibrated and am by no means in the habit of adjusting it on a title-by-title basis.) As noted above, the Brainstorm footage has an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 rather than Super Panavision’s native 2.20:1, strongly suggesting that the source material for this release was 35mm instead of a (superior, of course) 70mm element. Judging from the image quality, I suspect we got the worst of both worlds, with both formats an extra generation (or more) removed from the camera negatives. Adding insult to injury, the bitrate is a relatively paltry 24.9 Mbps. I wish someone at Warner had stepped up and insisted on scanning 35mm and 65mm source material at high-resolution and reassembling those digital elements into a new 4K master that would be good to go for Blu-ray, DCP, and future formats, but I’m sure if I say that out loud I’ll never be allowed to run a major movie studio.

The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is fine as far as it goes; there’s not a lot of character or definition to the dialogue, which occasionally gets lost in the clatter of sound effects and Foley work. The stereo music tracks in the Brainstorm sequences (and occasionally outside of them) are uniformly impressive. Extras are non-existent–I decline to consider a standard-def theatrical trailer that’s been kicking around since the days of LaserDisc an “extra.” For various reasons, starting with inevitable viewer confusion over the aspect ratios, Brainstorm demands some sort of supplemental material to put the film in perspective. I guess the obligatory “Remembering Natalie Wood” doc would be problematic, especially since the police re-opened the investigation into her death late last year. That still leaves a lot to talk about, including the movie’s genesis and its unusual special effects. I bet Trumbull would have cooperated had anyone bothered to contact him.

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