Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sci-Fi Watch: Brainstorm (1983)

Watched:  09/10/2019
Format:  TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's

There are a whole bunch of movies that are not the same movie that I thought were the same movie that came out between 1980 and 1987, that all have sort of meaningless names, and I thought were the same movie.  Brainstorm (1983) is one of these movies.

The thing is, I'm not even sure what is what, but these movies all had pictures of people wearing headgear or having lasers pointed at their brains and often had to do with virtual realities, walking around in people's dreams, stuff like that.  I guess.  All I know is that, from this pile, I had never seen Brainstorm despite very much remembering the box collecting dust at Video Station and Video III when I was a kid.

In 2019, this film is probably more famous for the circumstances that surround the cast of the film as Brainstorm was the final film in which actress Natalie Wood appeared, drowning under mysterious circumstances during a break from filming in 1981 (I have no opinion as to what happened and suspect we'll never know).  After Wood's death, the studio - at the time suffering financially - tried to stop filming and claim the insurance.  Producer/ Director Douglas Trumbull (who you know as an FX specialist more than a director) fought the studio and finished the movie - a move that, frankly, I wonder if it made sense, career-wise, for him to do, but you gotta do what you gotta do.  And, Ill argue, there's some stuff that doesn't wrap up particularly well, but for the most part, they really did seem like they were done filming most of Wood's scenes.

About half-way through watching the movie, I also had the passing thought that this would have been fascinating to pair with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - a sort of inversion of the concept of that film.  Rather than deleting memories of a person, this film posits that a device has been invented to record events and experiences and share them with anyone who plays back a tape and wears a headset.  The set doesn't just capture the five senses, it also records the emotional experience.  If you were exhilarated doing some sky diving with the helmet, that would be part of the recording that would touch the "viewer" - giving them exactly that experience.

Developed by a brilliant scientist played by Louise Fletcher, Christopher Walken plays her #2, with whom she has developed more than a professional relationship as his marriage with Natalie Wood's fellow employee - a designer of devices - has dissolved.

The three work at a large research company in North Carolina's Research Triangle area - Duke University and Kitty Hawk show up in the film - and it seems no small amount of funding had by this company is coming from the military, who see potential.  All this "we're making 6 figures goofing on science" stuff suddenly gets real.

If I say I think it would do well next to Eternal Sunshine, there's also an exploration of what it would mean to have access to the experience of others.  It's not like a watching something on television, the emotions and memories conjured in the moment also become part of the playback.  One character becomes addicted to playing back a sexual experience captured to tape by a colleague.  Walken sees what Wood saw in him that led to their divorce, and, by playing a tape for her of how he sees her, they reconnect in a profound way.

If, in saying Eternal Sunshine was using sci-fi to explore deeper themes and ideas more than it was vanilla sci-fi, I'll argue Brainstorm was unable to help itself, and the movie becomes a more standard sci-fi film towards the end, both with an incredible event captured on tape that Walken wants to see, the take-over of the project by malevolent forces and our heroes needing to triumph.

It's weird, because that pivot and the third act feels like one big studio note.  While the military/CIA/whatever taking the project away sorta logically makes sense, the implications of the technology for everyday people is fascinating, but so is what we could have seen for the nightmare scenarios malevolent forces might have cooked up.  Exploring those seems ways more interesting than the "let's 1980's style stump the baddies" that we do get.

Also - the movie has some great faith in how much data can be pushed via a dial-up connection.

There are definitely gaps in the third act, but I genuinely can't tell what was script, what was editing, and what were changes made to deal with the sudden death of a lead.  There's a massive dangling thread of what happens with the character of Walker and Woods' son played by the guy who was "Rusty" in European Vacation, but like a few other threads- things just sort of... end. 

And it's hard to believe the movie doesn't actually resolve with the characters in jail or buried in lawsuits forever.

Director Trumbull did come out of award-winning special effects - including 2001 and Blade Runner, and it's interesting to see how well most of the film works specifically because it isn't really an FX film.  When they do turn to FX, they're state of the art for 1983, and Turnbull's background definitely plays a part. 

I do think there's an opportunity missed to not just stick with the implications of the technology, but on the whole, I think it's a shame the movie doesn't get more notice.  And, I wonder how the film would have been regarded as Wood's final film if they'd kept it more in line with teh first 2/3rds.  That said, Turnbull has a great cast, great ideas and the tone feels dead on for what they're doing (there's not a lot of whimsy here - it's a scientific experiment).

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