Brainstorm is an unusually smart science fiction film, but its intelligence works in a curiously oblique way. In and of itself, the movie follows a typical (if skillful) pattern about the dangers of technology and the bad men trying to pervert something intended for good. Its thriller structure leaves a lot of room for speculation, turning it into a terrific conversation piece as well as an entertaining film. On its own, it’s merely decent, but with the help of an accommodating audience, it can really turn into something special.
It’s also the last film made by the late Natalie Wood, whose death in 1981 still leaves numerous troubling and unanswered questions. Whatever happened, it was so powerful that Brainstorm’s director Douglas Trumbull quit the business for good, and MGM used the incident as an excuse to shut the production down. (They eventually got funding from Lloyd’s of London and the script was rewritten to account for Wood’s absence.) Watching the film, one becomes acutely aware of those circumstances – costar Christopher Walken’s obvious affection for the woman appears in every scene, and the overall notions of fatalism and death attain an eerie resonance whenever she steps onscreen.
Walken plays a brilliant scientist who has just perfected a way to transmit thoughts, emotions and experiences from one human mind to another. Wood’s character works to help promote the device and prepare it for market; the two are a semi-estranged couple still working out exactly what kind of relationship they want to have. The device both complicates their feelings and provides a potential solution… provided they can keep it out of the hands of sinister forces who want to use it as a weapon.
The plot reflects the thinking-man’s sci-fi of the pre-Star Wars 70s, using the story as an excuse to explore a neat idea as much as tell an interesting story. Brainstorm’s best moments come as pure spectacle, with the device beaming powerful images of people skiing, riding in fast cars and enjoying more carnal pleasures directly into the users’ heads. Trumbull shot those scenes in 70 mm, allowing theatrical audiences to really feel the intensity. It loses something on the small screen, but you can still detect the strength and buy into what such a device might be capable of.
That’s the other cool thing about the film: the way you can speculate on what such a technology could do. Years of education can be downloaded in a matter of minutes, while the notion of understanding where someone else is coming from could unite people as never before. But what kind of effect would that have on our sense of self? Would you be the same if you carried someone else’s memories in your head? Or would your personality start to bleed and intermingle with the other person’s, blurring the lines of who and what you are? That all comes before the film’s big question – what happens when we record someone’s death with it – and proves far more interesting that the bland “we’re gonna turn it into a weapon” threat that occupies the second half.
Curiously, while it’s happy to raise those questions, the film shies away from giving any definite answers (save for one late-inning warm fuzzy that doesn’t quite work). Brainstorm leaves it to us to puzzle out the logical extensions of the technology: keeping the storyline straightforward and letting us chew on the more esoteric stuff as we watch Walken take on the people who want to control his creation. That helps it overcome the sheen of the typical, which it might otherwise succumb to with a less potent notion at its source. We don’t see much of that in our spoon-fed cinematic age. Great? Probably not, but Brainstorm is never less than interesting.