Brainstorm (1983) – Douglas Trumbull

Special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull delivered his last Hollywood movie in 1983. Problems with the production company, and the untimely death of one of the film’s leads, Natalie Wood, impacted his opinion of the Hollywood machine, and he left them behind.

The film features a solid cast, Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson join Wood in a film that is ultimately about communication and understanding.

Michael Brace (Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher) are two scientists hard at work on a project that will allow a subject’s memories, emotions, and experiences to be recorded and shared. They are on the cusp of a breakthrough, and all of it is overseen by Alex Terson (Robertson) who is more than willing to share their research with government outfits to use for less benign purposes.

Karen Brace (Wood) is thrown into the mix. She works with the same company and is helping redesign the neural interface to be a little more user-friendly. She and Michael have a tempestuous relationship and are a little estranged.

But through the use of the device, they both come to understand one another a little better, which reinvigorates their relationship.

In fact, the device can allow for better understanding by putting you right into the thoughts of your subject. Sure, some people are going to use it for other morally questionable things, but Michael is naive enough to believe that the device can be used for good, including repairing his relationship with Karen.

The company of course doesn’t agree.

When Lillian, who is ill, records her experience as she’s dying, Michael realizes that he can use her tape to explore the edges of death to perhaps take away some of the fear that people have about those final moments.

Trumbull uses visual imagery to show connection and understanding. He does this by playing with the format of the image. When the film is in the real world, the frame is confined, and smaller, but when the device’s playback is used, the image sweeps out, giving us a bigger look at everything, revealing more, delivering a hyperreality.

Michael’s investigation into Lillian’s recording is a brilliant idea and reveals that there is something more after we die, though our own beliefs can influence how we perceive it.

And while Michael investigates, Karen puts a plan into action to completely cripple the company they work for.

It’s interesting to see some of the tech at work in the film, connecting computers through phone lines, and early robotics, but combined with Trumbull’s effects and storytelling makes for an engaging watch.

That being said the final act of the film seems to walk a line between too silly (all the stuff taking place in the factory) and the intriguing – the exploration of Lillian’s tape, and where it may lead.

Walken is awesome, as always, the effects are solid, but the film is overshadowed by Wood’s death, which also necessitated some shooting with stand-ins to complete it. It’s an oddity of a film that hints at some amazing ideas, and concepts that definitely need more exploration.

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