Technology with attitude

Movie Review: BRAINSTORM's Provocative Ideas Hampered by Formulaic Ending

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For a while – maybe 70% of its runtime – the 1983 sci-fi drama Brainstorm does a fine job of examining a single, provocative question: if you could experience another person’s mind as if it were your own, would you?

That’s the question that scientist Michael Brace (Christopher Walken, in a subdued and surprisingly not-crazy performance) and his team ask themselves when they stumble upon the technology to transfer the sensations of one person’s subconscious to another person.  The device (which looks like an ungainly fusion of a colander and a football helmet) downloads, in effect, one mind into another, meaning that the wearer can feel everything the subject mind goes through.

Extreme highs, terrifying lows: it’s virtual reality, with the emphasis on reality, and Brainstorm‘s best scenes follow Brace as he wrestles with the moral/spiritual implications of the invention.  He doesn’t know how to reconcile the overwhelming power of the experience with the psychic violation it represents, and director Douglas Trumbull’s FX setpieces further muddy the water.  Trumbull does an interesting thing whenever Brace or his colleagues (including Oscar winner Louise Fletcher and Natalie Wood, in her final role) put on “The Hat”; the frame, which shows the real world in a windowboxed 1.66:1 aspect ratio, expands to 2.39:1 full widescreen, letting the images’ hallucinatory splendor take over.  And take over they do: Trumbull was the special effects supervisor on the great 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his manifestations of the mind have the same force and texture that he brought to the Stanley Kubrick classic (particularly Brainstorm‘s virtuoso final effects showcase, which feels like an expansion of Dave Bowman’s mind-expanding journey through time and space).

And when one of Brace’s team dies and accidentally records the moment, Brainstorm builds to a point of almost unimaginable existential gravity.  Experiencing life – loss, love, sex, joy, pain – is one thing, but death?  What impact would that have on a living person?  To Walken’s character, that brainscan is the final frontier, and the actor lets his ambivalence about viewing it play across his expressive eyes and face.

At that very moment, the picture s—ts the bed.  It turns out that Brace’s superior (the late Cliff Robertson, doing another variation on his blandly sinister Three Days of the Condor bureaucrat) has plans for “The Hat” that could send the planet into nuclear disaster, and the third act of Brainstorm becomes a tired conspiracy thriller where Brace tries to keep his creation out of the military’s hands.  Nothing that transpires is particularly familiar; we even get a covert computer hacking scene straight out of Wargames (only less fun, unfortunately).  I don’t know if Trumbull had this standard thriller nonsense foisted upon him, or if he was just no good at covering it, but the shift to intrigue all-but-abandons the interesting themes of the first two-thirds.

The only saving grace comes at the very end, when Trumbull gives us the aforementioned mind trip, and it’s so good it makes you forget the tedium immediately preceding it.  Maybe that’s for the best, that a movie about the manipulation of the mind could work some of its screen magic on the viewer.

For the Blu-ray, Brainstorm‘s unique shifting aspect ratios are preserved; it’s a little jarring, but it should be, and it looks terrific on a big-screen TV.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t quite as good – it gets the job done, sure, but it lacks the power of the visuals.

For features, Warner tosses in a trailer.  No more, no less.

Brainstorm succeeds when it examines the pros and cons of entering, in essence, another person’s mind, and the results are so satisfying that the film’s climactic detour into Thriller Town degrades the whole experience.  Recommended, with reservations.

Brainstorm is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.