Walken is Mike Brace, a technological genius who’s created a device that can record and play back human thought. But when the military emerges as an unwanted “silent partner” in his project, he and his wife are thrust into a breathless, non-stop race to prevent the machine from falling into the wrong hands and becoming the ultimate government weapon!
eyelights: Christopher Walken. the concept. the visuals. the motion picture score.
eyesores: Christopher Walken. the ridiculously nonsensical third act.
“For the first time in my life, I’m scared. But the thing is, I like it. I want more.”
‘Brainstorm’ is a 1983 science-fiction thriller about a group of scientists who create and develop an electronic device that can permit people to live out their subjects’ experiences. Designed as headgear, this invention is refined through the years to the point that they can not only record the experiences for later replay, but can even read thoughts, not just senses.
But the research is attracting attention from the military-industrial complex, which sees in it a tool for brainwashing their opponents. As the researchers continue to push the boundaries of science, they find that they are losing more and more control over their project, to the point that they are eclipsed and must find a way back in before they lose control completely.
The picture, which was shot in 1981, and which stars Christopher Walker, Natalie Wood and Louise Fletcher, was a flop at the box office and is mostly notable for the behind the scenes drama that took place – first in the wake of Natalie Wood’s death, and then in the studio’s refusal to fund the production in its final stages, leading to a bidding war for its purchase.
But there’s more to it than that.
‘Brainstorm’ is a compelling cinematic experience. Granted, it’s flawed by virtue of not having been completed properly (Wood’s death before the film’s completion required the use of body doubles and a rearranging of the plot to some degree), but it brings to the fore an intriguing concept, a few ethical questions, and it serves up some pretty spectacular visuals.
Although most of the picture takes place in and around the research lab, there are many moments of escapism when the scientists put on their so-called “super-conducting phased field neural discharge sensor array” (a.k.a The Hat). This includes first person scenes of car racing, water slides, roller-coasters, bob sledding, paragliding, chopper rides, …etc.
This may not seems especially notable, but it’s the way that it’s presented that makes a difference: not only is it made to put us inside the action, but the framing switches between 2.40:1 and 1.67:1 to distinguish between the subject’s virtual experience and the film proper, adding a slight fisheye lense effect to the former to further distinguish it.
What’s interesting about this technique is that much of the film is in 1.67:1, giving the movie a TV documentary feel, which in part helps us imagine this to be reality, but also lessening the scope of the picture so that the other parts are consequently heightened; by the time someone puts “The Hat” on, their experiences seem realer than real, even if they aren’t.
What’s amazing is that director Douglas Trumbull wanted to use an even more expansive technique but couldn’t due to financing. Still, it was an inspired choice and I really wish that I had had the chance to see it at the cinema back in the day. It may not be as immersive as the better IMAX films, but it would certainly have been quite a memorable experience nonetheless.
The rest of the picture unfolds the way you would expect it to: there is tension in the lab, between the scientists, as they debate the direction their project should take, and also between Walken and Woods’ characters, who are divorced but are forced to work together (he as one of the developers and she in marketing). And it all builds up to a climax in the third act.
The third act is really ‘Brainstorm’s weak point. I don’t know if it’s exactly as it was originally intended, in light of the reshoots, but it degenerates into a ridiculous slap-sticky confrontation with the corporate masters, wherein the scientists hack into the company and turn it topsy-turvy, transforming the factory into the set of a Keystone Cops routine. Blimey.
Further to that, there’s some crappy cloak and dagger stuff as they try to escape the watchful eyes of the military spies who are following them everywhere. And don’t get me started on the fact that they are allowed to hack into the system by one of the corporation’s supervisors, who is curious to see how far they’ll get – until he realizes too late that they’ve gotten too far!
The worst of it, however, is Walken’s character’s motivation, which is utterly inexplicable; he merely feels compelled to watch the tapes that the military people have been making, despite the risks. He doesn’t explain why, he just needs to, even though it’s clear that they are dangerous and could cause brain damage. And yet, irrespective of this, he still goes ahead.
We don’t understand what he’s seeking in these experiences, but we also don’t understand what the end goal is, aside for sticking one to “the man”. Thus it’s impossible to accept the trippy visuals at the end, which suggest that he’s seeing the universe and heaven – especially since these tapes never could have been created/produced by anyone. So where did they come from?
It’s a spectacular montage, but it’s so nonsensical that it’s impossible to immerse yourself in the moment. And when Walken, who barely seems to survive the process or retain his sanity, comes out of it looking at the sky and telling Wood “We made it. Look at the stars.”, we have no f-ing idea what he’s babbling about. When he tells her he loves her and picks her up, we simply don’t care.
In the end, the big question is what’s supposed to be satisfying. That he survived? That they got to the end without interference by their corporate and military masters? Is that all? It’s clear that they’ll both be arrested within moments from this point, having not only hacked into the system but caused potentially irreparable damage to pretty much all of their equipment.
It’s not quite a Hollywood ending, it seems to me.
Still, ‘Brainscan’ has its moments and, until the third act, it’s a fairly engrossing picture, courtesy of an intriguing premise and some oft-intense performances from Fletcher (who over-emotes at times) and Walken (who unfortunately seemed to have taken cues from the Pacino School of Shouting here – which led to some awkward delivery). It certainly makes its mark.
It may not be remembered by many, and it suffers from a few technical and performance issues, but ‘Brainscan’ is a picture that’s well worth experiencing. At its best, it’s a picture that explores the questions of scientific responsibility and corporate ethics, all the while exploring concepts that most have dreamed of. At the very least, it’s a feast for the senses.
And, sometimes, that’s plenty.
Date of viewing: May 5, 2015