Saturday, August 22, 2020

Brainstorm (1983): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Natalie Wood, taking over the day from John Wayne.

Brainstorm has the sad distinction of being Natalie Wood's final film before her untimely, tragic and still mysterious death in 1981. Whether it would have turned out as it did if Wood had lived to film her few remaining scenes will never be known. Perhaps that is why, despite some good ideas, Brainstorm just seems rather bland.

While still technically married to each other, scientist Mike Brace (Christopher Walken) and technical designer Karen (Wood) are on the verge of a divorce. Mike has taken up with his work partner, Lillian (Louise Fletcher) and together they have perfected a system that allows one person to experience the physical experiences of another.

There is evil afoot however, when their boss Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) is found to be in cahoots with the military, which wants to use this technology for their own aims. Little do they know, or perhaps they do, that this technology is dangerous, as it not only can capture the physical but emotional experiences of one person and transfer them onto another. As Mike and Karen reconcile, Lillian dies, but not without first recording her own death experiences.

Mike can now experience death while alive, but such experiences along with the wicked work of the military, has devastating effects on him and his family. He is led to the top secret "Operation Brainstorm", which he is now set to destroy at all costs.

Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina's screenplay (from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin) has great potential and is most intriguing. This is a fascinating topic: the idea that people can experience other people's lives. It's almost as if someone came up with elements of Inception long before the technology could make it come alive.

And therein lies a problem with Brainstorm. While director Douglas Trumbull crafted a story with potential and while it has some beautiful effects work, there is a clinical remoteness to it all. Time has not been kind to Brainstorm in that the end results look almost boring. The "visualizing" of other people's experiences come across as an amusement park ride. Every time we "saw" or "experienced" the memories or experiences of others, I was reminded of This Is Cinerama, where viewers just got to vicariously enjoy things via having the camera take a viewer's POV.

Take when Mike and Karen's son Chris (Jason Lively) is supposed to be under Brainstorm's hold. The entire sequence is neither scary or intense. Instead, it's surprisingly cheap and dull, to where you wonder if things are veering close to comic.

Sadly, a lot of Brainstorm is a slog to sit through, with little of genuine interest until we get to the final section as Mike and Karen attempt to remotely demolish Operation Brainstorm. One can give credit to the film in predicting virtual porn but there's a sense of things being disjointed, moving from one scene to another without any real sense of cohesion.

Again, it's impossible to say whether Wood's early death forced the film to feel so out-of-sync, but my sense is that it did. Performance-wise Walken was the best, his unique cadence still strong and the sense of a man with a mission firm. Wood came alive at the climatic online break-in but other times she seemed distant from the procedures. To be fair the film sidelined her, and again this may have been a result of her not completing the film.

As a side note, seeing a funeral scene with Wood as one of the mourners lends Brainstorm a touch of the macabre.

It doesn't excuse Fletcher, whose primary character trait was chain-smoking. Her death scene was almost hilarious, as was her questionable acting.

If there's anything good in Brainstorm, it is the early work of James Horner with the music, which still stands out even if it can be a bit 1980's. 

Brainstorm has an intriguing idea, and with technology being more advanced it might be worth a remake. It would be a better tribute to Natalie Wood than the original.

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