Is it live or is it Project: Brainstorm?
Welcome to the last film of 1983 on Sci-Fi Saturdays. This week, an influential and prescient film called Brainstorm enters into the series, crafting new ideas and enriching the genre for decades to come.
The trailer seems to show a group of scientists that make a big breakthrough on a device that can record memories from one person and have them played back for someone else to experience, as if they were there. The government gets wind of it, and looks for some military applications. At that point everything starts to go haywire as people are being arrested, attacked, and more. Brainstorm looks to take the audience further than they’ve ever gone before.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
A group of scientists at Research For A Better Tomorrow create a device that is able to transmit the tactile sense of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound via computer, from one person to another. Researcher Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) is receiving the images from assistant Gordy Forbes (Jordan Christopher) while project lead Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Hal Abramson (Joe Dorsey) watch. The CEO of the company, Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) brings in Karen Brace (Natalie Wood), Michael’s estranged wife to consult and help design a marketable headset for the new device, dubbed Project: Brainstorm.
Alex has heard that the team has made a breakthrough, but Lillian downplays it, even when Michael speaks up. Lillian is pleased to get some new microchips to help streamline the bulky helmet, but believes that Alex is moving too fast. He just wants to see a demo that will “knock his socks off.” They show him footage collected over several days, experienced by Gordy, of driving a race car, flying in a simulator, riding horses, and heading down a water slide with two beautiful models. Alex truly believes that they have a communications breakthrough on their hands. A demo is quickly arranged for the Division Heads that also includes flying over Niagara Falls, a looping roller coaster, hang gliding, and several buxom models serving food to the user, which Alex apologizes for.
At a celebratory event for the team, Alex brings Lillian, Michael, Hal, and Karen into a room to meet with several military leaders (who have helped fund the research that led to this breakthrough) to discuss the potential implications of the device for warfare. Alex and some of the others push Dr. Landon Marks (Donald Hotton) onto Lillian’s team, which she becomes upset about, elevating her stress level and causing her to have a slight heart attack in the bathroom. Meanwhile Hal gets a new tape from Gordy that contains some “intimate material,” which he splices into a loop. Michael invites Karen into the lab and records her thoughts, but also her emotions, which he now feels when he plays the tape back.
Michael feels bad that he yelled at Karen after viewing her tape, so he makes one of his own memories of her and presents it to her. The two reconcile and get back together. Meanwhile Hal has a seizure while watching the sex tape and decides to leave the program. He continues to have flashbacks to the taped events even after being disconnected for a while. While working in the lab later that night, Lillian, who smokes too much, has a heart attack and is unable to get to her pills. She turns on the recorder, taping her death. Michael finds her and takes the tape.
Michael starts to play the tape, and immediately experiences the symptoms of a heart attack. He and Hal rewire the machine to remove the physical sensations. Dr. Marks and others are observing the lab and tap into the playback using another terminal. Gordy is plugged in and promptly has a heart attack and dies, not knowing of the risks. Michael experiences the death and then drifts away from Lillian’s body seeing “memory bubbles,” which he is able to experience as well. Control of the project is taken from Michael as Alex puts Dr. Marks in charge.
The company begins creating military hardware incorporating the Brainstorm gear, including torture tapes that induce psychotic episodes. Michael’s teenage son, Chris (Jason Lively), accidentally plays one and becomes catatonic. Karen and Michael, knowing they are being spied upon, fake a fight in public so they can go separate ways and hack into the companies system. Karen takes out the manufacturing portion while Michael hacks in to see the rest of the death tape. He experiences both a hellscape and some sort of angelic progression as he races through the galaxy. The tape runs out, but Michael’s experience continues until Karen finds him and begs him not to leave her. He comes back to her and the two embrace.
“I am talking about a breakthrough. A communications breakthrough.” – Alex Terson
History in the Making
Brainstorm is relatively unique in the world of 80s sci-fi films. It was a film of firsts as well as lasts. Primarily it introduced the idea of recorded memories being able to be played back to other individuals, but there was also more than just that. The reality that the original user experienced was included with the recording, including emotions and feelings. This idea would get a lot more traction in the coming years becoming a more common aspect of the sci-fi genre. More on that in a minute.
It also was the first (and only film) to utilize a process known as Showscan. Showscan was director Douglas Trumbull’s revolutionary film recording and playback process by which scenes were photographed and played back at 60 frames per second, giving the motion picture a heightened reality. It was also shot on 70mm film stock for a much clearer and crisper picture. Having experienced a demo of this process once in college at Trumbull’s studio, the unadulterated Showscan image was preternaturally real. Unfortunately, theaters were not equipped to run variant speed movies, so he compromised by shooting the recorded memory segments experienced by the characters on 70mm widescreen (an aspect ratio of 2.40:1) while the remainder of the film, the reality segments, were shot on 35mm (with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1). This switch to a wider image gave these “dream” moments greater weight and provoking a similar effect on the audience as Showscan would.
Unfortunately this was the second and last Hollywood film that Trumbull would direct. After his previous directorial work on 1972s Silent Running, he worked on the special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner, before returning to direct Brainstorm. The process reportedly left him frustrated working within the Hollywood system, and his future was spent working with Showscan for amusement park ride platforms and demo reels. Brainstorm was also the last film for Natalie Wood. She passed away just before the end of principal photography, and a number of shots were filmed using stand-ins for her character. It took nearly two years for the film to be released, during which time some of the executives tried to have the film killed, which was another problem in Trumbull’s view of Hollywood.
Unlike many sci-fi films, Brainstorm has one aspect of science-fiction that it demonstrates, and covers it from many angles. The brain recording technique is the first and last things shown in the film. It opens with Gordy using a portable helmet (complete with a giant cart to contain all the necessary coolant and hardware) to project his vision into Michael’s helmet in another room. Michael is able to see the test pattern Gordy is looking at, and after some minor adjustments, taste the gross concoction Gordy puts together in the kitchen, and hear the same sounds that Gordy does. This first version of the headgear system transmits live data from one individual to another, allowing them to experience any of the five senses, in a one-way trip. But the film doesn’t stop there, as it explores the scientists working on and refining the process throughout the film.
As the team continues to work, getting smaller microchips from Alex, they are able to make a self-contained helmet for recording and an even sleeker, smaller piece of headgear for playback. They soon are able to record these experiences on a shiny, prismatic reel of tape, as well as incorporate the emotional responses of the subject into the recordings. That is, if while experiencing the warmth and light of a sunrise, the person recording the experience feels a sense of melancholy, that attitude is also captured on the recording for playback by the receiver. The apex of this discovery comes when they are able to record the moments of death, allowing for Michael to explore what comes next.
Since Brainstorm, many sci-fi or horror films have dealt with characters being able to enter others’ memories. It is primarily presented as a character entering the dream state, as two 1984 films would depict: Dreamscape, where individuals are trained by the government to infiltrate dreams in order to perform sabotage or assassinations, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which a ghostly spectre revisits revenge on the children of the people that killed him. Keeping with the ideas of Brainstorm, the 1995 James Cameron written & produced, Kathryn Bigelow directed Strange Days would continue with a sleeker, more modern idea of mass recording experiences using headgear, which ultimately wraps a number of characters into a web of deception and murder. Other films in the same vein include David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), the animated Paprika (2006), and the recent Rememory (2017).
Brainstorm, like many other sci-fi films, takes a look at the human condition using the main characters as surrogates for humanity. The main themes of the film are relatively obvious: How personal is our interpretation of reality, and what happens after we die. The conceit with the film is that the recorded experience is so real, and wired directly into the brain, that the body chooses to reject the reality of the user and instead supplants this recorded experience as the “real” thing. This could be used for altruistic and communication purposes as the scientists originally plan, but as with much groundbreaking technology, ideas for its use are taken outside the original parameters. The scientists appear to have been looking for a simple way to provide an entertainment venue for users. Present the experience of a rollercoaster, or skydiving, for individuals that might not otherwise experience it. And do it in a lifelike and realistic way that basically tricks the brain into experiencing the visuals and feelings of the recording as reality.
Unfortunately the long brewing sci-fi summation of the government and corporations as the real evils facing mankind finally boils over in this film. The military-industrial complex is presented as the villain taking this exciting technological breakthrough and using it to fly combat jets and launch missiles, or creating a uber-realistic torture device that can psychologically damage an individual without all the messy physical signs of torture. Brainstorm does its darndest to show the unintended consequences of discovery and invention. It may remind the viewer of any other number of real-world discoveries that were adapted to dangerous and deadly applications. In fact the film takes place close to the Wright Brothers museum at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina with Michael and Karen visiting several times throughout the course of the film. It seems that the filmmakers are equating the discovery of this new brain technology to the invention of flight, but also compare it to the unintended consequences that the Wright’s may have not foreseen, such as aerial combat and delivery of weapons to ground targets by airplane.
The biggest question that the film attempts to answer is, what happens to us after we die. Michael makes the choice to experience Lillian’s tape where she dies. It becomes of paramount importance to him, almost as an obsession. This compulsion may stem from other unintended consequences that the film hints at. After a session, users may still experience the moments that they felt during the Brainstorm playback. This is shown at least twice. Once where Hal is being checked out after his near fatal experience. He suddenly re-experiences the strongest moments from the sex tape he was watching in a normal setting. Later Michael was watching a tape that Karen had made for him of her memories of their life together. He removes the headgear, but the film stays in the widescreen format showing the audience that the character is still in that heightened space of technology. When Michael finally is able to experience Lillian’s tape, free of the physical sensations of the heart attack, he witnesses the almost standard descriptions of near-death experiences. He travels away from the body toward a light, with a euphoria urging him on. The depiction of the hellscape and angelic highway seem a bit trite for the film, seemingly rooting the experience in a Judeo-Christian mythology. But the experience that he has continues, even after the tape runs out, which suggests that the technology is such that it can effectively drive people into a death state. It’s only his anchor to his wife that allows him to “come back” from his trip through the heavens, informing the audience that real-world relationships and experiences are better than recorded ones.
The Science in The Fiction
The truly remarkable aspect of the film, firstly, is that these scientists are able to transmit instructions from one brain to another. In 1983, a work of science-fiction, but here in the early 2020s, something of a breakthrough as this Scientific American article discusses. Beyond that the amazing technology that allows those thoughts and feelings to be recorded on a shiny, prismatic “memory” tape is equally transcendent. What would actually be recorded? Nothing so trite as imagery and sound, like with videotape, but something more akin to the electrical stimulation of multiple parts of the brain at any particular moment in time. Neuroscientists have charted that the human brain has a memory capacity in the order of 2.5 petabytes, which is a million gigabytes–something like three million hours of TV shows. This idea is massive in the present day, and something that seems incredible (and hence the fictional part of the film) in the early 80s. The recording of a full brain would not necessarily be the way that the machine would work, yet the film does depict Michael being able to explore various “memory spheres” of Lillian’s. In order to branch off of the main experience, it would seem like that additional recording would be necessary.
One other experience that the film touches on is the ability to experience the thoughts and feelings of other species, such as the monkey in the lab which was wired up to the same type of input. Gordy, ever the goofy practical joker, decides to plug his backpack–which is transmitting his experiences to Michael–into the feed from the monkey. This seems to cause some panic in the lab, as it appears as if Michael may have gone into shock. In the end he seems no worse for it, but there is a big deal made about the “joke” and the lack of forethought. The ability for humans to experience others’ feelings would be a huge leap for the species. It would allow for an empathic connection that is currently unheralded, and make others actually “walk a mile in one’s shoes.” Of course Michael later chooses to experience death, something that is much greater than plugging himself into the experiences of a primate, and something that he decides to do willingly. Another unexplored avenue from the film due to its other themes it chose to explore.
The Final Frontier
Brainstorm is a visually interesting film which provides an interesting premise about the future of entertainment technology, and the dangers inherent with new scientific breakthroughs. But its direction and depiction of these things comes off as a little cold and not as empathetic as it could be. So much time is covered in the discovery and advancement of the technology that many human subplots are trimmed for lack of space. The most horrifying being the accidental psychotic break that Michael’s son induces on himself. It is only two scenes, one with the accident and the next in the second in the hospital where the doctor says he’ll be fine, other than having to stay a couple days. The parents both seem fine with this. But that’s kind of the character that Christopher Walken plays. He’s cool with whatever happens.
This film, along with another 1983 film The Dead Zone, both elevated Walken’s career to another level. He had been acting for a little over a decade and was known for his roles in both The Deer Hunter and Annie Hall, but it’s the films of the 80s, including the villainous Max Zorin in the James Bond film A View to A Kill, that led to his increased popularity. Louise Fletcher was also having a good year, having been in last week’s Strange Invaders. Her career as a character actress was long and varied, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Firestarter and the upcoming sci-fi remake Invaders from Mars. Even with the interesting and eclectic mix of actors the film still is not as interesting or as “honest” as it could be, from a character standpoint.
Brainstorm, for these faults, still comes off as an inspirational film that crafted some interesting new ideas that would inspire future filmmakers. The germ of the idea here would create other, better, executions of similar ideas in future films and television. It provides a good thematic context of the ideas, even if the human elements come off as a little more wooden than caring.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.