Where’s the love for BRAINSTORM?

Where’s the love for Brainstorm?

Brainstorm must have the most beautiful, visually arresting title sequence of any film I’ve seen. Over a screen of darkness pierced by glistening shards of static, a choir sings accompanied by rising strings, breaking into an orchestral climax as, in a burst of shimmering lights and spinning geometric shapes, the title ‘BRAINSTORM’ breaks onscreen, curving and expanding outwards as if in 3D. The image is simply breathtaking, always has been. Its beautiful work.

Mostly remembered for being Natalie Wood’s last film (she died during its production), Brainstorm was a commercial and critical failure on its release and has been largely forgotten in the years since. Released now on Blu-ray, the disc is non-surprisingly barebones, just dumped on disc without hardly any consideration.  But here is a film that deserves so much more; no matter how deeply flawed the film is, its one with great ideas, considerable ambition, and one hell of a story behind its making, seeing as it was Wood’s last film and that it ended Douglas Trumbull’s directorial career.

Two brilliant research scientists, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynold s (Louise Fletcher),  have developed a revolutionary device to record and share other people’s experiences; sights, sounds, even feelings.  The technology will revolutionise communications and has seemingly endless possibilities – both good and bad. Michael’s marriage to Karen (Natalie Wood), a product designer,has broken up, and they are in the process of selling their family home and parting forever when a breakthrough with the invention leads to Michael and Karen working together on developing a working prototype of the device. Demonstrations of the tech are given to the board and financers with great success but it comes under the scrutiny of military paymasters who decide to take over the project for military applications.  Lillian Reynolds, already suffering ill health, is stressed by the developments and one night  suffers a fatal heart attack in the laboratory- realising she is dying she puts on the device and records her final moments, the device still recording data after she has died.  Michael decides he must play the tape Lillian left him, but his boss (Cliff Robertson) shuts him out of the project and outlaws the tape, the military taking over completely. Michael and Karen, reunited by a shared empathy gained through the tech prior to Lillians death, have to work together to thwart the military’s schemes,  and get access to the tape and play Lillians’ post-death experience.

It’s such an intriguing storyline, asking such amazing questions about identity, emotion, empathy and, yes, death. To its credit the film actually attempts to answer many of those questions and while it may fall short it should be championed for at least trying.  In today’s cgi-dominated fx era, the visual effects may have lost some of their impact but that shouldn’t detract from the achievement back in the optical-fx days of bringing to the screen the post death experience of reliving ones life, experiencing a representation of hell, and a celestial rise towards a visualization of Heaven- in a mainstream Hollywood movie no less. But beyond the flashy visual fx spectacle there is a real drama here, albeit hampered by a flawed script and the production problems that would hinder the films completion for two years.

Brainstorm was also an attempt to actually advance motion picture technology, in both the filming and projection of the medium, in a similar way to how James Cameron did with Avatar in 3D many years later. Trumbull had developed a new filming technology named Showscan, which basically involved filming and projecting film at 60 frames per second. Trumbull had questioned why films continued after several decades to persist with the 24 fps standard, and found through experimentation that 60 fps was an optimum frame rate for fooling the human brain and creating images of astounding clarity.  I remember back in the late ‘seventies an interview with him in Starburst magazine that described the process and its advantages. Images were claimed to have an incredibly fluid, three-dimensional quality; imagery of the projection screen being pushed from behind actually looked like the screen was physically being pushed by someone behind the screen, rather than being a projected image of it. The costs however of completely revamping cameras and lenses and also cinema projection systems was highly prohibitive however, particularly back in a time when cinema attendances were struggling.

Trumbull intended Brainstorm to be a vehicle for the technology, filming ordinary scenes in 35mm at 24 fps as usual but then switching to 65mm Showscan at 60 fps for scenes of the Brainstorm device scenes, so that audiences would have suddenly heightened experiences intensifying the sequences.  But the costs were simply too prohibitive, the technology perhaps just too far ahead of its time (now, some four decades later, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is being filmed at higher fps with technology similar to Trumbull’s original Showscan).  Trumbull had to resort to  a cut-down version of his original approach; he shot the objective “real world” sequences in 35mm with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio; the subjective “brainstorm” sequences were originated in 65mm and with a 2.20:1 ratio. Cinema presentations, particularly with 70mm prints, must have been quite impressive (albeit not as mindblowing as Trumbull originally intended); the 70mm and 35mm scope release prints had the 1.66:1 footage pillarboxed within the wide frame, the image suddenly opening up into full widescreen for the subjective shots .

The new Blu-ray attempts to recreate that cinema experience by showing the 35mm sequences pillarboxed (black borders above, below and either side) and only going ‘proper’ widescreen for the subjective shots. I also believe that the 35mm material was recorded/played in mono, with the audiofield widening into an exaggerated stereo surround effect for the 70mm shots to further heighten the impact.

On a big cinema screen it must have worked, but on a home television screen it doesn’t fare so well, even though its an admirable attempt and quite enlightening. I first saw the film on VHS back in1984 so have never really been able to experience it that way until now. Unfortunately the majority of the film being so pillarboxed leaves the impression of watching something on youtube, betraying the HD advantages of the format and the mono sound and deliberately ‘flat’ photography only enforce it. Perhaps a dedicated new HD remaster would have solved such issues but of course, no-ones going to go to such trouble for Brainstorm. It’s a wonder it has gotten any HD release at all, and I’m grateful for what we’ve got.

Brainstorm commenced principal photography in September 1981,  but there was quickly tension on set, Christopher Walken somewhat at odds with his director regards the approach to filming. There were reports of  Douglas Trumbull  losing control of the actors. As the production fell  behind schedule, many felt that Trumbull was far more focused on the film’s technical challenges rather than the performances of the cast. Personally I find that odd, as one thing the film does have to its credit is fine performances from its main cast, particularly leads Louise Fletcher, Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood. However, writer Robert Stitzel claimed that “…it was chaotic because of Trumbull’s complete lack of control over what was going on, and Walken was pretty much directing his own scenes and doing his own thing.”  MGM studio chiefs were understandably rattled and started to have serious concerns about the film.

Further complicating matters were reports concerning the chemistry between Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood; not that there wasn’t any, but rather that there was perhaps too much chemistry. Rumours soon surfaced of an affair, and even reached the ears of Wood’s husband Robert Wagner causing him to break filming of tv show Hart to Hart in order to fly to the Brainstorm filming locations. There was scandal in the air.

By November, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood to complete filming at the MGM studios.  After Thanksgiving, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner decided to spend the holiday weekend aboard their yacht, the Splendour.  On the night of November 28  Natalie Wood went missing, and the following morning her body was found floating in the water nearby. It was later decided that under the influence of alcohol Wood had gone on deck in the night and fallen overboard, hitting her head in the process, likely knocking herself unconscious and drowning in the water. Wood’s death was a shocking event that rocked the entertainment industry, and as Christopher Walken was also onboard the yacht that weekend, rumours of the onset affair circulated, setting speculation and tabloid stories wild. To this day, speculation and rumour continues, with the accident being re-examined by authorities only last year.

Naturally Wood’s death  left the film with an uncertain future. Already nervous about the film’s problems, MGM siezed the opportunity to simply write the film off, shutting down the production and claiming on the completion insurance with Lloyd’s of London to recoup all incurred costs.  Trumbull however claimed that the film only had three weeks of shooting left, with the majority of Wood’s scenes in the can, and fought against the studio for the opportunity to finish the film. Somewhat bitter negotiations then followed, as Lloyd’s investigated as to whether or not the film could indeed be completed; it was, but it took some two years. MGM refused to finance completion of the film, but a deal was settled in which Lloyd’s paid around $7 million for the film to be completed.

Brainstorm was finally released at the end of 1983, some two years after Natalie Wood’s death, with a title card dedicated  to her memory at the end of the credit crawl. Reviews were mixed at best, the film flopped. It is said that Christopher Walken has never seen the finished film.

Douglas Trumbull may have won the battle to get the film finished, but it left him bitter about the whole experience and he  would never direct a movie again. “I have no interest…in doing another Hollywood feature film,” said Trumbull at the time. “Absolutely none. The movie business is so totally screwed-up that I just don’t have the energy to invest three or four years in a feature film. Moviemaking is like waging war..”

Back in 1984 when I first saw the film on a VHS rental, I was totally blown away by it. I was utterly swept up in the grand ideas, the emotion; I recall completely believing it, convinced at films end that there was life after death and that our striving to get to the stars was simply an unconscious drive to get to Paradise.  So it was somewhat a bewildering crash back to reality when the tape ended and the tv switched to the BBC and a Paul Daniels magic show. Talk about coming back to Earth with a bump. But still, I was so enthused about the movie. The cast was great (it was the first time I had ever seen Walken or Fletcher in a movie, and both are outstanding), and the James Horner score just totally blew my mind.  I spent all the money I then had on buying the soundtrack album on vinyl, a TER release that I still have today. To this day I still think it is Horner’s best score and champion the need for the original soundtrack to be released in complete form (the soundtrack album is a re-recording).  The visuals and the music have great power; indeed some of the best moments of the film are pure cinema- particularly the Michaels Gift To Karen sequence, in which Horner’s score takes centre stage and the film becomes a Terrence Malick movie, as Michael & Karen achieve an empathic understanding by sharing each others memories of their courtship and marriage. It’s simply magnificent cinema, powerful stuff.

Of course the film isn’t perfect; it is clunky in places. The script is predictable, even formulaic at times, some of the characters don’t ring true. But if it ultimately fails then at least it tries and fails. Over the many years I have watched the film many times, and in truth sometimes it seems not to have aged well. But then I watch it again and it feels like a breath of fresh air. A middle-aged cast, a stirring score, grand ideas; there’s much to be said for the film, and it has to be said some of the most interesting films are the failures, the films that don’t succeed, films like this years Prometheus.  The Brainstorm Blu-ray release just out in the States is region free but as already noted is a mixed affair. It is indeed very enlightening to view it (via the changing aspect ratios/pillarboxing) per it’s cinema presentation (VHS was a horrible pan and scan travesty the likes we have thankfully forgotten since DVD brought widescreen to the masses), but it really needed a proper new remaster I think. A Trumbull commentary would have been wonderful but considering his views on the industry that’s perhaps not surprising, likewise the lack of any featurettes.

Where’s the love for Brainstorm?


6 thoughts on “Where’s the love for BRAINSTORM?

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