Sunday, August 18, 2013

Brainstorm, 30 Years Later: Still a Mess

In September 1983, after two years of delays and mounting studio bullshit, Brainstorm was finally released to middling box office and lukewarm reviews. Thirty years later, it holds up no better but it's hard to blame anyone involved in the production, outside of, possibly, writers Robert Stitzel Philip and Frank Messina whose screenplay, based on a story by Bruce Rubin, seems shoddy and undeveloped.  But that too is tricky.  Considering how much financing difficulty emerged after Natalie Wood's death in 1981, before the film was completed, it's quite possible the screenplay was far more developed but that scenes that could have been shot, that would have illuminated so much more in the story, were simply scrapped for the sake of expediency.  That seems a likely case and the end result is, sadly, a film with a fascinating premise that feels undeveloped, disorganized and incomplete.

The problems with completing the film properly started long before Wood's death but intensified immediately after her death when the studio, MGM, got nervous about the already expensive production and shut everything down.  Prior to her death, Director Douglas Trumbull (the legendary visual effects expert made famous by 2001: A Space Odyssey) had already been forced into numerous compromises he didn't want to make, the biggest of which being scrapping his process called Showscan, which filmed at a rate of 120 frames per second, providing a beautifully clear image far advanced from the image clarity of the day.  The studio didn't want to take the chance on Showscan, as Trumbull explained in an excellent interview with Craig Skinner on Film, found here, because the investment wouldn't be worth it unless the theaters agreed to install the proper projectors.  The theaters didn't want to install the proper projectors unless the studios greenlighted the technology for all movies.  The studios wouldn't do that unless the theaters were outfitted first and ready for business.  And round and round the bullshit carousal goes.

After Wood's death, the studio wanted to use it as an excuse to shut down production and take the insurance money but Trumbull persisted and eventually got minimum financing to complete the job. As Trumbull elaborates later in the interview,

... I haven’t made any films since "Brainstorm" – the whole tragedy of Natalie Wood dying during "Brainstorm" just completely discouraged me. I was already discouraged that I couldn’t get Showscan happening, and then to have my actress die... I had an extremely challenging time to get the movie finished. The studio didn't want to finish the movie, they wanted the insurance money, and I was not welcome at the studio anymore, I was not welcome by management at the studio anymore. And I’d already had so many experiences with studios prior to that, you know with my development and so forth, I just decided I had enough of that, I can’t take this; this is too unpleasant, too disturbing, and I decided, well I’ll just have to stop directing. I had to do something; literally, I just had to move out of LA and start over again.

Without Showscan, which would have showcased the virtual reality sequences in high definition, Trumbull made the decision to film in two different aspect ratios.  It's an admirable decision but one that works against the film.  First, a short synopsis of the plot to understand the choice.

Two scientists, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), develop a virtual reality device that can record the experiences of the person wearing a recording "hat" and then play those experiences back to someone wearing a similar device.  What makes it so special is that the person "watching" the recorded experience actually experiences it the same as if they were there when it happened.  If the recording is someone eating a steak and drinking wine, the person "watching" will taste the steak and drink the wine.  If it's a roller coaster, they will feel the g-forces and wind blowing in their face as they round the curves.

The military takes immediate interest to use it for brainwashing and torture, where a helmet can provide all the virtual torture one needs without any physical contact.  What no one was expecting, however, is that the device also records feelings and emotions.  If someone is angry during a recording session, that anger will be felt by the person donning the helmet during playback.  It also records memories, providing a way of reading another person's mind, so to speak, by simply viewing the playback after they're done.

It's during these playback sessions that Trumbull made the decision to go to Super Panavision 70 with an aspect ratio of 2.2:1, to punch up the effect, and revert back to 35mm film, with an aspect ratio of 1.7:1, for the rest of the movie.  I understand what he was trying to achieve but it has the unintended effect of making everything else in the movie (and that's the other 95% of the movie!) feel small and inconsequential.  Every time I got used to seeing the smaller 35mm screen, a playback would expand everything for a few seconds only to make the 35mm screen once again look small and tv-like again when it was done.  And it really wasn't necessary.  It's the imagery in the playback sequences that punch it up, not the aspect ratio.  The whole movie should have been done in one format or the other.

Then come the problems of screenplay where subplots die away without mention and intriguing possibilities go completely unexplored.  This is where it's possible much of the story got shelved just to finish the film.  For instance, in one sequence, a trusted lab worker, Hal (Joe Dorsey), gets a hold of a sexual playback session from Gordy (Jordan Christopher in one of those completely unbelievable roles of the goof-off somehow working with scientists and constantly disobeying every order and ignoring every protocol to have a little fun - his character is insufferable).  He splices it to have a repeated virtual orgasm because, why not, right?  Brace is alerted and rushes over to his house where he finds Hal catatonic after 14 hours of continuous orgasm (bringing to mind Woody Allen's Igor joke in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...).  He brings him out of it and the next day, Alex (Cliff Robertson), who runs the company, says to Brace in hushed tones, "No one finds out about this" or some such thing, implying this is a troubling scandal instead of, "Oh yeah, why didn't I think of that?"  Then they show Hal being tested on a treadmill (Why? Who knows?) and saying he feels great but that he's going to resign.  Later, he talks again about how great he feels.  Even now, after revisiting it in my head to write this, I have no idea where this subplot was intended to go or why it was introduced in the first place.  Nothing about Hal's improved health is explored, nothing is understood about his resignation (which appears voluntary but later he's willing to help Brace expose the company like they fired him) and nothing is explored about this obvious sexual application.  It would seem to be a major breakthrough for any other company, that one could experience virtual sex at any time and without the use of their hands, but not this one.  Nope, here it's run the guy on a treadmill and show him the door.

And that's just a minor plot point.  The military taking over the company would appear to be a major plot point but this subplot, too, goes exactly nowhere.  Does the military take it over?  Kind of but not really.  They want to use the technology, sure, but Brace could still work on it if he wants for other uses except that he gets locked out of the company because he wants to (SPOILER) view the playback of Lillian Reynold's death.  She had a heart attack and recorded her mind's final moments.  Alex won't let him watch it because... well, there is no reason really.  You think, at first, it's because she revealed some nefarious plot in her dying moments that Brace can uncover (especially since it's presented as a thriller and what a cool idea that would be to have a character record their thoughts upon dying to bring the bad guys to justice) but, no, it's a death tape in which you see her, and others, heading towards the light (pictured above).  Even after Brace alters the playback so that the viewer won't suffer a heart attack as well, which initially happens to Brace and Gordy, who dies, Alex refuses.  "No one will ever play that tape!"(END SPOILER).  To make screenplay matters worse, the tape - this tape that NO ONE SHALL EVER PLAY -  is conveniently setup on a playback system in the lab, rather than locked away in a safe, ready to be played, so that if someone does physically break in or virtually hack in to the lab, they can easily play the forbidden tape.  If you have a DVD you don't want your kids to watch, you hide it.  You don't put it in the DVD player in the family room and say, "Don't press play!"

Even worse, in order to access the tape, Brace and his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood), create a diversion by hacking into the lab and making all the robotic arms and automated devices go haywire, creating a ridiculous slapstick comedy in the middle of a serious science fiction movie.  And I do mean slapstick.  A security guard rolls on ball bearings and falls on his butt.  Later he is inexplicably stuck on the front of forklift and thrown off.  Another security guard gets squirted in the face with water.  A lab technician slips on soap suds now filling the lab (yes, soap suds!) and tumbles to the ground.  It's an uneasy marriage of genres, to say the least, and isn't helped by the fact that while all this slapstick is happening, the music by James Horner remains serious and taut, as if we're watching a harrowing sequence.  I don't know if that was Horner's decision or Trumbull's, nor do I know why Trumbull decided to film the whole sequence in slapstick mode in the first place (at one point a fire extinguisher crashes through a window with a sign reading "Safety First: No Accidents in 413 Days" - har, har) but either way, it doesn't work and, coming at the climax, cripples the movie just as it nears the finish line.

Still, it's not a pointless experience.  It's heart really is in the right place and it shoots for some admirable targets, like understanding the feelings and experiences of others through their eyes, without quite hitting them.  It's a mess but one that can't be laid at the feet of any one person and most likely rests at the feet of a studio in a rush to take the insurance money over finishing the job.  Trumbull did finish the job and never directed again.  His visual effects are stunning still (the opening credits alone are pretty amazing) and for many reasons, it's worth a look.  But coherent it's not and if you're looking for a solid sci-fi thriller, you'll be disappointed.  Brainstorm was Natalie Wood's last movie and Trumbull's last as a director.  Too bad.  We should have seen so much more from both, and both deserved better than this.


More screengrabs here.

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