Douglas Trumbull shoots and James Horner scores Natalie Wood’s final film…
A pair of researchers discover a way to experience empathy and this leads to questions regarding life and death.
Brainstorm (1983) [Trailer], Superamak and photos © MGM/UA Entertainment Company
After telling Darlin Husband it was almost time for the annual James Horner blogathon, he reeled off a list of his favourites from this talented composer from Aliens (1986) to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).
However, on reading Horner’s Wikipedia page, I reduced this list to two films I’d not seen before and really wanted to see. Both, however, had a stumbling block. The films were headed by the acting talent that I’ve seen and believed so intensely in one of their stand-out roles that I have found it difficult to accept them in different roles in their later work.
The first film was Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), with
John-Boy Walton Richard Thomas in the leading role. Thomas, I saw recently as Gaad, the FBI head honcho in The Americans (2013-18). But on watching this series still, my head was still convinced he was John-Boy from The Waltons (1971-81).
I found watching Thomas a wee bit of a challenge. His later role, I accepted slowly after time and by Thomas’s final season of the Cold War TV series. The other film, Brainstorm (1983) presented the same problem, but with an actress. Louise Fletcher has always been seen as one of the most frightening and chilling villainesses since my first viewing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). After seeing her name in the credits it was with a wee bit of trepidation, that I watched this sci-fi and romantic movie. This despite seeing Louise in a favourite film biopic on Karen Carpenter, playing the song duo’s mother in The Karen Carpenter Story (1989).
The film tells of Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) as the double act behind a successful scientific breakthrough. Through the use of a headpiece with headphones wired to some machinery with multicoloured wires looking as crazy as a plate of spaghetti, they can experience another person’s experiences and feelings. Richard Harris in Juggernaut (1974) would be freaked out by the number of multicoloured wires,
This is nattily filmsplained as we watch this experience through Brace who is seen hooked up to said machine as the opening credits stop. We watch his colleague, Gordy (Jordan Christopher) – through fish eye special effects – as he orders the most bizarre meal ever after entering a kitchen.
This is a meal which Meg Ryan / Jack Nicholson would baulk at in their role in When Harry Met Sally (1989) / Five Easy Pieces (1970). Brace recites his order which he’s vicariously tasted to the letter. This project is a fantastic but chilling premise.
Brace’s estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood), is also working on the team as a designer. We meet her as the celebrations for this discovery are underway. It’s awkward as hell when the pair meet at this function, as the pair is in the process of breaking up.
Meanwhile, nasty Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) wants to sell their project to the military, and this upsets Lilian. Lillian smokes heavily and has a hinted medical problem (but she treats this with medication).
The ethics of this project are further explored when Gordy makes a recording of him making love to a young lady. This girl is seen from his viewpoint, he records repeatedly on a loop for his and others’ pleasure. He suffers ill effects from watching this tape and is forced to retire.
Brace has unresolved romantic feelings towards Karen and uses the project to reconnect with her. This by showing her his memories and feelings in a montage of their dating and wedding day. As he puts on her headpiece this reminds me of a similar headphone scene in About Last Night (1986) with Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. This leads me to speculate about a less enigmatic ending for this Brat Pack movie.
The montage leads to Karen and Michael Brace rekindling their love, to the joy of their young son, Chris (Jason Lively). However things turn sinister as Lillian uses it to record her experiences of a heart attack, and then this tape continues to record what happens in her afterlife.
Brace is intrigued by this and wants to view it to discover what happens after death. However, he learns that his research is now known as Project Brainstorm. More disturbingly that it has been sold to the military to bring on psychosis or be used as a brainwashing tool…
The James Horner opening soundtrack is one of crazy contrasts. There are choral pieces broken up with what seems like a chaotic primary school class full of kids playing their triangles randomly at a set point in the music.
This erratic musical theme continues later in the film as experiments are carried out on how death and the afterlife feel. Other stand-out pieces include the romantic montage which was admittedly the Realweegiemidget sob moment.
However, Horner’s score is heard more in the later scenes with themes of suspense. This hinted at as the volume increased and decreased as the good scientists carried out their plans to wipe out this project. In chilling scenes intercut with these, the military appeared to be monitoring his movements.
The Horner score was accompanied by the machinery going awry adding to this film’s ambience. These come to the fore when learning of the military’s proposed use of this project was to induce physical and mental health difficulties.
The film feels very 80s sci-fi from the start as Lillian tunes into the wirings of Brace’s brain on a monitor. This is seen with Douglas Trumbull’s special effects. These with what look like random doodles crossed with a spirograph. Douglas Trumbull was the man behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982).
The scenes showing a person’s reality are seen as they see them from their point of view adds to the story. These are seen in a wide variety of scenes. These can be pleasant – from a wedding day to an adrenaline-inducing trip on a roller coaster and as a participant in a horse race. These show the nicer ways this project can be used.
However in the sci-fi goes wrong film trope, leads to increasingly chilling and eerie conclusions. These felt in the eerie experience of Lillian’s physical effects during her heart attack and her subsequent death or in the psychotic experience felt by another also experienced.
The visual interpretations are also eerie in a number of experiences by showing the disintegration of individuals’ thoughts and with those thoughts flooding the person’s brain in a psychotic experience. Equally chilling is the noise of an increased heartbeat. These particular segments made these difficult to watch if you have a medical or personal understanding of those conditions. Horner’s disturbing score adds to the impact of these scenes.
The scenes after death are supported by Trumbull’s special effects. With memories seen as snippets from the deceased life encased in bubbles. The memories are seen from their interpretation of events. The acting ensemble was fantastic. The film was however sadly Natalie Wood’s last movie. This talented actress gave one of her most riveting later performances. Wood giving her all as the estranged wife for the right reasons was credible in this performance.
She was complemented beautifully by Christopher Walken. Walken was a believable scientist and had a lovely on-screen rapport with both Fletcher and Wood. Jason Lively as Chris Brace played a small important role. Darlin Husband noted he played Rusty in National Lampoons European Vacation.
Louise Fletcher proved herself as a woman of many contrasting roles as this good scientist role and as someone with honourable leanings. Her passionate strong portrayal of this scientist strongly advocating her project is used for the right reasons than for the wrong ones. This warm and compassionate role is a complete contrast to the controlling orderly and cold Nurse Ratched.
This role won her a Saturn Award in 1984. The scenes with her character experiencing a heart attack were admittedly difficult to watch due to the intensity of the scene. Now I’m convinced that Fletcher isn’t just a villain. So next year I won’t be doubting Thomas and possibly review Battle Beyond the Stars.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦😦 😦😦 😦😦 😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This film review was entered into the 4th Remembering James Horner Blogathon at Film Music Central. Other films with this cast include Cliff Robertson in Class and Dominique. Christopher Walken in Pennies from Heaven and Eddie the Eagle. Louise Fletcher in The Stepford Husbands in The Karen Carpenter Story and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Natalie Wood in Gypsy, West Side Story and Meteor. Jason Lively in National Lampoons European Vacation.