Douglas Trumbull shoots and James Horner scores Natalie Wood’s final film…
A pair of researchers discover a way to experience empathy at its extreme. By recording then experiencing the emotional, physical and visual feelings of another person’s life, and this leading to questions regarding life and death.
Brainstorm (1983) [Trailer], Superamak
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 acting talent that I’ve seen and believed so intensely in one of their stand out roles that I’ve 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 the most frightening and chilling of villainesses since my first viewing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). So 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.
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 multi coloured wires looking as crazy as a plate of spaghetti (and many multi coloured wired which Richard Harris in Juggernaut (1974) would be freaked out by), they can experience another person’s experiences and feelings.
With this nattily filmsplained as we watch this experienced 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 (which Meg Ryan / Jack Nicholson would balk at as their role in When Harry Met Sally (1989) /Five Easy Pieces (1970)). Brace reciting his order which he’s vicariously tasted to the letter. With this project, a fantastic but chilling premise.
Brace’s estranged wife Karen, is also working on the team as a designer. We meet her as the celebrations for this discovery underway. It’s awkward as hell when the pair meet at this function, as the pair in the process of breaking up. Meanwhile nasty Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) wants to sell their project to the military, this upsetting 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 with unresolved romantic feelings towards Karen uses the project to reconnect with Karen. This with 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 leading me to speculate over a better 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, 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 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. With 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 carried out on how death and the after life feel. Other stand out pieces include the romantic montage which was admittedly the Realweegiemidget sob moment.
However Horner’s score heard more in the later scenes with themes of suspense hinted at with the volume increasing and decreasing musical 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 adds to this film ambience. Especially on learning of the military 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 in tunes into the wirings of Brace’s brain on a monitor. This seen with Douglas Trumbull’s special effects. These with what looks like random doodles crossed with a spirograph. Douglas Trumbull the man behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Blade Runner (1982).
The scenes of the other’s reality seen as they see them from their perceptive adding to the story. These seen in a wide spec of scenes. From pleasant – a wedding day to adrenaline inducing a trip on a roller coaster and as a participant in a horse race. These showing the more pleasant ways this project used. However in true sci-fi goes wrong trope, this leading to more increasingly chilling and eerie conclusions.
The eerie experience of Lillian’s physical effects during her heart attack and subsequent death or in the psychotic experience felt by another also seen and felt. The visual interpretation of the disintergration of the thoughts, with those thoughts flooding the persons brain in the psychotic experience. Or the noise of an increasing heartbeat.
These particular segments made these difficult to watch if you have medical or personal understanding of those conditions. With Horner’s disturbing score adding to the impact of these scenes. The scenes after death supported by Trumbull’s special effects. With memories seen as snippets from the deceased life encased in bubbles. The memories seen from their interpretation of events.
The acting ensemble was fantastic. The film was sadly Natalie Wood’s last with this talented actress giving 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 a believable scientist, had a lovely on screen rapport with both Fletcher and Wood. Jason Lively as Chris Brace played a small important role. With Darlin Husband then reminding me of his role as 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. With her passionate strong portrayal of this scientist strongly advocating her project used for right reasons than for the wrong ones. This warm and compassionate role 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 a difficult watch due to the intensity of this scene. Now I’m convinced that Fletcher isn’t just a villainess. So next year I wont be a doubting Thomas and possibly go to Battle Beyond the Stars.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦😦 😦😦 😦😦 😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: /10
Hulk Rating: /10
Bonus Trailer: That romantic montage with a score from James Horner.
Brainstorm (1983) – ‘Michael’s Gift to Karen’ scene, Screen Themes
This film 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 One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Natalie Wood in Gypsy, West Side Story and Meteor. Jason Lively in National Lampoons European Vacation. James Horner scores also feature in my review of The Hand and Willow. Jordan Christopher starred in Hart to Hart.