Feb 06th: “Brainstorm” (1983)

Stephen Radford ♫♪
6 min readFeb 6, 2021

Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.

Brainstorm was yet another that came by surprise during this writing project. I already knew of films like Altered States and The Dead Zone, the latter of which was played many times growing up. Of all the films that get repeat play on the television, or became popular enough for their being brought up in conversation or in film paraphernalia, it never occurred to me that there would be other great films out there that were unsung. The ‘wow’ factor that came with this film would happen several times throughout these 28 essays, and as with Mother Lode, the movie doesn’t have to be great. But there’s something in all of these films that marks them as different, or at least trying to be something new. Brainstorm dared to go where few films go. To unlock the potential of our emotions, for good and for evil. Moreso, it gave us an interpretation of what lies beyond us in this life.

This film was overshadowed by the real death of it’s cast member, Natalie Wood. It’s time to let this movie stand out from the shadows, and be seen.

“BREAKTHROUGH”

After the offbeat success of the 1980s cult classic, Altered States, it seemed there was a thirst for further exploration of the human mind. The sudden improvement and growing affordability and availability of computer generated effects had much to do with this. More and more ideas were possible that before, seemed implausible with practical means.

Commonalities between the growing interests of computers, and their relating to the workings of the human mind was as much of a fascination in fiction ideas, as it was fast becoming one of the most fascinating technical advancements in film history. Brainstorm opened up the question, and speculated on the use of advanced technology to both feed and/or bleed our minds of specific files of information. This was before Lawnmower Man, and The Matrix. Before uploads, downloads, and stream filled world that we live in today. In this instance, it was the notion of thought itself. The sharing of memories or dropping in on thoughts and ideas, is a premise that fits squarely in the science strain of science fiction. Brainstorm pretends that it’s not only possible, but that it’s access would be shut down, for fear of such technology becoming fair game.

Thankfully, we’re not there yet.

Relaxed at work: Michael played by Christopher Walken, and Lillian, played by Louise Fletcher

This rare gem starred Christopher Walken as scientist Michael Brace, along with his estranged wife, fellow scientist Karen, played by Natalie Wood. Leading the cast of supporting artists / scientists is Louise Fletcher, playing the erratic Lillian Reynolds, who is often seen exchanging verbal blows with the CEO and project owner, Alex Terson, played by Cliff Robertson.

As the team come together with the possible breakthrough in their work, Michael and Karen seem to be at breaking point with their marriage. With divorce on the horizon, they walk past each other like strangers. Still, they must work together, because first and foremost, they are close a breakthrough: the ability to record thoughts into a visual/audible medium available for playback.

Walken with Natalie Wood (who played Michael’s wife, Karen)

There is as always a catch: the machine is also able to record and transfer over emotions — a bi product that they weren’t fully aware of, nor could they understand the implications. Feelings are something that can be shared, for the better. Michael recognises this, and decides to use the device, in order to share what he was really thinking, as well as express his desires to Karen, thus saving their marriage.

With any catch, there is always the property of misuse: the military recognise it’s potential to be weaponized and once that becomes a reality, the project, and everything about it would be taken away. Once the military catch wind of their successes, the net begins to fall all around them. They must do all they can to protect the project, or end up losing it.

The questions that come with this movie are profound. What if we can really share our thoughts, and our memories with others? The metaphysical analysis that would come once Lillian pays the ultimate price and after suffering from a heart attack, makes a triumphant scramble to the device. She may have answers to the ultimate question that’s on everybody lips.

Where does the mind go when we die?

Is there a heaven?

Is there anything waiting for us in some kind of, afterlife?

Such a premise was exciting on its own. It didn’t need anything more than that to challenge the audience, but unfortunately, the situation behind the camera would become something that would put the film Brainstorm out of everybody’s memory.

The untimely death of leading cast member, Natalie Wood during filming was a worldwide scoop. She allegedly drowned in a boat trip, several days after thanksgiving. In light of her death, the studio got cold feet, and immediately shut down production, and locked down sets to make sure that director Douglas Trumbull didn’t resume filming until financial negotiations were sorted out. This was yet another MGM/UA panic attack, not long after the backlash over Heaven’s Gate, and subsequent budgeting and trust issues with directors that plagued the 80s. The issue surrounded the complication of the films insurance coverage. This was a very tumultuous time for Trumbull and the experience deterred him from directing for a number of years after that.

Things eventually straightened out, but at cost. As Natalie was no longer there to finish the film, and so her sister, Lana wilfully stepped in to film some scenes where her face wasn’t fully required. Not everything was as Trumbull had hoped. Brainstorm came out in September, and Walken especially wasn’t about to stick around for too long to promote it. The David Cronenberg movie The Dead Zone came out only a month later, and gave him not only the distance, but became a box office success, overshadowing Brainstorm which was nothing more than an expensive flop.

Brainstorm didn’t get the promotion that it expected. When released, it was known only as being “Natalie Wood’s last film” which did nothing for the ticket sales, nor did it garner interest for the subject matter versus the die hard Natalie Wood fans who needed more of a reason to get out and see her perform before the curtain fell on her life forever more. Despite all of that, the performances here are worth watching. The chaotic scientific breakthrough stories of the 80s were often messy ordeals, but what happened in front of the camera was simply not as memorable as those things that happened, behind the camera.

Written by: Stephen Radford
Website:
stephenradford.com
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stephen_p_radford
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StephenPRadford

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Stephen Radford ♫♪

Author, writer Editor, and Story Developer. Podcast, Radio, Film, Music, and Performance — workshop tutor and professional writing mentor.