I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to love a movie more and not been able to. The second of only two movies Douglas Trumbull ever directed (the first was Silent Running), Brainstorm has some marvelously wonderful moments. Moments of genuine emotional tenderness and awe that recall the visions and effect of the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite section of 2001: A Space Odyssey (that Trumbull famously lead most of the special effects work on). And yet, the whole thing gets weighed down by a generic plot that end up making little sense that dominates a large section of the run time. This movie has very enthusiastic fans, and I get it. I just wish I could share in it.
The basic plot is that a research team has developed a device that records the entire physical experience of one person and can play it back for another. More than just sight and sound, it replicates the entire physical sensation of the experience. From roller coasters to horseback riding to gliding, we see people sitting in rooms reliving experiences that someone else had. The military is a silent partner and tries to take the project away. Cue basic running around trying to get stuff from a secure location plot. It’s really generic and not terribly interesting.
However, if that’s all there was, this would a dreary little film and a completely generic piece of nothing best forgotten, and yet Trumbull offers so much more.
Firstly, as you might expect from an expert visual effects artist, the movie has some wonderful visuals and visual ideas. Most of the film is showing in a 1.7:1 frame. Everything that happens in the “real world”, so to speak, is presented in this narrow looking image, but when we see anything from the machine, the frame opens up to 2.2:1. On my large TV, this was an effective transition, and I have to imagine it was even greater in theaters. It’s an intelligent technical choice that’s tied directly into the thematic point of the story.
Secondly, while a lot of the character work is muddily presented, there’s a fifteen minute segment of the film right in the middle where it works marvelously. Michael and Karen are divorced, work for the same large company, and have been assigned to work together on the project after it moves beyond the testing phase. Michael and Karen have both moved on, Michael having, apparently, started seeing Lillian (who seems to have done most of the research), and Karen started seeing some guy we see in a couple of shots with virtually no introduction. This is murky, but when Michael suddenly decides that he’s going to record Karen’s thoughts when she walks into his office, he plays it back for himself and becomes enraged. As an apology, he records his own thoughts, remembering their happiest times, and convinces her to watch it. The connection that they suddenly renew is wonderful and marvelously presented. In addition it connects with the central science fiction conceit really well. This is followed up by Hal, a fellow worker on the project, using the machine to tap into a sexual encounter and the tape going wrong, almost putting him in a coma. He gets rescued and the quiet way he reflects on where he is in his life based on what went wrong is just as wonderful.
Later in the film Lillian dies of a heart attack, and as she dies she records the experience. The latter half of the film is dominated by this recording. The project goes under control of people from outside the project, pushing Michael out completely. This push is poorly explained, especially the effort to keep Michael from the final tape that Lillian made. It’s one of those generic plot mechanics that infest the movie. However, the tape itself is kind of wonderful. After a few scenes from Lillian’s life as she dies, the images continue to evolve, showing a vision of a fleshy Hellscape before moving outward, entering space and traveling across space to a vision of possibly Heaven. It’s evocative of the final major segment of 2001, but it manages to stand on its own because it is visually distinct from the earlier visuals but it also serves a different purpose. The way Michael falls back in joy at the vision he sees sells it really well.
These two major sections are absolutely wonderful, but they’re trapped in a generic movie with unclear characters. There was real talent on display on the part of Trumbull as a director, but the experience of making the film, including the death of Natalie Wood near the end of production, turned him off of feature film directing forever. He could have really developed into a very special director had he been combined with the right script. He understood how to turn image and sound into an emotional experience, but he didn’t seem to understand how to construct a story as a director. That’s unfortunate, because, in the end, his legacy as a director is one of potential. In some way, it reminds me of Wally Pfister, a longtime cinematographer, directing Transcendence and demonstrating no real talent for telling the stories or even presenting things interestingly. Trumbull could have made something truly special with Brainstorm, instead it’s just a middling movie with some truly special things in it.