Brainstorm

Experience someone else's consciousness--over conventional phone lines!
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1983
Director: 
Douglas Trumbull
Starring: 
Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson
The Setup: 
Guy invents a machine that can transfer experiences from one person to another.
Discussion: 

I remember when this movie was released and the poor reviews it received, and the whole deal about how Natalie Wood died before it was finished and they had to change the ending and it was just a misfire. I didn’t really know what it was about. Then, when I watched quite good blaxploitation comedy Cool Breeze, I found that the trailer for this was a kind of easter egg on the disc, and it looked amazing! That sort of awesome / ludicrous sci-fi I love, with the added bonus of what appeared to be extended hallucinogenic sequences. It looked like a sort of Altered States II. I was so interested I actually BOUGHT the disc, as it appeared to be in limbo on Netflix.

So we begin with these cool curved 3-D titles, bulging out toward the viewer while some “spaced-out” computer graphics blink in the distance. During this sequence we discover that we will bear witness to the costumes of “Donfeld.” We are then on to our first experiment, in which a guy walks around and Christopher Walken experiences what the guy sees and feels. The guy, who seems to have this whole passive-aggressive thing toward Walken, connects his consciousness to a monkey, so Walken experiences what it’s like to be a monkey for a second, and no one knows if this will permanently chimpify his brain. It doesn’t, and he rides home on one of those dork-bikes as featured in A Night In Heaven.

At home is: Natalie Wood! I actually sort of forgot that she was in this, and perked up when I saw her on screen. You know how some people say that a person’s name is prophetic about who they will turn out to be in life? Natalie proves this theory as her last name describes her acting style with uncanny accuracy.

So Chris comes to home to a chamber ensemble playing in his living room, of which Natalie is the pianist. It turns out that Chris and Natalie were married but are divorced, and are apparently still living together, and are now assigned to work together. Both of them are separately asked if their working in close proximity will be a problem, and they both reply: “not for me.”

One fly in the ointment here is Louise Fletcher as Chris’ assistant. It is clear that the chain-smoking Louise and Chris share a close working relationship and admiration for each other, and furthermore Chris doesn’t think Louise is a total bimbo, as he apparently feels about Natalie. So for the first hour there’s this whole big subtext about the rivalry between Natalie and Louise for Chris’ regard and affection. One way this is played out is that Chris is going to move out and [I guess] into the lab with Louise, which causes the mousy Natalie to say “Oh, you’re busy. That’s okay, I’ll do all the packing. It’s no problem.” Girl, way to get walked on. Oh my God, and he’s Walken! This whole movie is about realizing last names.

Hope you don’t start thinking that this, or any of the subtext here, is going anywhere, because all of that is permanently thrown off by the replacement ending.

Meanwhile the scientists have made a breakthrough and now the whole machine works. They demonstrate it for several people, making them experience things such as going down a roller coaster, skydiving, etc. What’s interesting is that while the subjects are supposedly truly experiencing these things, their only reaction is to sit perfectly still and smile. Even when Chris was briefly a monkey, he had no reaction whatsoever. The machine works this way until it is narratively necessary for people TO react. Anyway, they play it for Cliff Robertson, their boss on the project, who dresses in unusually tight clothes. Maybe it turns out that 1982 was the ideal year in US history, as everybody all has mustaches and wear inappropriately tight clothes. Maybe someone can invent a machine to make us all experience that. Anyway, turns out that Cliff is secretly the liason to these military folk who of course want to turn it into—well, what does the military ALWAYS want to turn it into?—a weapon. I’d like to see a movie in which the military wants a secret technology because it delivers a superior ham sandwich. Anyway, as usual with all new technology, one of its primary uses is to simulate sex, illustrated here by a ride down the tunnel of a water slide behind two screaming young girls in bikinis [too much metaphorical weight there to even process, sorry], and leering at the boobs of two cocktail servers, which is also “experienced” by a woman, who frowns. “Sorry about that, Ladies,” the administrator says.

But what of Natalie? What’s her job? She is this marketing expert and, apparently, miniaturizer. Okay, look at that picture just above, the one with Walken in this huge machine. That is the state of the machine when Natalie comes upon it. Delivering the canny insight that “no one will want to wear that bulky thing on their heads,” Natalie recommends that they “eliminate everything that isn’t absolutely essential” and shrink down what’s left. First of all, you’re like; “What? Is this being marketed as a mass consumer product? Before it’s even fully tested?” But please do not ask such questions. Thank you. Anyway, industrial designers of the world will be fascinated to learn that as of 1983, there was a simple computer program that could redesign your most bulky technological inventions, eliminating 95% of the physical body of your machine, without affecting any of its functionality. And all in about two minutes. What you end up with is the machine from that first picture of Walken being shrunk down to a tiny little headband not much bigger than a banana clip. Pretty amazing! It’s remarkable that more companies don’t engage these miniaturizers, especially since this technology has apparently been around for 23 years. Huh. Natalie continues developing smaller and smaller versions of the thing, each greeted with a “Wow, great” from Walken, until by the end of the movie she has reduced it to the size of Walkman-style headphones. Pretty amazing.

Now apparently the deal with this movie is that Wood’s role was expanded from a small part once her participation was secured, which would explain the strangeness of her position on the project, and she died with just about three more scenes to shoot. Apparently the studio wanted to kill the whole film, but director Douglas Trumbull, better known as a special effects guy who did Blade Runner, Close Encounters and Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, insisted that he could piece it together from what they had with a bit of stand-in support. Rumor is that Trumbull was blacklisted in Hollywood for defying the suits, and thus his directing career went nowhere. I mention all this because perhaps it helps to explain the particularly discordant nature of Wood’s performance. There are a few reaction shots where she just seems to be attempting to make the most blank, generic face possible. Another shot early in the film with a giant piece of fuzz in the frame makes it seem like they were desperately trying to use every single piece of footage they had.

So they are introduced to the government suits and Louise Fletcher, almost literally never without cigarette in hand or mouth, throws the first of her two Oscar®-clip speeches. Soon after Walken is in the women’s john and Wood is shouting “This is the ladies’ room! The ladies’ room!” Then some guy has almost gone into a coma whacking off to a tape of sex [I have SO had days like that], and then we notice Walken’s alarmingly tight pants.

SPOILERS > > >
Then Walken is going to make a tape of Natalie, and tells her to “empty her head,” which she rightly takes offense to, based on his dismissive tone. So she makes a tape, and he “experiences” it. At first there is a scene of anger, but then he starts to review her memories of him, and he experiences their courtship from her perspective. Now, here’s another area where the film takes a jarring and alienating turn, because up until now the machine could only record a person’s experience, and now suddenly it can record memories. This shift is never really explained. But it works well in the course of the movie, as when Walken sees Natalie’s memories, he realizes the nature of her love for him, and then he in turn makes a recording of his own memories about her, and gives it to her as a gift. “What is it?” she asks. “It’s me,” he says. She experiences the tape, knows that he still loves her, and they share a happy night of reconciliation wherein they dig out their old wedding clothes and stuff like that.

But all is not well. The guy who watched the sex tape feels that he is now “more than a man,” and there are a few indications that the tape alters its users in some way, but this particular thread is not explored. Anyway, so Louise is up late smoking in the lab one night, and she burns herself on a soldering iron [I had to rewind about 15 times to figure out what had happened to her], which apparently triggers a heart attack, and her second glorious Oscar clip. But she does have the foresight [or murderous aggressive impulses, take it as you may] to record her own death on the experience machine.

So Walken of course plays the tape first thing, and nearly has a heart attack himself. Then they reverse the something-something so he can watch it safely, but then the government takes control of the project and locks him out, and the whole rest of the movie is devoted to him trying to keep the government from using the machine as a weapon, sure, but mostly for him to experience what it’s like to die as recorded on the tape, which seemed pretty a) selfish and b) fucking dumb. The movie tries to have it both ways by assuring us that Walken knows enough not to die by experiencing death on a tape, while also wanting us to think that what he’s doing is quite dangerous. That it’s also quite selfish is not addressed, and this is where the movie becomes very much like Altered States, in that you want people to say “What do I care if YOU have this fabulous experience?”

Anyway, so it seems that unbeknownst to Walken, the government has been mass-producing his machine, at an enormous facility seemingly right next door to his lab. I guess it’s just a testament to how very much Walken [and Natalie and Louise] is involved with his work that he didn’t notice any of this. And the film doesn’t get into the goodness or badness of the whole idea behind mass-producing a technology that has barely been tested, so why should we? Also, I want to know, do scientific labs REALLY have racks full of surplus lab coats and hats that they place right inside the door? Or do they just place them there for the benefit of any civilians who might want to sneak in by impersonating a scientist?

So now Walken, who really, REALLY wants to experience that death tape, hacks into the lab’s system in order to gain access. The security guards SEE that he is hacking in, but rather than stop him, they want to see how well he can do. Then, once he’s in, they admire his skill so much that they let him access whatever he wants. These are not the kind of employees you want to hire at your security facility, suffice to say. Also, whew, good thing Walken hacked in while these two fellows were on duty! WHAT luck!

Walken discovers that the military has been amassing its own set of “experiences” to use in warfare, with titles like “abject terror” and “psychotic break.” Walken downloads one of them, then leaves the room to have a completely superfluous conversation with Natalie, during which their teenage son stupidly wanders in and puts on the headphones! Next thing we know, he’s going to have to be in the hospital for quite some time because he’s had a “major psychotic break.” You know—and SOME parents go to jail for not locking up their cleaning materials because their kids might get into them....

So Walken and Natalie decide that this would be an ideal time to go on vacation. Then they throw this huge fight in the middle of a restaurant, with her saying “You go to hell!” and him responding “You go to hell, too!” [repeat 5X], but before you can think “Well, if they BOTH went to Hell, then wouldn’t they still be bickering?” we find out that this was all STAGED for the government goons who are watching! Woah-ho: Mindfuck! So then they call each other and both do some serious hacking while they pretend to be making up on the phone. So Walken experiences half of the death tape, transmitted over conventional phone lines, and they also tap into the manufacturing equipment and make it destroy the lab. This sequence brings up SEVERAL provocative issues:
1) If you are in any kind of computer-related business, like me, you KNOW the necessity of having several large drums of “Water-Activated Foam” on hand. Really, I can’t tell you the sheer number of times I’ve been working at my desktop and my productivity slowed to a standstill because I didn’t have any FOAM. When assembling sensitive computer equipment, FOAM is also a must. To avoid confusion, please clearly label each drum “Water-Activated Foam” as well. I thank you in advance for your compliance.
2) All hope of taking this movie seriously is irretrievably lost when they put a “laughing duck” sound effect over a bird-like mechanical claw as it destroys the lab.
3) So Walken is controlling the entire lab from home while also experiencing the death tape [which is fairly high bandwidth, I imagine]. Now, all of this may have seemed plausible in 1983, but in between then and now we have ALL LEARNED ABOUT THE REALITIES OF DIAL-UP INTERNET CONNECTIONS!!! But I guess it wouldn’t make for a very good climax to a thriller if it took 7:52 to connect to the lab, 4:32 to activate some of the machinery, another 3:41 for it to receive instructions from Walken, and 22:32:17 to download 25% of the death tape….

Fans of obviously expository dialogue won’t find much better than: “They’re onto us! That means I can’t get through to Mike anymore, but I can still get the company on the other line!” In order to further up the action quotient here, we have Walken steal a car and have a chase, then he gets to a pay phone, which he quickly wires to accept mega-high-bandwidth internet traffic [and WHERE exactly does he plug his magic headphones into?], and experiences the pulse-pounding climax of the death tape via pay phone. He first floats high above Earth, then sees a big light show, then catches sight of all these angels fluttering off into heaven. Then there’s some question of whether Walken DIED while experiencing the death tape, and for some reason Natalie has made it to the pay phone [HOW did she find him?], and she starts into the long-tired “don’t you die on me!” speech, which includes a lot of references to him promising “never to leave her,” which we heard earlier. I don’t know about you, but when people start wanting me to promise “never to leave them,” I start looking for the nearest exit. Anyway, Walken is alive, they embrace, the end. Oh, and I bet you didn’t know that the contents of your mind are neatly tucked into these little spheres that are symmetrically arranged in a big circle along with other memories and thoughts and such? Well, now ya do. Surprise! I swear, this movie advanced my understanding of human neurological function like almost nothing I’ve ever seen before.
< < < SPOILERS END

Anyway, overall I liked it pretty well. It has a cool concept and an air of high-strung ridiculousness, which is always nice. It didn’t have nearly enough hallucinogenic sequences, though, and I was really banking on those. The big problem is that it sort of seems like the script was made up as they went along. I mean, first the machine records experiences, then all of a sudden it also records memories? And Natalie is there solely to miniaturize the machine? AS they’re putting the finishing touches on it? And the military is mass-producing… well, all the quibbles I’ve mentioned with the movie all throughout [not to mention the dial-up thing, which cracks me up]. Add to that the disjointed feel it already has due to Wood’s death and the need to piece together a movie from any scrap of remaining footage, and the thing is just wobbling off the tracks faster and faster. This is, I think, also responsible for the big build-up of the Walken-Natalie-Louise love triangle, which just ends up going nowhere. They could have made this last tape her sort of gift to Walken or whatever, but instead it just seems to get forgotten.

What is good is that, you know, it’s a cool idea, and you have Walken, who can make you believe anything, and it’s all trippy good fun for a while. There is a big thematic crossover with Altered States [made around the same time, but this one was released later due to Wood’s death] in that we end up with a narcissistic guy whose experiences with this new technology awaken him to the love that is standing right before his eyes, and that is in fact the only thing that can save him. Of course, Natalie is so wooden and bland, it’s easy to understand how he wouldn’t notice.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you like this kind of thoughtful / ludicrous sci-fi, and don’t mind that it’s realization does not live up to its ambitions in any way.