"They're gonna be able to plug right into the old noodle."
If the 1983 sci-fi thriller 'Brainstorm' is remembered at all (and, frankly, it barely is), the film has the unfortunate distinction of being the movie that Natalie Wood was making when she died. The actress tragically drowned while on a break near the end of production, requiring that some of her scenes be completed with stand-ins and desperate editing. The studio, MGM, wished to scrap the whole thing and collect on the insurance policy, but the film's director (special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull) fought to finish it. The ensuing battle between the director and the studio resulted in the movie being dumped in only a small number of theaters, and in Trumbull leaving Hollywood to dedicate himself to theme park attractions for the rest of his career.
I provide this context up front because, honestly, that story is more interesting than anything in the movie itself. The picture is typical "high concept" '80s cheese about a pair of brilliant researchers (Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher) who invent a device that can record their thoughts, memories and feelings. They intend this as some sort of breakthrough in the field of communications, but have to fend off the encroachment of military interests that want to use it for brainwashing and torture. Wood plays Walken's estranged wife, who is initially brought in to streamline the design of the bulky electronic helmet, and winds up helping him to steal the technology back from seedy government types. In the midst of this, Fletcher's character suffers a heart attack, but has the presence of mind to put on the helmet and record her death experience. Walken then becomes obsessed with playing that recording and learning what she saw as she died.
As I read it back, that summary above actually sounds like it could make the basis of an interesting sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, 'Brainstorm' is stiffly acted (Walken already seems to be in full-on parody mode), erratically scripted and blandly directed. It has an awkward mixture of serious science, poorly-conceived spiritual mumbo jumbo and goofball comic relief. Mostly, it's just corny and dull.
Trumbull, the genius behind the special effects in '2001', 'Close Encounters' and 'Blade Runner', clearly conceived the film as a cinematic experience. Annoyed with movies that typically presented dream sequences in gauzy soft focus, he instead took the opposite approach here by alternating between dull, flat and narrow 35mm photography for the "real world" scenes and crystal clear widescreen 65mm for the "brainstorm" sequences. The latter feature footage of roller coasters, race cars, a cheesy flight simulator, and eventually some elaborate if hokey supernatural imagery. Sadly, he failed to marry this to a compelling narrative, and the novelty of the aspect ratio gimmick takes precedence over the characters and story.
The death themes also become really uncomfortable toward the end. Scenes where Wood (in some of the last footage she ever shot) tries to pull Walken back from the brink of death feel unintentionally exploitative. Perhaps it might have been better had all of this just been scuttled after all?
Warner Home Video brings 'Brainstorm' to Blu-ray as a no-frills affair. The disc is packaged in a standard keepcase with boring floating-head cover art, and has only a static DVD-style menu. Fortunately, there are no annoying trailers or useless Java junk before that menu, which means that the disc should load quickly.
Douglas Trumbull shot 'Brainstorm' in a mixture of 35mm and 65mm photography that was presented in theaters with an alternating aspect ratio so that the wider brainstorm sequences would fill a viewer's field of vision in contrast to the narrower real world scenes. The earliest DVD release of the movie reversed this dynamic to display the full-screen real world scenes larger than the letterboxed brainstorm scenes, which undermined the entire artistic design of the film. A later DVD release and now this Blu-ray have restored the original configuration, such that all of the real world scenes are windowboxed in the center of the frame at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and the brainstorm scenes maintain the same height while expanding horizontally to 2.40:1. This means that the majority of the movie will appear to float in the middle of a 16:9 HDTV screen surrounded by black bars on all four sides. I imagine that most viewers will find this distracting. Those few of us with Constant Image Height projection systems will get more out of it.
With that said, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has clearly been mastered from 35mm source elements. In effect, the 65mm scenes look like 35mm, and the 35mm scenes look like 16mm. Neither is a particularly good example of those formats. The 35mm footage is very soft and hazy. Contrast is washed out, which exposes some of the bad matte paintings early in the film. The 65mm brainstorm footage is certainly better, but even that is flat and lacking in detail. (Also, most of it was shot with extreme fisheye lenses, which grows annoying quickly.) The movie doesn't appear to have been digitally manipulated. Rather, it's just been transferred from sub-par source material with no special care or attention.
While the soundtrack on the disc is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, the vast majority of the movie is a very dull, limited monaural. Similar to what he did with the visuals, Trumbull designed the film so that the brainstorm sequences would expand and envelop audiences with full-bodied, dynamic sound that fills the whole room. These scenes come across pretty well on disc, with broad directionality (even dialogue is spread across multiple channels), rich musical depth and rumbly bass.
Unfortunately, these brainstorm sequences account for only a small portion of the running time. Almost everything else, by design, is restrained to flat, hollow and claustrophobic mono. (Even the MGM lion roar before the credits is pretty wussy.) Trumbull cheats a few times and lets the musical score breathe in stereo, but not very often. I get what the director was going for, but the gimmick works more on an intellectual level than on a pragmatic level. By restricting so much of the film to both poor image quality and poor sound, with only small amounts of payoff in the brief brainstorm scenes, the movie is frankly tiring to watch.
James Horner, the most shamelessly repetitive composer working in cinema, provided the score. Not only does he reuse themes from the prior year's 'Star Trek II', he'd continue to recycle some of the cues audible here in movies from 'Aliens' as far forward as 'Avatar'.
'Brainstorm' seems like a good candidate for supplemental material that could provide some context about the film's production. Unfortunately, the movie has never been granted that opportunity. Douglas Trumbull's feud with the studio might have something to do with that, as might a general unwillingness to talk about the Natalie Wood tragedy.
I have a soft spot in my heart for '80s science fiction movies. I find the very mechanical nature of the technology on display in 'Brainstorm', based as it is mostly on spinning servos and gears and lots of wires, pretty amusing to look back on. I just wish the film had a story that could hold my attention. Sadly, it doesn't. 'Brainstorm' is plodding, cheesy and dull.
Even though I personally get a kick out of the movie's variable aspect ratio on my projection screen, I imagine that most HDTV owners will find it annoying. The image and sound quality on the Blu-ray are both underwhelming in other respects, and the disc has no worthwhile bonus features. There's not a lot to recommend here, even on a guilty pleasure level. Reserve this only for rental fodder.