Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 sci-fi classic, Brainstorm, is one of my favourite movies both in terms of plot and special effects.
The movie itself seems to be a late 1970s imagining of the technological advancements possibly available in the mid 1980s – that science would finally allow us insight into other people’s minds. Into their hopes, dreams, fears, and thoughts, in a way never before possible. The movie was severely delayed by Natalie Wood’s unfortunate passing, and would likely have been completed in 1981 as opposed to 1983 given how the studio wished to can the movie and collect the insurance money for a failed production due to the death. Trumbull stopped that, but only after protracted back and forth.
The ability to literally put yourself in someone elses shoes is powerful both as a plot point and to the viewer himself as I believe there is an innate desire to connect with people inbuilt into all humans. Who wouldn’t want to know exactly what is in someone’s mind, particularly during troubling times?
This technological breakthrough is, however, a double edged sword for those that use it and is rife or abuse.
We see how it helps repairs Michael’s failed relationship with Karen nearly instantly. How both Michael and Karen are now better people who can finally understand each other.
Yet we also see how this technology can be abused in the scene where Hal splices the tape so he can have one continuously looping orgasm. Hal becomes a shell of his former self, wishing that he could live forever in a state of pure bliss. Thankfully he is helped back to normality and it is obvious (and stated in the movie) that he has become a better person because of this addiction. It is implied that the hat can help addicts, foreshadows its potential for abuse later in the movie, and how powerful the hat can be – both for good and for evil.
The most troubling undertone is the military’s use of the “hat” as a training or torture mechanism. The training is shown as a fighter jet pilot being able to make a 10g turn with relative ease. This is the obvious and expected military application. There is, however, a far darker side to the militaries use – torture. Chris, Michael’s son, being an accidental recipient of such a torture tape that nearly disables him permanently. One could argue that recording someone’s experience during a psychotic break is an invaluable tool to help others and that person – yet it is not portrayed in this fashion.
The end scene, where Michael finally plays Lillian’s tape – the tape which she made during her death – is powerfully symbolic and raises a number of philosophical and existential questions.
Does it prove that God exists? Does it mean we are all connected in the universe by some cosmic or ethereal force? How would experiencing death change someone? And What happens after we die?
The special effects during the tape / brainstorm / hat sequences are fantastically done and far more than one would expect. They come to life watching a HD version of the movie that crops the “non-hat” scenes, giving contrast from “what is real” and “what is in our minds”. Watching the hat scenes is akin to watching a movie in standard definition only to suddenly jump to HD.
Since we, as the viewer, cannot experience the emotions that the hat gives the wearer playing a tape, it is difficult to portray this on screen. Trumbull, though, greatly assists the viewer in subtle ways.
This is a fairly lengthy post which should give you an idea of how much of an amazing movie Brainstorm is and why you should watch it. I might elaborate on more parts of the movie later.