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A Look Back at a Sci-fi Classic

Recently, a terrific 2018 article from Popular Mechanics magazine has been circulating social media telling the back story about a little-known and often-overlooked sci-fi classic from 1983, “Brainstorm” (web site, trailer). The film, which almost didn’t make it to the big screen, became somewhat infamous before its release, having earned the somewhat dubious distinction as being known as actress Natalie Woods’s last film (she died during a mysterious drowning incident off Catalina Island during a break from shooting shortly before the picture’s completion). Were it not for the persevering efforts of director Douglas Trumbull to see the project through, “Brainstorm” never would have seen the light of day. And, even at that, the film was a box office flop, despite its many artistic, technical and narrative achievements.

The picture is an important one, though. It was a project that Trumbull launched with the intent of advancing the art of cinema to a new level, and, given the experimental photographic techniques he worked with in developing it, he certainly took things to a new level. The effects of this are especially noticeable when viewed on the big screen, by far the best way to see this movie, if at all possible.

More than that, however, “Brainstorm” has taken on an increasingly added relevance with the development of technology, particularly virtual reality and related developments. At the time of the film’s original release, the technology examined in the film represented a rather fanciful idea, an engaging concept that was seen as intriguing but wholly implausible. That’s not the case, today, though; while the exact technology depicted here may not be replicated per se, it may give us a preview of things to come (and perhaps not too far down the road, either).

One could say that this is a picture that was ahead of its time. It could be viewed as a taste of the immense potential such a technology could hold, one with many beneficial purposes. It could also be seen as a powerful cautionary tale, graphically depicting the dangers that might await us if deployed for nefarious or self-serving purposes. In either instance, the title “Brainstorm” is most fitting, depending on how we interpret and apply it.

Are we ready for that? And what would we choose to do with it? Those are questions applicable not just to what appears on the screen in this film, but also in real life with the ever-advancing progress of technology. Given conditions today, “Brainstorm” could find a new and quite unexpected life for itself. And, if nothing else, it’s one hell of a picture, one well worth your time.

Cover design by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment, www.inspirtainment.com

I included “Brainstorm” as one of the featured reviews in my first book, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, originally released in 2007 and re-released in an updated edition in 2014. What follows is an excerpt from that title, my review of the picture as it appeared in the re-released edition. If you haven’t seen this picture, I sincerely hope that you’ll consider doing so after reading this review. Enjoy!

 Through Another’s Eyes


Year of Release: 1983

Principal Cast: Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood,

Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson, Jordan Christopher,

Donald Hotton, Alan Fudge, Joe Dorsey,

Bill Morey, Jason Lively

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Screenplay: Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina

Story: Bruce Joel Rubin

It’s often been said, usually with a stern finger pointed in our faces, that, if we could see through another’s eyes, we would look at things differently. Of course, since virtually all of us lack that capability (or have chosen not to manifest it), we’ve had a convenient out, enabling us to blithely disregard the wisdom of that admonition. But what if we were to develop the means to acquire that skill? Such a breakthrough would hold the potential to revolutionize the world and how we perceive it, a prospect explored in depth in the sci-fi thriller, “Brainstorm.”

Dr. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) is a dedicated research scientist for a major corporation. Her workaholic and chain-smoking tendencies aside, she’s sincere and passionate about her studies into the development of a new technology for faithfully recording one’s sensory perceptions on a special type of tape. Once recorded, these impressions are available for playback by those wishing to experience the subject’s sensations firsthand, right down to the minutest details. The possibilities such technology opens up are incredible in such areas as communications, education, counseling, even adult entertainment. Thanks to Lillian’s work, it’s now possible to know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes—literally.

Joining Dr. Reynolds in her investigation is her best friend and trusted colleague, Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), an enthusiastic but naïve idealist. Keeping the resources flowing for the duo’s research is Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), the corporate executive responsible for project oversight. And handling product design to make the technology palatable to consumers is Karen Brace (Natalie Wood), Michael’s wife. Despite their many years together at the company, this project marks the first time that Michael and Karen have worked directly with one another, an amazing irony since they are also in the process of getting divorced.

When Lillian and Michael achieve a significant breakthrough in their work, it’s a great cause for celebration—or at least it should be. While attending a reception in their honor, they learn from Alex that the government is about to intrude on their turf, splashing more than a little cold water on the festivities. Citing such reasons as preventing the spread of potentially dangerous technology, a contingent of officials led by military brass announces its intentions to step in and jointly “manage” (i.e., prepare to take over) the project. Supporting them are their lackey defense contractors, who clearly want first crack at the new technology for their own questionable applications. In addition, to put a face on their presence in the project, the feds introduce their chief researcher (and spy), Landan Marks (Donald Hotton), whom Lillian unhesitatingly blasts as “a hack.”

As Lillian and Michael continue their research, with Landan surreptitiously watching from behind the scenes, they discover that their technology is capable of recording much more than simple sensory impressions. First they find it can tap into emotions and memories. Later they learn that repeated exposure to certain recorded imagery can affect the viewer’s state of mind or physiology (presumably, from a conscious creation standpoint, by altering the viewer’s beliefs associated with such manifestations). With those kinds of capabilities in place, it’s no wonder the feds want to get their hands on this technology. But, as impressive as these capabilities are, they pale in comparison to what the technology can do when it’s used, quite unexpectedly, to register the impressions that occur during the ultimate journey of one’s consciousness—the sensations that happen at the time of, and after, death. With a recording of information like that at stake, the struggle for control of the technology takes on added dimensions—in every sense of the word.

I find this story’s premise fascinating, highly original in its conception of a new technology and inventive in its thinking about how it might be put to use in conscious creation. Some purists may object to the idea that a physical, externalized technology can be used as part of the process, but employing a tool like this to achieve that end doesn’t make the means any less valid; one needn’t rely on only subjective approaches to create and experience manifested phenomena, for the technology making something like this possible wouldn’t exist were it not for the beliefs that conceived of it in the first place.

What the technology enables is quite remarkable. The ability to sense another’s firsthand experiences is an awesome prospect. On the lighter end of the scale, there are tremendous implications in terms of sheer entertainment and adventure value. Travelogues, for instance, would never be the same again. In more substantial ways, the applications of this technology for educational, anthropological and counseling purposes have huge ramifications. The potential gains in such areas as personal understanding, tolerance and compassion alone are enormous. And, with the developments that come out of advanced research, showing how the technology can be used to tap into feelings and memories and to affect physiological processes, there are amazing opportunities for employing it in areas like counseling and health care. It could even be used like an amplifier of our conscious creation beliefs, making truly significant changes to our reality possible.

Of course, the inherent “neutrality” of a device like this also reveals the dual-edged nature of this technological sword. Like the mind itself, this technology essentially allows all possibilities to be fair game, for better or worse, depending on the intents underlying them. And, when those possibilities are committed to tape, they’re all equally capable of being experienced through playback. Easy access to these recorded experiences, as well as the potential for easy amplification of their effects, thus bring new meaning to the notions of being careful what we wish for and what we create. This is particularly true when research shows how the technology is capable of cataloguing what transpires across supposedly impermeable dimensional barriers.

The aura surrounding this picture has an eerie irony about it, given the story line and the tragic off-screen developments that occurred during its shooting. Actress Natalie Wood’s drowning while on a break from filming cast a cloud over the future of the production, putting its completion in limbo for a time. But director Douglas Trumbull moved forward with the project, improvising and reworking elements as needed to finish it. The result was an engaging, if somewhat chillingly poignant movie that critics praised but that largely flopped at the box office. Its inventive premise is supported by a smartly written script, one that thankfully avoids the temptation to spoon-feed viewers about each of its plot developments. Its cinematography and special effects are dazzling, so try to watch this picture on a large screen, if possible. Its ethereal and haunting score provides an appropriately moving backdrop to the thought-provoking subject matter.

Viewing the world through another’s eyes is tantamount to exploring another reality, for, if we each create our own existence, any others that we experience are sure to be different, even if only in small ways, from those we manifest for ourselves. Experiences like that not only provide us with the fresh perspectives of others, but they may also give us new takes about ourselves and our beliefs and, by extension, the realities we choose to create. Indeed, the insights afforded by an ability like that could change the world in countless ways overnight.

Now, that would be something to see.

Copyright © 2007, 2014, 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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