Friday, November 25, 2016

Brainstorm

TCM has been running the movies of Star of the Month Natalie Wood every Friday in prime time. This being the last Friday of the month, it's unsurprising that TCM is showing Natalie's last (and uncompleted from her point of view, much like Jean Harlow and Saratoga) movie, Brainstorm, at 12:15 AM.

Natalie plays Karen Brace, who works at one of those early-80s California tech companies along with her estranged husband Michael (Christopher Walken). The marriage has deteriorated to the point that it's going to lead to divorce, in no small part because Michael can't learn to see the world through his wife's eyes, and to a lesser extent vice versa. That's all about to change, although the Brace's marriage is in many ways a subplot.

Michael has been working closely on a device that nowadays we'd think of as a virtual reality device, although this one seems rather more real than anything that might be around now, or certainly 35 years ago. Apparently, Michael and fellow researchers like Lillian (Louise Fletcher) have figured out a way to distill the essence of human thought, and put it on those old magnetic tapes, to be played back into a machine for somebody else to use it. So you can see how Karen could use this device to record her thoughts, and Michael to learn to see the world from his wife's perspective, saving the marriage.

But that's not quite what the movie is about. As with The Sorcerers, the original researchers think this is a great idea with therapeutic purposes, but there are other people who want to use it for other things. Rather humorously, the financial types understand that this would be great as a sex toy. More ominously, the Defense Department wants to turn this into a weapon, a standard trope in Hollywood movies, I suppose. Trying to take the project away from Michael is more important to the movie's plot than his estranged marriage.

It's fate that takes the project away from Lillian. She's doing research at the lab when she suffers a fatal heart attack. However, she has a brilliant idea: she's going to record her death on one of those tapes so that people can learn what death is really like. But will watching such a tape kill the watcher? Michael has to find out what's on that tape, but since he's opposed selling the project to the government, everybody's trying to block his access. Perhaps Karen can help him.

There are some interesting ideas in Brainstorm, but unfortunately the movie was doomed by the untimely death of Natalie Wood. This supposedly necessitated changing parts of the movie to fit the fact that Natalie was no longer around to portray Karen, and using a body double to stand in for Natalie from the rear when Karen's presence was absolutely necessary. The result is that things are a bit muddled at times, while we also get a bit of a formulaic movie: brilliant but troubled scientist goes up against government establishment.

One thing that probably worked better on the big screen than TV is the portrayal of the device in action. To portray that the device is supposed to be an immersive technology, the scenes showing what's on the tapes use an extra-wide-screen format, while regular scenes use something more normal. I'd guess this works on a movie theatre screen, but on TV we get a fair amount of both letterboxing and pillarboxing, which don't work quite well together.

Still, Brainstorm is an interesting idea, even when it doesn't quite work. It's well worth a watch, and not just because of the trivia of it being Natalie Wood's final film. It does seem to be availalbe for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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