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Saturday, July 02, 2011

Instant empathy and transparency

I saw an odd movie at the library and decided to give it a try. Brainstorm is a 1983 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood.

A bit of the plot from Wikipedia ....

A team of scientists invents "The Hat", a helmet that allows sensations to be read from a person's brain and written to tape so that others can experience them. The team includes estranged husband-and-wife, Michael and Karen Brace (Walken and Wood), and Michael's colleague Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher).

The team demonstrates the device and gains financing for more development. One of the team members creates a "sex tape," which he shares with other colleagues. This results in one of them being forced to retire after an intense session that almost kills him from sensory overload. Tensions increase as the possibilities for abuse become clear. Reynolds is pressured by backers to admit a former colleague, Gordon Forbes, to the team whom she sees as a hack and part of the military industrial complex. She refuses to have the invention taken over for military use and an argument ensues. This stress, coupled with the cumulative effects of her lifestyle, causes Reynolds to suffer a heart attack while working alone. As she dies she records her experience ....

- Walken's character makes a recording of how he feels about his estranged wife, remembering their wedding, so she can play it and feel how he feels about her

So strange to see Christopher Walken so young :) The video display of the film is interesting -- the normal part of the movie is shown in a rather small size, but the parts showing the "experiences" are displayed in a larger size, I guess to make the borrowed experiences of surfing, hang gliding, being a fighter pilot, etc., seem more real (see Trumbull's showscan). While the film did seem sort of dated, and while the ending was kind of weak, still I thought it was pretty entertaining.The most interesting part of the movie was that The Hat allowed people to record their feelings and for others who then wore The Hat to replay those feelings and feel them as if they were their own ... instant empathy and transparency.

Here's a bit from a review in The New York Times ...


[...] Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects wizard, has devised an unusually varied high-tech look for ''Brainstorm.'' The laboratory where the scientists work looks amazingly sophisticated but also very lived in; the helmet itself is refined from a collection of lights and wires and lenses to something streamlined and sleek. Later on, when an automated assembly line is established to mass produce these machines, Mr. Trumbull makes its very immaculateness seem sinister. And when the place is sabotaged, it becomes a sudsy mess, which in this orderly and detail-conscious film, seems even more wicked than it would anywhere else.

The most special of the effects are, of course, reserved for those images provided by the helmet. To say that this device captures the ultimate sensation is hardly hyperbolic, since one of the scientists, while experiencing a heart attack, manages to slip into the apparatus and switch on its recording equipment. Mr. Trumbull can't convey this for real, thank goodness. But he can certainly make believable the frightening and then euphoric fireworks that explode across the screen .....

Mr. Walken is misplaced, never convincingly seeming the brilliant inventor. However, he's better in the later action sequences than in the early lab scenes, where his vaguely dissipated air clashes with the crisp surroundings. He and Natalie Wood make more sense as an estranged couple, early in the film, than they do as reunited lovers later on. In any case, this is the sort of film in which we learn more about the Brace family by watching the bicycle-like contraption Michael rides to work or the house he has custom-designed with an indoor swimming area than by listening to anything they say.

However adversely it must have affected the morale of those involved in making ''Brainstorm,'' the death of Natalie Wood hasn't damaged the film. Her performance feels complete. Playing a more mature character than she had done before, Miss Wood brought hints of a greater sturdiness and depth to this role, which is pivotal but relatively small.

- an early version of The Hat


Blogger Jeff said...

Very interesting premise. A bit ahead of it's time, eh? I'm surprised I've never heard of this film before. I've always liked Chris Walken and Natalie Wood, but I have a difficult time picturing them acting in a movie together. They seem to be from such different generations. I miss Natalie Wood. Her performance in Splendor In the Grass was terrific, and very bold and brave of her to to at her age.

7:27 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

This is the only movie I've seen Natalie Wood in - Ill have to look up Splendor in the Grass. I read that the movie almost didn't get finished because she died during the making of it -- it was put aside for a couple of years and then didn't show at many theaters.

9:12 PM  

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