Visual-effects guru Douglas Trumbull contributed to some of the most critically acclaimed effects-driven films of the last half century, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner to Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree of Life. Trumbull’s second—and, to date, last—outing as a director, after the ecologically minded sci-fi sleeper Silent Running starring Bruce Dern, the virtual reality-themed Brainstorm, is a decidedly underwhelming experience, as though everything necessary for a solid genre effort were in place, yet somehow nothing seems to gel. The nifty high-concept treatment courtesy of Bruce Joel Rubin, who later penned the superior Jacob’s Ladder, is bungled by Philip Frank Messina and Robert Stitzel’s scatterbrained script, which proves incapable of holding onto any of the story’s modestly intriguing ideas for longer than a single scene, and ultimately seems at a complete loss as to where to go with Brainstorm‘s basic premise. The quirky, capable cast is saddled with silly dialogue and zero character development. The state-of-the-art visual effects come across as little more than a demo reel, which, ironically enough, isn’t only how they’re presented within the film when used to sell the top-secret virtual-reality project to the military, but also what Trumbull had in mind all along, since he intended the film as a demonstration of his newly developed Showscan process. Shooting at 60fps on 70mm film, yielding a higher-definition, more immersive image, Showscan would have been a forerunner of the IMAX format, but MGM balked at the increased cost of the process.
A team of corporate research scientists led by doctors Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) have created a device that allows them to record sensations directly from the human brain. Playback permits the device’s wearer to partake in these sensory experiences. CEO Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) assures the team that the device will be used to revolutionize communications technologies, while secretly (of course) collaborating with military brass to perfect its use in combat situations. Other uses for the device are briefly touched on in scenes where Brace creates a virtual love letter to his estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood, in her final film role), team member Hal (Joe Dorsey) plays back a perpetual orgasm on a loop, and Lillian records herself as she suffers a fatal heart attack. The latter event provides what little narrative engine the film possesses: Obsessed with the idea of viewing the footage, Michael hacks into the corporate mainframe in order to access the confiscated tape. This opens up something of a metaphysical can of worms, prompting a sub-Outer Limits inquiry into out-of-body experiences and the perils of going into the light. (Just ask Poltergeist‘s Carol Anne.) Alas, Michael’s journey beyond the infinite, as envisioned by Trumbull and company, resembles Touched by an Angel far more than 2001. And, as though this ridiculousness weren’t sufficiently groan-inducing, the scenes depicting the mischief Brace wreaks on the corporation while he’s mid-hack undergo a bizarre tonal shift into Keystone Kops slapstick.
In order to achieve the heightened visceral impact Douglas Trumbull wanted for the virtual-reality sequences, they were shot in Super Panavision 70 with an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, while the rest of the film was shot on 35mm with the more typical 1.85:1 ratio. Warner Home Video has chosen to present the film matted at about 2.35:1 with, as a result, the 1.85.1 segments occupying a comparatively small rectangle at the center of the screen. Bear in mind, the virtual-reality scenes occupy only a fraction of the running time, so watching the rest of the film is tantamount to viewing an old, non-anamorphic DVD on a widescreen TV. What's more, Warner's 1080p/AVC transfer is mediocre at best, truly catching fire only during the virtual-reality scenes. Elsewhere, colors are muted, blacks are often crushed in low-light settings, and significant background details tend to get lost in the reduced-size image. On the other hand, the 5.1 DTS-HD track is more than up to conveying dialogue and delivering James Horner's bombastic score. Likewise, sound effects levels spike dramatically during the virtual-reality scenes.
Nothing but the theatrical trailer.
Full of sound and fury, signifying precious little, Brainstorm on Blu-ray looks and sounds great for the approximately 20 minutes of its run time shot in 70mm. Otherwise, Warner Home Video's 1080p presentation is like watching the film through a peephole.