A team of research scientists led by Dr. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and later joined by Michael's wife/co-worker Karen Brace (Wood) develop a device called "The Hat", which can record one's experiences while you're having them, then play the tape back to anyone.
The lab's general manager, Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), wants them to make a recording that will "knock (his) socks off"... so they do, developing one that captures such experiences as eating, hang gliding, flying a jet, driving a race car, and riding a roller coaster. Jenkins, the person representing the people funding the project, is very impressed as he realizes that you can "plug right into the old noodle". It is eventually revealed that the group is developing new ways to do a variety of dubiously ethical and ultimately horrible things under Project Brainstorm.
The movie goes on to show other problems with the development of this technology, some good, some bad. The consequences of being able to receive others' experiences is not always so good. During the film, one of Michael's co-worker's becomes addicted to a section of a tape where a co-worker taped himself and his girlfriend having sex. He had cut out the section where orgasm occurred and played it in a continuous loop for hours. There's also a tape—part of a library of tapes developed to brainwash and torture people—that was so horrible that it would cause psychosis if you played it.Michael's curious son plays it and has a psychotic break that sends him to the hospital but does recover.
The remainder of the story revolves around Michael honoring his late friend. He's determined to finish playing a particular tape that his colleague and friend, Lillian, had made of her own death from a heart attack, and he makes every effort to be able to see it because the tape doesn't end with her death - it keeps recording her experience as she enters the afterlife.
During the first playback, the management decides to have someone monitor the tape Michael is experiencing. A technician tries to warn their chief researcher about the changes Michael had made to his output but is ignored, and their test subject dies of a heart attack. Michael eventually is able to play the tape in its entirety before waking up from it, overwhelmed and touched.
An interesting effect of this is, the experiences, which required a kind of very shiny metallic-optical tape about four inches wide, could be transmitted using an acoustical coupler modem over a phone line going to a pay phone. Apparently, they were able transmit and receive recordings over a voice-grade line at about 23590 bps.note
A well-known Troubled Production due to Natalie Wood's tragic death in 1981 before the film was finished. The film was nearly canned by the studio, but director Douglas Trumbull said the film could still be completed, and it took about two more years of re-shoots and editing to work things out and finish the movie before it was finally released in 1983. The stress of finishing the film after Wood's death pushed the director away from moviemaking as well.
Not to be confused with the film of the same name from 1965.
Some tropes exposed by the film:
- An Aesop: According to Douglas Trumbull in 1983:"I'd like the audience at the end of this movie to look at the stars and stop worrying about their little world and think about this huge, awesome life out there. But at the same time, keep that in balance with your own personal life. This movie's really a love story. And it's about determination; it's about integrity; it's about not letting a big company trample all over you and deny you something that you want to do; it's about not letting business get in the way of art or science."
- Anger Born of Worry: Michael finds his son Chris had put on a headset and was playing back one of the "toxic" tapes that his father had come across. His anger quickly breaks down to tears.Michael: What are you DOING?! Take that off! (yanks off the headset and hugs his son, voice breaking) Chris? (crying) Don't scare me.
- Another Man's Terror: When Michael plays back Lillian's final recording, he experiences everything she did when she died.Michael Anthony Brace: It's a chance to take a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face.
- Applied Phlebotinum: The "tape" used to record a person's experience looks like an optical film, about four inches wide and stored on tape reels. It's like an optical disc but cut into a ribbon.
- Armies Are Evil: The government group with clear military connections are very interested in the technology for use in defense and training programs — as also a means of psychological torture.
- Aspect Ratio: The "real world" sequences were filmed in spherical 35mm and have a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The "Brainstorm" sequences were shot with Super Panavision 70 and are in 2.20:1 aspect ratio and a higher frame rate. This "Michael's Gift" scene exemplifies this. The Pan and Scan home video actually turned the 2.20:1 aspect into a Fish-Eye Lens-style look, maintaining the difference between the "real" world and "Brainstorm" world.
- Author Appeal: Bruce Joel Rubin loves writing about the afterlife (Jacob's Ladder, Ghost (1990)).
- Berserk Button: Hurting Michael's son—albeit unintentionally—and locking up Lillian's tape are serious sore points for him.Michael: Have you seen my kid?! They can't stop him shaking!Michael: Nobody locks me out!
- Black Mail: It's implied that one of the reasons why they monitor Michael's first playback of Lillian's death tape is they were hoping to find something they could use (against Michael).
- Blatant Lies: By the end of the film, we find that Alex Terson has lied quite a bit.
- After Hal's overnight "orgasm loop", Alex tells Michael that it'll stay between them. It turns out that the group not only knows but is watching them and Landon asks for a copy of the audio and transcript.
- When confronted about Project Brainstorm, Alex Terson denies knowledge despite the fact that he personally has Lillian's tape locked up in the restricted area of their tape library.
- That Gordy is dead after monitoring the death tape unauthorized. Alex was actually there when they did the tap and their leader Zimbach did authorize it. Although it was done over Alex' objections.
- Bloody Bowels of Hell: Michael sees a brief vision of this on Lillian's tape.
- Brain/Computer Interface: The Hat is this, allowing people to review other people's memories. It is further developed to allow Gordy to control a simulated aircraft and perform a high-G dive just by thinking about it.
- Broken Bird: At the start of the film, Gordy, who works as a test subject for Michael and Lillian, is pretty laid back and enthusiastic. By the time of his death, he's sullen and doesn't question being plugged in to observe his friend's death tape.
- Brown Note: Lillian's recorded death tape, and one of the tapes can have "your subconscious fears transformed to your conscious awareness", designated for military-grade torture. At least Project Brainstorm bothers to have them in a high-security sub-section of the data vault with all of the recordings explicitly labeled as "Toxic".
- Cassette Futurism: The equipment of Project Brainstorm is huge, with the "portable" terminals being the size of a large suitcase and equipped with acoustic couplers, and the recordings being on huge reels of optical tape.
- Computer Equals Tapedrive: As expected of technology of the time, the files are stored in large reels of computer tape.
- Cutting the Knot: When the electronic locks end up jammed, they break through the doors with fire extinguishers and a piece of furniture. When breaking a window doesn't work, a worker brings in a gas-powered grinder to cut through the lock. They also try to cut power to the lab computer and production line when they can't regain control.
- The Determinator: Nothing will stop Michael from playing back Lillian's tape. Even if he has to burn his work to the ground.
- Divorce Is Temporary: Michael and Karen have recently divorced, but one night Michael uses the device on himself to record the happy memories and experiences he remembers from their marriage, and then plays them back for Karen, which leads to a reconciliation between them.
- Everything Is Online: The "Project Brainstorm" facilities — everything, including security doors, the build line for the Hats and terminals, fire control, and the memory tape library — can be accessed by Michael through a couple of portable terminals and acoustic couplers. What is crazier is that in the middle act of the film he tries to access Lillian's recording and we see that part of the memory library has a human operator that must physically turn the reader and its auto loader on, but when he hacks into the facility at the climax, not only is he able to raise all kinds of hell and destroy the Brainstorm production line, but he's also able to order the computer to play Lillian's recording automatically while keeping people from entering the library to prevent it.
- This is justified somewhat as Xavier / Xian is a cutting edge technology company and the lab computer, production line and locks were all networked together; a round-the-clock security technician was supposed to actively monitor the equipment and intervene in the event of a breach. On top of which, Dr. Landan Marks, the chief researcher that replaced Michael (whom Lillian describes as a "hack") doesn't entirely understand how the technology works nor how the lab computer was built and configured. It also helps that Michael is one of the people who actually built the Lab Computer in the first place and would know exactly how to access everything through it.
- Also justified in that the lab computer had to be networked and accessible remotely as all the terminals relied on it to process the recording and playback of the tapes. Michael and Karen use that computer to not only play Lillian's tape but to get into all the other systems. It's Jenkins who realizes that they must be making telephone contact through that system and asks for a phone trace.
- It's also Truth in Television in that some vendors install electronic locking, telephone and CCTV systems and set them up incorrectly making them fully accessible from the Internet and therefore easily hackable. The same is true of automated production lines and electrical control systems. This is decades before hacking was a concern and the Internet was common. On the other hand, we are talking about a Government group whose chief researcher is a "hack" and air-gapping those systems from one another didn't occur to them.
- Face Death with Dignity: Lillian, suffering from a heart attack and knowing she's about to die, stands up, walks over to the main terminal, puts on a headset and hits record For Science!. Now that's dedication to their work.
- Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Well, Fluffy Space Heaven.
- Forced to Watch: Chris has a vision of his father forcibly strapping him into a very scary-looking chair in a monstrous-looking version of his lab.(Michael forcibly straps his screaming son into a chair)Psychotic-Break Michael: You want to see something?Psychotic-Break Michael: I'll show you something.(straps a helmet on and throws a switch)Psychotic-Break Michael: Now you're gonna find out!(In the real world, Chris goes pale)Psychotic-Break Michael: It's mine!(Chris starts shaking and convulsing)
- Foreign Queasine: When the mind-recording device is first being tested, one of the people wearing it orders up a "steak sundae" to test the sensation of taste, which tastes rather disgusting to Michael on the receiving end of the device.Chef: Man, marshmallow and cherry on steak? What in the world have you been drinkin'?Hal: (laughs) What has he been smokin'?
- For Science!:
- Gordy quotes this verbatim as a reason to record him and his girlfriend having sex.
- It's made pretty clear that this is what motivates Lillian to record her death.
- Full-Name Ultimatum: At the climax. "Michael! Anthony! Brace!" Followed by How Dare You Die On Me.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: When Michael is trying to get back into the computer to play Lillian's tape, we see the name of the government group: Defense Instrument Research Group, Raleigh, North Carolina. Robert Lewis Jenkins is Project Brainstorm's project manager.
- Go into the Light: Subverted, Michael almost goes into a great big light with angels flying into it after playing Lillian's tape, but he hears Karen's pleas to not die and luckily he comes back.
- Hidden Depths: Lillian's views on "The Hat" have philosophical and religious overtones. During the playback of her death tape, we see that one of her confidants is a Pastor (the same Pastor who presided at her funeral).Lillian Reynolds: This is my project! I don't want to see it end up on some Defense scrapheap before we know what it's really about!
- How Dare You Die on Me!:Karen: We made a deal!
- Idiot Ball:
- The research group has a technician who is actively monitoring the computer system. He caught Michael and immediately called in Jenkins. They were fully aware of Michael's first break in to Project Brainstorm. The technician suggested he cut him off but instead Jenkins just lets him go right in—he wanted to see how far he gets and how good he is—and find out too much about the project. Jenkins even allows him to play one of the "toxic" tapes despite it serving no purpose other than to further violate project security and a Kick the Dog moment that ultimately backfires.
- The security people Jenkins has following Michael and Karen are total incompetents. For starters, they fail to notice the two large hard-sided cases containing two very specialized computer terminals. They also follow them and watch them openly in public, making them stick out a mile. They completely buy the couple's staged "blow-out" and subsequent make-up phone call and keep watching Michael and allow Karen to leave their sight. When Jenkins order them to arrest Michael, they completely fail at their task and allow Michael to escape.
- That same technician seems to be the only person monitoring everything at Xavier / Xian. So he and Jenkins are completely focused on surveilling Michael and completely ignore everything else. They only find out when one of their security people and Landan literally knocks on their door and explains what's going on.
- When conducting the tap on the death tape, the technician tries to tell Dr. Marks about the changes that he heard Brace made to his output and is coldly ignored. Adding insult to injury is that Landan was watching Michael and Hal making modifications to their console. When things start going wrong, Landan's unfamiliarity with the equipment and how it functions gets Gordy killed.
- In Another Man's Shoes: The Hat was designed to allow people to review other people's memories and experience the exact physical and psychological feedback they felt of the experience.
- It's All About Me: Lillian and Michael are both guilty of this at one point or another.
Michael: Nothing like this is ever gonna happen again.
- Lillian's work creating "The Hat" is crucial but Michael reminds her that he made a major contribution to it too and that the work is as much his as her own.
- Later, when Michael is trying to access Lillian's tape, his attempts to access it gets single-minded to the point that he unwittingly endangers his son. He gets some much needed humility afterward.
- Jerkass Has a Point: When Gordy dies and Michael ends up in the hospital after playing Lillian's death tape, Alex locks it up with a written note that it's toxic and not to be played. Considering that it can literally kill the user playing it or send them into shock, Terson has a pretty valid point not letting anyone access it.Alex Terson: This is not the research we're interested in, this is sick!
- Journey to the Center of the Mind: The Hat can do this, but it becomes more explicit once the MacGuffin of Lillian's record of what she experienced as she died comes forth.
- Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The guy the group brings in, Dr. Landan Marks, is described by Lillian as a "hack". She is later proven right as he his supposed knowledge (or lack thereof) gets someone killed.
- Lack of Empathy: James Zimbach (the group's leader), Robert Jenkins (project leader) and Landan Marks (chief researcher) stand out. They use Lillian's and Michael's work to do horrible things and don't show any empathy or remorse for their actions.
- Lonely Piano Piece: The end credits are bombastic, but occasionally interrupted by an ethereal, almost Victorian piano melody.
- Mental Picture Projector: The Hat is this.
- Mental World: The recordings of the Hat, when it's a whole load of memories being reviewed, look like a large bunch of bubbles that you navigate through. Furthermore, the recording sequences were filmed using a different format from the regular film.
- Must Have Nicotine / Cigarette of Anxiety: Implied with Lillian, a rabid chain smoker and Workaholic who almost always has a cigarette on hand. Unfortunately this lifestyle choice of hers, combined with the stress of work, causes her to have a fatal heart attack while working alone one night.
- My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: Well, Lillian's life to Michael that is. When playing her death tape, he sees a massive field of "memory bubbles", each one containing a memory from her life, some good, some not so good.
- Near-Death Experience: Anybody who plays back Lillian's death recording undergoes this. It's an important plot point that the people of Project Brainstorm labeled it as a high-risk "Toxic" recording afterwards.
- Oh, Crap!: Karen has one when Michael has finished the tape, but hasn't come back.(in the Brainstorm tape library, the tape has finally run out)(cut to Michael and Karen at the payphone)Michael: I'm finished...(Karen gulps, horrified as Michael hasn't come out of it. We then see that Michael is still rushing toward the center of the universe)
- Operation: [Blank]: The project that developed "The Hat" was renamed "Project Brainstorm" once the military takes over.
- Pet the Dog: After Chris' exposure to a toxic tape that causes him to have a psychotic break, Alex Terson brings in an expert to help Chris recover.
- Phone-Trace Race: When Jenkins realizes that the Michael has to be hacking everything from telephone contact with the lab computer, he has Dr. Landan Marks do a phone trace. It's subverted as either Michael doesn't know or care about the trace. Though they do get a phone number and solid location, it's not established whether that's the payphone Michael is using or Hal's home phone as there are two active phone connections to the lab computer at the same time.
- P.O.V. Cam: Most of the "Hat" scenes are shot like this.
- Psychic Glimpse of Death: A technological version that's realistic enough to kill you.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Alex Terson makes an effort to be this throughout the film. He encourages his people to innovate and is supportive. Later, when the group that funded the project starts to take over, he emphasizes to them that they need to give his people room to work. But as the group takes more and more control, he finds himself overridden and outmatched by both sides. He does regain some small measure of reasonable authority in the end when he calmly stops Landan from trashing the lab computer out of frustration.
- Refusing Paradise: Michael chooses to remain on Earth with his wife instead of Heaven.
- The Rule of First Adopters: As mentioned above, one of the first non-scientific uses for the technology was to record sex acts and replay them as full-body experiences.
- Sex by Proxy: One of the Hat scientists had sex with his girlfriend while wearing the thing to record his biological feedback.
- Snuff Film: Lillian's dying tape. Unlike most examples of the trope, she did it for scientific purposes.
- Spiritual Antithesis: To Strange Days. Brainstorm addresses the technological advances and the possibilities for the expansion of knowledge inherent in the sensorium-recording technology. In Strange Days, the technology has become, in essence, a street drug.
- Technology Porn: Oodles of shots of instrument panels, blinking lights, banks of computer equipment, slick-looking portable computer terminals and spools of "tape" winding around.
- Took a Level in Kindness: "The Hat" ends up helping Michael reconnect with his wife and become a more open, understanding and nicer guy.
- True Companions: Hal, Michael, Lillian and Karen are this by the end of the film.
- Villainous Breakdown: When all the damage that Michael and Karen's shenanigans have caused end with power being cut to the lab except for the lab computer, Landan snaps and goes to damage the lab computer—which they rely on to process all the recording and playback sessions—but Alex calmly stops him.Dr. Landan Marks: I think we got it...(suddenly the lights and power in the lab goes out while the computer continues to function)Security Guard: We just lost power to the lab Bob.Dr. Landan Marks: Goooooodddddamn HIM!(goes to yank on some delicate cabling on the lab computer)Alex Terson: (calmly) Let go Landan. Just. Let. Go.(Landan comes to his senses and sits down)
- What Happened to the Mouse?: During the above Phone-Trace Race, Jenkins' people are able to trace the phone call to a specific phone number in the area where Michael might be, but it's not clear if the call they traced came from the payphone at the Orville and Wilbur Wright Museum or Hal's land line at the country club.note
- Where It All Began: Michael sets up his portable terminal to play Lillian's recording one last time in a place that is important to him and his career as a scientist: the Orville and Wilbur Wright Museum. Karen being his wife and knowing him well, she goes there to try to save him.
- Your Mind Makes It Real: Lillian dies while hooked up to the machine. Someone else "watches" the recording, and has the exact same heart attack, dying in the process. The tape records all brainwaves and some physical indicators, so playing that tape unmodified would literally give the watcher the same heart arrhythmia. Additionally, Michael has the foresight to remove the biofeedback of the tape, but nearly dies anyway because of the temptation of Heaven.