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Film / Brainstorm

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A 1983 sci-fi film directed by Douglas Trumbull, notable for being Natalie Wood's last film.

Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), and Michael's wife/co-worker Karen Brace (Wood), develop a device called "The Hat", which can videotape one's experiences while you're having them, then play the tape back to anyone.

The lab's general manager, Alex (Cliff Robertson), wants them to develop a recording that would "knock his socks off," so they do, developing one where it shows some amazing experiences, including eating, hang gliding, and riding a roller coaster. The people funding the lab are, shall we say, very impressed, because apparently it has significant uses in teaching people too. Of course, later we get the obligatory Anvilicious sermon because we find out that the military is funding the lab to develop new ways to train soldiers.


The movie goes on to push 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 the bootleg video where another co-worker taped himself and his girlfriend having sex. One particular tape was so bad, so black that it would cause psychosis if you saw it; of course, his curious son plays it and has a psychotic break that sends him to the hospital.

Michael's hypocrisy of becoming addicted to seeing a particular video becomes evident when his colleague, Lillian, videotapes her own death from a heart attack, and he attempts 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. The management decides to have someone monitor the tape Walken is watching, and despite the warning to disable the feelies, goes ahead and runs it straight, and nearly drops dead of a heart attack 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. So we're not talking about DSL, folks. That's right, they can do the entire virtual reality experience over a voice-grade line at about 1200 bps!

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. It's an interesting film nonetheless, even if the idea that they can do a full virtual-reality experience, video, sound, touch, smell, taste and even sex, over the bandwidth available on a telephone was a big stretch of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Not to be confused with the film of the same name from 1965.

Some tropes exposed by the film:

  • Actor Existence Failure: Nearly got shelved after Wood died. Required some reshoots before the film was released.
  • 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."
  • Another Man's Terror: When Michael plays back Lillian's final recording, he experiences everything she did when she died. And as Michael says himself, "It's a chance to take a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face."
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The video "tape" used to record a full virtual reality experience, like an optical film, about four inches wide.
  • Armies Are Evil: The military is very interested in the technology for use in defense and training programs — as also a means of psychological torture.
  • Author Appeal: Bruce Joel Rubin loves writing about the afterlife (Jacob's Ladder, Ghost).
  • Brain–Computer Interface: The Hat is this, allowing people to review other people's memories.
  • Bloody Bowels of Hell: Michael sees a brief vision of this on Lillian's 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 silver computer tape.
  • Computer = Tapedrive: As expected of technology of the time, the files are stored in large reels of computer tape.
  • 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 his portable terminal and an acoustic coupler. What is crazier is that in the middle act of the film he tries to access Lillian's recording and we see that the memory library has a human operator that must agree to play the requested tape and physically insert it on the reader, 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 and spoofing a Phone-Trace Race.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Well, Fluffy Space Heaven.
  • 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.
  • Full-Name Ultimatum: At the climax. "Michael! Anthony! Brace!" Followed by How Dare You Die On Me.
  • 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.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: "We made a deal!"
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 an 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.
  • Operation: [Blank]: The project that developed "The Hat" was renamed "Project Brainstorm" once the military takes over.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Most of the "Hat" scenes are shot like this.
  • 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.
  • Scientist Versus Soldier: The Hat project is taken over by the military once it's been perfected and ordered to be mass-produced for military training and enhanced interrogation for intelligence purposes.
  • Sex by Proxy: One of the Hat scientists had sex with his girlfriend while wearing the thing to record his biological feedback.
  • 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, and spools of "tape" winding around.
  • 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.


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