Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) is trying out the almost completed, experimental headset for the first time, and it seems to be going well. The idea is to create an electronic device which can make the wearer experience recorded imagery as if they were going through it themselves, and the results have been very convincing. Here Michael is given various flavours of food to taste through his co-worker's recording tool, is made to listen to loud noises, and even to see what it is like to be a chimp, thanks to the test animal sporting the other headset. Now they have to think of the gadget's practical applications - which could be sinister...
Brainstorm was a film that almost did not happen at all, and the sticking point for those putting up the money for the production was that one of its stars was dead. Natalie Wood had drowned in a not entirely explained boating accident one night about three quarters of the way through shooting, and so was naturally unavailable to complete her scenes, which meant director Douglas Trumbull was forced into a difficult position. He did not wish to abandon the work he had put in, felt that what he did have was enough to build a finished movie around, and besides, he wanted his work on it to be a tribute to Wood.
It's significant that Trumbull never worked for a movie studio in this way again after this, in spite of creating one of the most famous special effects sequences ever in 2001: A Space Odyssey and contributing to many more fan favourite scenes, because the whole trial he went through trying to do his best with what he was given in the face of that studio's interference and reluctance put him off feature films for life, it would appear. Two years after Wood's untimely demise, Brainstorm was released to what can best be described as a lukewarm reception, with many complimenting the effects, but complaining that it did not make good drama, and indeed looked more like a demonstration reel bulked up with romance and thriller elements.
Certainly those effects were impressive for the day, but even then they were not what Trumbull had wanted, having developed a new filming process that was in the end not used: audiences in cinemas had to make do with the picture changing ratio every time one of the characters put on the headset. Perhaps it was unsurprising that a filmmaker with so much investment in the technical side of things would have concentrated so much on the machines over the emotions, yet Trumbull had also directed Silent Running ten years before, and that has been known to tug at many a heartstring. It could be that those reshoots, with an ending that gives Natalie's Karen role a happier resolution (she played Walken's wife in an Eternal Sunshine-foreshadowing subplot) simply did too much damage.
And yet, Brainstorm does have its fans, reasoning that it was better for science fiction to reach for those stars rather than settle for less, which is pretty much what happened here. The headset is employed by the scientists for entertainment and educational aims, including one who implements it for pornography and almost fries his mind with a night-long orgasm, but with clichéd inevitability, there's a military conspiracy looming. Yes, the suits are keen to use this pioneering contraption for their own nefarious purposes, but Michael is dead against it, as is his colleague Lillian (Louise Fletcher), whose chainsmoking is a rather to obvious indication that we're going to get a recording of the moment of death, and we do, in the most protracted demise until the first part of The Lord of the Rings came along. Thereafter the concerns are with the hereafter, and with the characters verging on the two-dimensional, there's little of the depth and uplift that the finale intended coming across. Not that this isn't interesting, it was probably too badly sabotaged by bad luck. Music by James Horner.