The Virtue Brainstorm is Virtually no Remake (Part One)

*contains spoilers

There are a couple of films under the name of Brainstorm. One is a film from 1965 about murder and madness and conspiracy. Then there is the 1983 film about a virtual reality device… Natalie Wood’s last film, as she drowned during production. There are those who describe her death as a murder conspiracy, while the film itself is also, peripherally, about conspiracy.

Natalie Wood in Brainstorm

Brainstorm (1983) was Natalie Wood’s (1938-81 drowned) first film in two years. She had gained about 12 kilograms in the interim. She lost the weight for the film but was putting it on again during production due to her alcohol consumption. You can see a slight chin on her in a couple of scenes. The alcohol also contributed to her death.

One evening while on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island on board Wood’s husband Robert Wagner’s (1930-) yacht Splendour there was an argument. Apparently, Wood had been flirting drunkenly (her blood alcohol was .15, well over the limit for driving) with co-star Christopher Walken (1943-), something which enraged Wagner.

Wood and Wagner pose on their yacht Splendour

She disappeared and her body was found next morning floating near a beached dinghy. She had bruises on her body and arms and a cut on her left cheek. An autopsy said death by drowning and hypothermia. Some have suggested more recently that it was Wagner who was responsible for her death. But she was drunk and probably wanted to leave the boat single-mindedly, fell getting into the dingy and maybe couldn’t pull herself aboard owing to a heavy woollen jumper she was wearing and the fact she was shit faced. To me the case is simple. NO conspiracy.

The fatal dinghy from the Splendour

It’s a tragedy but should be a constant reminder of not mixing alcohol with bodies of water whether they are pools or oceans. However, in February 2018, Wagner was named a person of interest in the investigation into Wood’s death. Read into it what you may but Wagner stopped the captain using searchlights on the boat and calling authorities after she disappeared. He denies any involvement in her death.

Wood and Christopher Walken “marry” in Brainstorm

When Natalie Wood died, Brainstorm was incomplete and MGM studios were ready to pull the plug saying it was impossible to finish and they would collect the insurance money from Lloyds of London. However, director Douglas Trumbull (1942-), who began his career contributing to effects on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and directed the sci-fi box office flop but critically acclaimed Silent Running (1972), which he directed economically – refused to give up on the project. He wasn’t about to let Brainstorm get scrapped and worked out a deal with Lloyds where they would guarantee completion. But MGM didn’t want to look like arseholes and came to the party seeing the film through to its release.

A beautiful Brainstorm quad poster

Watching the complete film, Trumbull has done a good job of patching up Wood’s incomplete performance. Apparently sister Lana Wood filled in for her in some scenes, but Natalie is in the climax of the film and the narrative doesn’t seem to suffer from her disappearance from the shoot.

Brainstorm had been around in script form since 1974 but it needed the 1980s technology and look to be pulled off successfully.

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1971) trailer

Nicknamed “Angel”, Walken’s character and his scientific partner played by Louise Fletcher (1934-) – in one of her good roles – have created the ultimate in virtual reality. Not only can it record and play back experiences, it can be accessed by just putting a device on your head that is no more intrusive than a headband.

director Trumbull

It was probably the ultimate device until David Cronenberg’s (1943-) brilliant video game playing movie Existenz (1999) came along. There’s probably better ones set in the future – The Matrix franchise (1999, 2003) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) but I won’t go on.

Of course, in Brainstorm, the bad government guys want to use it for military applications such as for training and torture… Wood is Walken’s slightly estranged wife while Cliff Robertson (1923-2011 natural causes) is the entrepreneur who gets in a bit too deep with the military.

Existenz (1999) trailer

With the Brainstorm device, a person can taste, see, and even feel sensations – perhaps even emotions. Pain or ecstasy the world is your oyster.

Of course, the two major things the human race tends to obsess over can be sex and death. At one point in the movie a male character from the laboratory plays a recording of a man reaching orgasm with a female partner.

Walken with Brainstorm prototype

Not finding the experience sufficient, or on the other hand he finds it overly sufficient… he takes a portable Brainstorm player back home and having cut the orgasm section from the tape plays it on a loop, over and over again. Can you imagine? If it were me, I’d like to find out what it is like for a woman to orgasm – or natural multiple orgasms! Anyway, the poor sod survives all without losing any bodily fluids while Robertson wants the whole thing covered up!

Walken with Louise Fletcher who obviously smokes too much

“It was more than just a sexual fantasy. It was a feeling I had. I’m more than I was… more,” he tells Walken, and his future plans are to take an open-ended disability check and play a lot of golf. All while Fletcher nods her head in understanding.

As for man’s obsession with death and the hereafter? Does Brainstorm offer an example of life after death? It’s an interesting concept and an interesting climax to the movie as Fletcher’s character, who chain-smokes, has a fatal heart attack and puts on the Brainstorm device as she passes away into the great beyond… That tape recording, like the one where Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin (1962-2006) was fatally spiked by a stingray, is considered as to never be shown. In the case of Irwin, it was destroyed. But in Brainstorm it is kept locked away and Walken is frozen out of the lab as Robertson and his government cronies take over. It’s probably a bad comparison… but should we eavesdrop, in fact, watch or experience someone’s death?

Fletcher records her own fatal heart attack and beyond…

Any thoughts of secrecy were automatically blown away when Abraham Zapruder (1905-70 stomach cancer) captured the assassination of JFK (1917-63 assassin’s bullet). That’s another conspiracy that should be dismissed. There was a recent article about the doctor who “diagnosed” the bullet wounds on JFK’s skull such as entry and exit wounds immediately after his death when he had no experience or knowledge about such things, leading to the multiple assassins theory – when there really wasn’t one.

The bullet came out around here. Unqualified: Dr Robert McLelland

See Larry Buchanan’s The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964) for a convincing recreation of the possible trial and its compelling evidence of a single assassin which should have brought closure to a distressed nation! I haven’t seen the two television remakes. The fact Lee Harvey Oswald was killed on live television only added to that distress! And more theory!!

Larry Buchanan’s immediate and compelling The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964) which while introducing the conspiracy in the JFK assassination also helps dismiss it

Back to the point and in Brainstorm Walken hacks the Brainstorm Project and accesses the tape… eventually. Brainstorm shows how virtual reality can be abused and so when this new technology, should it become an everyday reality, will be a moral minefield.

Kids and unsupervised devices

But hedonism will always prevail in this use and abuse and then waste of a world and children will be able to access equipment such as Brainstorm all thanks to careless or even acquiescent adults. Sexual deviancy and murder are already something shown on the internet today and is far from being solved… and can be accessed by kids. For example the experiences felt and personalised in the “psychotic episode” scene when Walken’s young teenage son accidentally plays an unattended device was an early lesson for internet users and shows how violent content could affect a young human psyche… of course you could add sexual violence together into the argument… it’s a bloody minefield. We’ll see what’s to come in terms of virtual reality… perhaps strict licensing. It’s a can of worms. But apart from the orgasm on a loop, how about a heroin rush on a loop or go further still and use a recording of no pain for those in the last stages of a painful illness like cancer. The flipside could be wonderful.

Cliff Robertson is the entrepreneur of Brainstorm which can be fed through a phone line

Director Trumbull, said shortly Brainstorm’s release: “I have no interest in doing another Hollywood feature film. Absolutely none. The film business is so totally screwed up that I just don’t have the energy to invest three or four years on a feature film. Movie making is like waging war. It destroys your personal life, too.”

He said that in giving up their personal lives to make films the “filmmakers give up their personal interest in the battle to make a movie and doing so have isolated themselves from the very audience they’re trying to reach.”

Brainstorm (1983) trailer

Oh, the horrors and time spent on making Brainstorm!! Trumbull was true to his word and never directed again and worked instead on new technologies such as early Universal Studios ride Back to the Future, which paved the way for more complex virtual reality rides such as the Transformers 3-D ride. Quite mind-blowing that one!

Trumbull the pioneer helped to create the Back to the Future ride

The climax of Brainstorm also looks at the constant threat of computer hacking. In this case Walken and Natalie Wood are the hackers as they try and access that death tape and play it. Certainly Brainstorm isn’t a great film and it may not have aged terribly well – one climax with an out of control assembly line is pretty corny – but on the big screen in 70mm in its day it looked great. Because of its troubled production history, it’s amazing it is even here with us now today.

Walken’s and Wood’s marriage in the film is saved by Walken making a thought tape about his happiest feelings about Wood and their relationship. Now that would be a beautiful thing to give as a gift to a loved one. A mixed tape of love as teenagers used to give girlfriends and mates of their favourite music is a comparison.

Natalie receives a love letter from Walken via the Brainstorm device

Without giving away “the death tape”, I’ll say that Walken’s last lines in the movie to Wood are: “Look at the stars,” which we do in the form of Walken and Wood in terms of movie lovers, and “I love you.”

The Sorcerers (1967) starring Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey (1904-79 cancer) as his elderly wife, is probably the first modern day virtual reality movie. There is spirituality or psychic power involved but so is a machine which helps this pair possess the body of a young Ian Ogilvy (1943-).

Director Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967) had a kind of early Brainstorm device

The premise, which has a near poverty stricken Karloff create such a machine may be laughable to some except those who fight the ageing process against everything else.

It’s a British Tony Tenser (1920-2007) production otherwise under the Tigon banner (tiger and lion) founded by Tenser in 1966.

Tony Tenser

Tigon are best known for director Michael Reeves (1943-69 drug overdose) Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price, Karloff’s Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and the admirably terrible but fun The Body Stealers (1969) otherwise known as Thin Air and guesting George Sanders (1906-72 drug overdose). I also like Tigon’s The Haunted House of Horror (1969) as I forget the murderer each time.

Tigon more or less folded when Tenser resigned in 1973. The last movie he was involved in was Pete Walker’s (1939-) Frightmare (1974).

Reeves’ Witchfinder General aka The Conquerer Worm trailer

“You’re kidding?,” says not so innocent Ogilvy when taken to Karloff’s spare room where Karloff’s Brainstorm machine sits ready for its first victim. It’s quite elaborate for a low budget movie and shows what aged pensioners can invent while existing of a diet of stewed meat, mashed potatoes and peas.

“I’ve refined, enriched my powers… now in the age of light and the use of sound, I’ve brought them to a pitch not ever dreamed of in the annals of the human mind,” says Karloff.

Ogilvy tries on Karloff’s device which is nifty considering the pensioner’s poverty

“What’s this thing?” says Ogilvy, sceptical about what Karloff describes as dazzling in intoxication with no hangover and ecstasy with no consequence.

Anyway, Karloff and Lacey want to live through Ogilvy and with psychedelic lighting, high frequency electronic music and film of an audio reel-to-reel machine, they achieve it.

Unfulfilled potential: tragic director Michael Reeves

Karloff tells Ogilvy that from time to time they will put thoughts into his head and he is to obey those thoughts. His machine has a psychic two-way dimension which allows Karloff and wife to suggest every experience they would like Ogilvy to perform.

It’s a good movie and was a good start for Tenser’s Tigon, which of course fizzled with far less successful projects such as The Body Stealers, something which also features a part by Sean Connery’s little known younger brother Neil (1938-).

Meanwhile in The Sorcerers, Ogilvy goes to the pub and  – almost – goes skinny dipping with his girlfriend. That’s as close as the sex part gets!

It’s transmitting perfectly: sensational technology of The Sorcerers

“It’s transmitting perfectly,” says Karloff about the sensation. And that’s the good side of this machine. If virtual reality such as this can add a new dimension for the old and poor, then it is a panacea and a solvent for them. It would be a cheap solution to poverty and old age… as well as poverty in old age. Oh, what the future holds if the planet can hold out!

Sadly, Karloff is not to use his technology for good but to use it selfishly and recklessly as Lacey compels Ogilvy to speed down the motorway on his motorbike without a helmet, as well as steal expensive things from shops. It all leads to murder…

Take a break or move onto the rest of this article in PART TWO.

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