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Blu-ray Review: Brainstorm (1983)

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The 1983 sci-fi mindbender Brainstorm is perhaps most notable for being the final film starring Natalie Wood. Wood died under mysterious circumstances during the production of the film. Her death probably added to the mystique of this creepy, surreal film about transferring a person’s experiences into the brain of another. It’s an interesting premise, with a complicated set of moral implications. Unfortunately, Brainstorm, while full of great ideas, falls flat due to poor storytelling.

A group of scientists led by Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) invent a device that allows one person to see, hear, and feel what another person is experiencing. From the sensation of jumping out of an airplane to the taste of a hot fudge sundae, it can all be felt as if the wearer of the device were doing it themselves. Reynolds and Brace have no aspirations of contributing to the scientific community with their research. They’re out to make money. They hire a designer to make a sleek headset from what was an unwieldy helmet of wires and electrodes. They present it to a group of investors, who eagerly jump at the chance to mass-market the device.

There are a couple of obvious attractions to such an invention. One of them is virtual sex, where a device like this would surely make most of its money. The film however, barely touches on the idea. Of course, the other attraction is virtual spying—spying being, of course, a specialty of the government. Much to Reynolds and Brace’s dismay, the government wants a piece of the action. It’s all very interesting, but it plays out in the most boring way possible. There are lots of discussions and arguments that rarely lead to anything remotely exciting. While everyone is bickering, Brace discovers even deeper potential in the device.

As it turns out, this thing can also record memories. The memories play out in a perfect visual representation, as if the person was watching a movie of their life. Sometimes they’re even watching themselves, like an out-of-body experience (which really makes no sense even in the context of the film). Brace discovers he can use the recorded memories to show his estranged wife (Wood) that they really did love each other at one time. The potential of using the device for marriage counseling is cast aside when Brace becomes obsessed with the idea of watching the recorded mental images of someone else’s death. He is convinced he can discover the secrets of life if he can get his hand on a recording made while the device-wearer died.

The film never fully explores any of the various ideas it presents. Some of the most interesting aspects, such as brain activity during death, or using the device for psychological torture, never quite reach their full potential. The film is slow paced and disjointed. It never develops a narrative drive to carry the ideas to a satisfying conclusion. Furthermore, I found the film difficult to watch due to its odd visual presentation. The majority is window-boxed, with black bars at the top, bottom, and sides. It only opens up to full 2.35:1 when the device is being worn (which is not all that often). I know it was meant to differentiate between reality and the mental recordings, but it’s annoying. I can’t say whether it worked better on the big screen, but it does not translate to the small screen very well.

The picture for this Blu-ray is presented in a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer and it’s not pretty at all. Sharpness is lacking, there’s very little fine detail, and colors appear washed out and bland. Skin looks smooth and flat, without any real texture. Overall it’s an ugly picture that doesn’t make the most of the high definition format. Sound is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. I found the soundtrack to be adequate, but nothing special. The surrounds are best utilized for background sound effects during the scenes with the device. In those sequences there is a dream-like, not-quite-right feeling, with sounds being deliberately too loud or isolated. The surreal quality of those scenes is well represented in the soundtrack. There are no special features, save for a standard definition theatrical trailer.

Brainstorm is a film that had some real potential, but never lived up to its fascinating premise. The visual Blu-ray presentation is a disappointment, making this film hard to recommend. Were it not for being Natalie Wood’s final film, and engaging performances from Fletcher and Walken, this film would have likely faded even further into obscurity.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.