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Brainstorm (1983)

MGM/Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 106 mins . M15+ . NTSC


The idea of recording the sights, sounds and experiences only visible inside the head of the person doing the experiencing is a concept that’s fascinated filmmakers on more than one occasion. In recent times, James Cameron made it the subject of his Strange Days screenplay, while director Wim Wenders used the recording of dreams as the central subject of his Until the End of the World. Back in 1983, though, Douglas Trumbull (special effects genius and occasional director) had ventured into the world of brain-recording with his Brainstorm.

Dr Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Dr Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) have been working diligently for some time on a device that can record the activities of a person’s brain on tape, and then play the entire experience back on demand so that the “viewer” actually experiences being in the head of the person who made the recording. Needless to say, the possibilities that start occurring to people who hear of the project are endless. And, of course, the US military get very interested very quickly. For Brace and Reynolds, though, it’s more personal than that. Just how personal it becomes is made clear when Brace plays back a tape recorded by a person at the moment of their death. But there’s only one small problem - viewing the tape could kill you.

It all sounds rather generic, but Trumbull’s gift with films like this is to take a technological environment and humanise it. He did the same with the wonderful Silent Running a decade earlier; the high-tech overload and special effects may be the big attractions of the movie, but there are people with real, interesting human foibles and frailties in there as well. That said, the screenplay (from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin, who would later write Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder and Deep Impact) never really fleshes out its characters to the fullest. Particularly unsatisfying is the character of Brace’s estranged wife Karen (Natalie Wood, in her last film).

Brainstorm is perhaps best known for the circumstances surrounding its production. Trumbull originally wanted to shoot the movie in a proprietary film format called ShowScan (a 60fps 70mm-based process) but eventually had to settle for a mix of 35 and 65mm (35mm for the story, and 65mm for the “in-head” sequences, which also feature Trumbull’s full arsenal of unique optical effects). And then, just as production neared completion, Natalie Wood drowned in a boating accident, her scenes in the film not fully completed. MGM tried to cancel the film, but Trumbull insisted on completing it, which he did more or less transparently. Since then, he has not directed a feature film again.


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The dreaded disclaimer.
This’ll be short and sweet. Don’t buy this disc. It contains a pan-and-scan transfer of the movie, and it’s in NTSC to add insult to injury. The transfer appears to date from the mid-'80s, and looks absolutely dreadful. Whites are a pale grey, blacks are a dull grey, colour saturation is dubious and the source film is riddled with scratches and nicks. The opening credits are letterboxed, and provide a clue to what might have been. For a movie so heavily reliant on the impact of its visuals, a pan-and-scan transfer is inexcusable.

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How the film should have looked on a 16:9 display.

The US version of this one - originally released by MGM in 1999 and later grabbed by Warner unchanged as part of their Turner deal - is a dual-sided disc with a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side (in the dual aspect ratios of the theatrical prints, though with the 1.85:1 sections “zoomed” to fill a letterboxed frame). Quite why this dual-coded R1/R4 NTSC disc is not that widescreen transfer is a mystery. The test disc Warner sent us was, admittedly, labelled “A-side” by the mastering facility, but in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we can only presume that Warner intend to release only this pan-and-scan side of the disc in this country.


The six-track audio from the theatrical 70mm prints was faithfully reproduced as a Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the old MGM laserdisc, but all available DVD versions (including this one) offer only a flagged Dolby Surround stream. It sounds adequate, nothing more.


The only extra, aside from the surprising inclusion of animated menus, is a theatrical trailer - which is letterboxed at 1.85:1!


An interesting sci-fi foray into an always-fascinating concept, Brainstorm is flawed but still worth the time, not least for a pair of great performances by Louise Fletcher and the ever-reliable Christopher Walken. This cut-price DVD, though, is abysmal and should be avoided at all costs.

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      And I quote...
    "This cut-price DVD is abysmal."
    - Anthony Horan
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