I happen to have some actual, from the horse’s mouth, inside information on this film. The director, Douglas Trumbull, and I had been working together for about a year, hammering out several drafts of my short story “Air Raid” to turn it into the film, Millennium. (That was Doug’s title; I couldn’t think of anything better, so we went with it.) At the same time, Doug was directing this film. I visited several Brainstorm sets at MGM, met Christopher Walken.
Then Natalie Wood took her famous midnight swim at Santa Catalina Island, and drowned. Even though she had finished almost all of her major scenes and Doug said he could work around it with body doubles, over-the-shoulder shots and such (the rumor that he planned to make a Natalie robot to finish the movie was not true), MGM looked at its books and found that they could make a profit on the movie if they shut it down. When you’re spending millions on a movie you get cast insurance, completion bonds, things like that. MGM was already in financial trouble, and studio heads are seldom as bold as they like to think they are, so a sure profit sounded good.
Doug was pissed off, and decided to fight. He went to Lloyd’s of London and cut a deal where they would continue the financing for the picture, thereby cutting their own losses. The picture was completed and released … and Millennium was dead as far as MGM was concerned. It was put into turnaround, and nothing happened for a while, the reason being was that Doug Trumbull was persona non grata at MGM. You don’t buck studio heads like that and get away with it. (That was the first time Millennium died. It wouldn’t be the last.)
Brainstorm was originally intended to be a showcase for a process Doug had developed, called … the Process. That wasn’t satisfactory, so once when he was in Eugene for story conferences with me, we sat around my living room and brainstormed, so to speak, a catchier name for the Process. We settled on Showscan. (I’m not taking credit, I’m pretty sure it was Doug who first suggested it.) What it is, is a method of upgrading every aspect of the filming and projecting process, which at that time had not had any basic changes to it since Dolby sound, and before that, the various wide screen formats. The sound was upgraded, as was the film stock, which was to be 70MM. But the real innovation was the frame rate. Normal rate has been 24 frames per second ever since the industry switched from 16 fps after the silent days. Doug’s Showscan was shot and projected at 60 fps. This totally eliminates flicker, and results in a moving image much sharper and more realistic even than IMAX.
But there were problems. The projectors had to be very finely tuned, as there would be much more celluloid running through the gate than with normal film projection. The reels were enormous. (IMAX reels are enormous, too; you can see them in the lobby of many IMAX theaters. But the speed of the film through the IMAX projector is nothing like it is in Showscan.) There were a lot of problems to be solved, if the film wasn’t to constantly break.
The biggest problem was financial, though. Theaters would need to be refurbished from the ground up. New speakers, new screens, new acoustics, and most of all, new projectors. IMAX is still around because they went the route of specialized theaters. Doug never found the funding for that, and so his process was relegated to short films in places like Universal Studios and the Luxor in Las Vegas. I saw several of Doug’s demonstration short films, including one where the seats moved with the action on screen, and let me tell you, it beat the hell out of IMAX. A close-up of a face was so intimate that you would involuntarily pull back. TOO CLOSE! The roller coaster ride … well, they’ve been showcasing roller coasters since This is Cinerama in 1952, and none of them gave you the sense of being there like Showscan.
Oddly enough, Showscan is about to arrive again, in a big way. But it won’t be called that. What’s happening is that, with digital filming and projection, faster frame rates have become much easier. Both Peter Jackson and James Cameron are working on 60, or even 120 fps for their next films. It’s done all the time now. High frame rates are the method they use (way too much, in my opinion) to abruptly slow action down to a crawl in the middle of a shot, without any change in the aperture. That’s because they are shooting at 120 or even 240 fps, and they simply toss out the frames they don’t need when showing motion normally. All done in the computer. Brave new cinema world.
Let me guarantee, the first time you see film shot at 60 or 120 fps, it will knock your socks off.
Which takes us back to the actual movie. I hope you didn’t mind the personal reminiscences and tech lecture.
“Knock your socks off” happens to be Doug Trumbull’s favorite phrase, or at least it was when I knew him. I heard him use it dozens of times when he was talking about one of the Star Trek movies, or Bladerunner. He even wanted to redesign Leo the MGM lion that has opened so many great pictures. He wanted to make the lion leap from the screen and add a lot of stuff to it, so it would “knock your socks off!” MGM didn’t go for it. And in this movie, Cliff Robertson says it no less than three times.
I think the movie is a bit of a mixed bag. The framing and editing are quite pedestrian, even amateurish. I have sometimes wondered if that is because Doug never got to do all the coverage he needed, what with Natalie dying. It’s like he had the establishing shot, and then got to the editing room and that was all he had. But that doesn’t really make sense, because I assume the covering shots, of each actor and several other angles, would have been shot while everyone was at the scene. Maybe it’s just because Doug is not a very imaginative director when it comes to shooting the scenes with just actors and dialogue.
Christopher Walken was just wrong for this part. I can’t see him as a devoted scientist. Is it just because I’ve seen him play so many wackos? Could be, but in the short time I met him, he seemed to be genuinely wacko, though I hasten to say wacko in a good way. This part was just too straight for him.
The plot involves the recording and playback of memories, which is a very good (if not really so new) SF idea. But there are so many possibilities inherent in a technology like that that I think the screenwriters (story by Bruce Joel Rubin, script by Philip Frank Messina and Robert Stitzel) should have picked one, or at most, two, story paths, and stuck with them. Here, it’s like they wanted to explore them all, and it diffuses the story too much. It would have been better if they started off with the entertainment possibilities of the technology—hyper-real experiences of flying, trips to distant and dangerous places, super duper porn—and then segued into the real story, which is no less than what happens to us when we die. Lose all the bad-guy military stuff.
Louise Fletcher has a heart attack and dies while wearing one of the recording devices, and Walken is forbidden to play that tape. (I’m far from sure I would want to. It kills one person who tries it.) Walken and Wood have to set up an elaborate cyber-raid on the Evil Company after Cliff Robertson betrays them by going over to the enemy. This results in a pure slapstick sequence of the machines destroying themselves that is really out of place here.
Where the movie shines, you will not be surprised to hear, is in the special effects, and secondarily in the set and prop design. Here, the movie is way ahead of its time. Most movies from the ‘80s that deal with computers are embarrassing to watch these days, with the Giant Brain announcing that something DOES NOT COMPUTE! Only geeks knew anything about real computers in those day. Doug, of course, was and probably still is a geek. Here, everything still stands up well, though it’s a little shocking to see a man placing a phone receiver into an actual modem. My, how quickly we forget just how primitive these miracle machines were not all that long ago.
The machines look real. They look like they would work. There is a great deal of state-of-the-art robotics shown. Having been on the set where Walken is initially sitting in a chair with Version 1.0 of the brainwave recorder on his head, a device obviously cobbled together and weighing probably twenty pounds, I can tell you that in real life it all looked like it would work! And the evolution from 1.0 to maybe 6.0 as Natalie makes it smaller and smaller and puts a Steve Jobs spin on the style of it, is wonderfully done.
Since Showscan was out, Doug had to compromise. He had always meant to show the POV memory recordings as more vivid than life, instead of the hazy, watery stuff you usually see in movies when memory is involved. So the aspect ratio of the film varies, from 35MM to 70MM. It’s pretty effective, and Doug always supplies something interesting to look at when we’re at 70MM. Too bad it wasn’t Showscan.
Jeez, this is longer than I had thought it would be.
So at last we get to the tour de force, where Doug promises to knock our socks off with a vision of what happens to us when we die. And I have to say that it stacks up well with even the blindingly elaborate scenes that have become standard in effects movies these day. And he did it all in the camera, with no CGI! It looks just great, even today … and what it means, I have no idea. The problem with promising to give a glimpse of a life after death is … what is life after death? We begin with the standard out-of-body experience, reported by many people who are brought back from the brink of extinction. Then we get a lovely light show. And then … angels. At least that’s what it looks like and someone is credited as being an angel at the end. There are hundreds of them, probably thousands, and I have no idea of how he did it, but it is great to look at. And if you believe in angels (I don’t, but I have no alternative to offer), then it’s probably comforting. Either way, it’s still stunning, after thirty-two years! Not many SFX films you can say that about.