Have you heard of it? Does the name of the film conjure up the image of Christopher Walken (in his younger less crazy days)? Does it remind you that it was the last film Natalie Wood ever featured in before she tragically died?
Well, does it?
Not me. I had no knowledge of the film until I started discussing the writer Bruce Joel Rubin (writer of Jacob’s Ladder and the screenplay for the Time Travellers Wife… oh and Stuart Little 2 and Deep Impact) with my mate Dave and the problem’s Rubin had with his early screenplays. And Dave mentioned Brainstorm and he mentioned the film was a bit strange and a bit rubbish and that Natalie Wood had died during the production of it.
I was intrigued. So I got my hands on the film and a few nights back sat down and watched it.
If I hadn’t known that Natalie Wood had died during the production of the film, I wouldn’t have guessed. She plays Christopher Walken’s wife and apparently the part was smaller before she got the role. (By the way, do we all know who Natalie Wood is… coz I didn’t know that either and my wife admonished me for that. But she’s famous for being drop dead beautiful, for being in films like Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story and about seventy other films and TV episodes. She also married Robert Wagner and mysteriously fell overboard one night on a boat Wagner owned. Wagner has recently talked about it here). Anyway, she’s very good in the role and it isn’t obvious that she’s sometimes being played by a double or that some of her expressions have been spliced in from earlier scenes in the film. At least it wasn’t obvious to me. People on the interweb think differently.
The movie is basically about a machine that scientists Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher (who is utterly brilliant in this film) invent that allows the user to experience someone elses experiences. It’s an interesting idea, one that Strange Days would later borrow. It’s got the taste of cyberpunk without actually stepping into that territory. Rather, the film poses a more metaphysical question about what would happen if you experienced someone’s death. What would you see?
The answer to that question leads to a very strange and yet moving ending. I won’t say more because it’d spoil the fun. But this is a film that at the time divided people in its commentary on what existed on the other side, after death.
The problems with the film, though, are numerous. Rather than focus on the metaphysical question, which is more than enough for one film, the script introduces an evil Government conspiracy element. The army is trying to get their hands on the technology so they can do ‘orrible things with it. This means that Christopher Walken and to a lesser extent Louise Fletcher, spend most of the film railing against what they see as the abuse of their technology. All this evil Government shenanigans completely udermines the last twenty minutes of the film. We’re meant to be filled with awe, but instead we’re shaking our heads and groaning as a token black comedy cop slips over some ball bearings (in this odd slapstick scene that could have been lifted from a Three Stooges short).
That said, the use of ancient modems and people hacking into computer systems is so cool and retro!
Douglas Trumbull, the director, fought for this film to be made after Natalie Wood’s death. Apparently, the studio wanted to cash in on her insurance, saying the film couldn’t be finished. Trumbull disagreed and over two years showed how with a bit of splicing here and a bit of body double usage there, the film could be finished. The fact is Wood had finished most of her scenes anyway – and so it wasn’t hard for Trumbull to make it all look seamless. But his fight with the studio meant that he never directed another Hollywood film again.
Unfortunately, the two year wait probably wasn’t worth it. At least in terms of Trumbull’s carrer. The film flopped, was mostly knocked by the critics and mostly faded without a trace. If it wasn’t for Natalie Wood’s death, I don’t think anyone but the odd SF fan would remember this film.
Personally, I’m glad it did came out. It might be a curate’s egg, but it’s one worth watching. It has some great performances from the leads (Walken is great and very different to the Walken we’re used to) and asks some huge questions. And the special effects, for the time, are spiffy as well.
So yeah, if you have a chance, have a watch of this one.