This week's major movie releases fall into an unfortunate but far from shameful category known as Auspicious Botches. Douglas Trumbull's scientific-supernatural thriller "Brainstorm," which opens tomorrow in 70mm engagements at the Circle MacArthur and Springfield Mall, can claim the distinction of being the most auspicious cinematic conception of the botched lot.
The unexpected disappointment in this case is that Trumbull falters at the point where he ought to soar. After reports of the movie's troubled production history over a six-year gestation period, an ordeal that brought the project close to collapse when Natalie Wood, one of the leading players, died in a drowning accident, one is prepared to make allowances for ragged stretches of exposition. However, Wood's scenes have no missing pieces, and the exposition, while scarcely a masterpiece of suspenseful or enlightened contrivance, gets the plot in motion.
The preeminent special-effects artist of his filmmaking generation, Trumbull ultimately shortchanges his film and audience by failing to supply an appropriate payoff--the obligatory transcendent, climactic pictorial spectacle that the story demands and that his famous climactic contributions to "2001," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Trek--The Movie" naturally lead one to anticipate. For some unaccountable reason--perhaps the accumulated strain and fatigue of keeping the project alive for six years--invention fails Trumbull in his area of specialty, where a shortcoming is bound to hurt the most.
Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher play a team of researchers, Michael Brace and Lillian Reynolds, who have succeeded in inventing a device that records and plays back brain wave transmissions in the form of vicarious experience, reproducing on tape the thoughts and sensory impressions of the test subject while imprinting the initial activity--a taste test, for example, or a roller-coaster ride--from the sensors positioned around his skull.
The inventors' boss, Cliff Robertson as Alex Terson, the president of a vast research and development corporation in the Triangle Park area of North Carolina, is elated by the prospects, especially for educational and entertainment purposes. "I want you to knock my socks off!" he enthuses when getting wind of the breakthrough, and he continues in this vein after his first demonstration: "You've blown communication as we know it right out of the water!"
Naturally, this new means of telepathic communication does not lend itself to wholly diverting or joyous applications. Ominous shadows fall when representatives of the Defense Department, which presumably subsidizes the company's research to a hefty extent, threaten to horn in and develop useful military applications. As a matter of fact, they seem to perfect a pretty staggering one with breathtaking speed, achieving telepathic flight control for jet pilots in what seems like a matter of days. Trumbull and the screen writers haven't managed this branch of subplot intrigue very persuasively.
The fresher source of conflict in the plot is internal, derived from the bugs and imponderables in the brain-scan invention itself. Brace discovers that the device records more than conscious sensations and activities. It also taps into subconscious feelings and memories. This discovery leads to a reconciliation with his estranged wife Karen, played by Wood, an industrial designer working for the same company. When her subconscious resentments end up visualized during a test scan, Brace seizes on the possibilities and makes a special tape to share with her, a recollection of their happiest moments, which reunites them as a couple.
This endearing romantic-therapeutic conception points toward the most fascinating aspects of the invention--its apparent ability to establish genuine emotional rapport by putting you literally in touch with another consciousness.
At its most sophisticated, the movie seems to prepare us for a story about Brace's efforts to achieve a deeper communion with the two women in his life. Dr. Reynolds is his closest spiritual contact, and the mystery motif in the plot concerns her last will and testament, a brain scan tape she heroically records while trying to fight off the fatal onslaught of a heart attack. The most extraordinary episode in the movie depicts this stupendous feat of dying scientific witness, played with excruciating power by Fletcher.
Events are contrived to prevent Brace from sharing the harrowing document his colleague has entrusted to him--a record of what the mind perceives as death approaches, arrives and then passes. However, this sequence of events is sheer melodramatic busywork and delaying action, effectively depicted in this case (Walken and Wood penetrate the company security and computer systems in a manner that looks devilishly clever), but not the crucial agenda.
What really matters is the contents of Dr. Reynolds' tape. Plot momentum obliges Trumbull to come across with a climactic payoff worth the wait, and so does thematic integrity. He must share the communication that links Brace and Reynolds across the barrier of death itself. What was their collaboration, their platonic kind of love, about if not a transcendent form of communication? To put it in Alex Terson's terms, Trumbull has to knock our socks off.
And that, alas, is what his concluding special-effects sequence utterly fails to do. We're left with a smattering of supernatural impressions--bits of memory enclosed within globes that resemble Christmas ornaments; a flutter of angel wings; a few moments of birth trauma; an approaching light that strands us in some picturesque void beyond the solar system.
It's a meager payoff. If this is the beyond where Dr. Reynolds has landed, there doesn't appear to be much there out there, not enough strange and exalted visual stimulation and no sense of minds and souls in communion, which is surely the reassuring glimpse of eternity that this particular conception needs. Hollywood can grind people down or lower their sights in the strangest ways. Doug Trumbull has spent years maneuvering a potentially stirring mystic pretext to the threshold of realization, only to balk and stumble at the act of finally crossing that threshold.