2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running will — always and forever — be two of my favorite science fiction movies. Douglas Trumbull did the mind-blowing special effects on the first and did the same on the second, but also directed it. And he gave us the effects in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He turned down Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he made my beloved syndicated Canadian TV series, The Starlost, so all is well.
In between his special effects gigs, Trumbull developed other films in the wake of Silent Running: all ended up in “development hell.” The only one to make it out of the La Brea Celluloid Pits was Brainstorm: a film known more for the controversy of Natalie Wood dying during the course of the film’s production.
At the time of its release, Brainstorm was ballyhooed as a “cinematic event” as result of its planned release as the first film shot in Trumbull’s newly developed Showscan process (the development of the cinematography process is why he backed out of Star Wars and Star Trek) that shot 60 frames-per-second on 70mm film. Sadly, MGM back out on the plan at the last minute; Trumbull shot in the usual 24 frames-per-second on Super Panavision 70 used on other films.
Two years after Wood’s much-publicized death, the film finally opened on September 30, 1983. Even with the publicity as “Natalie Wood’s last movie,” no one went. My family went to the film as our weekly Sunday event; my parents both hated it. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times thumbed it down and gave it a reluctant 2 out of 4 stars.
Produced for $18 million, the film cleared just over $10 million in U.S. box office. Trumbull vowed to never make another Hollywood feature film again, ever. And he hasn’t. In addition to less than a dozen, self-produced shorts, he’s only, just recently, executive produced the 2018 feature-length indie The Man Who Killed Hilter and Then the Bigfoot.
Again, I am a fan of Trumbull. And I love Ken Russell’s somewhat-similar psychological thriller Altered States (1980) dealing with scientists plying themselves with psychoactive drugs and floating in sensory deprivation tanks.
But not this movie.
However, as we dig into this movie’s backstory (online) and the fact that Trumbull “quit” Hollywood as result, we know it’s not his fault. And besides: Trumbull’s influence gave us the likes of Steven and Robert Lovy’s Circuitry Man and Andy Anderson’s Interface — films which I really like, even more so (reviewed as part of this week’s “Ancient Future” theme week). We’d also have to thank Trumbull for the Brat Packer sci-fi’er of cheating-death scientists in Flatliners (meh; Brainstorm is looking better to me now).
Micheal Brace (Christopher Walken) heads a team of computer researchers and engineers that also includes his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood), Louise Fletcher (forever remembered as Nurse Ratchet in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and headed by Cliff Roberston (Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man). They’ve invented a “brain-computer interface” that enables the recording of a person’s brain sensations, commit them to tape, then play the tapes back for others to experience. When a team member decides to get cute with the invention — i.e, have sexual intercourse while plugged in — the playback “sensory overloads” another colleague’s brain.
At that point, the financial backers of the project (in steps our character actor favs: Alan Fudge of Are You In the House Alone?, and Donald Hotton of One Dark Night fame) sees the “military applications” to profit.
As you can see by the theatrical one-sheet: Trumbull — with the taglines of “The Door to the Mind is Open” and “. . . The Ultimate Experience” — was promising us an extrasensory ride into the human brain with a 2001: A Space Odyssey twist.
What we ended up with was the recording of “memory bubbles” by Louise Fletcher’s Lillian Reynolds’s fatal heart attack (scene clip). You would think a recording of death itself — promising a “journey through hell and the afterlife and into the universe beyond” — would be, well a mind blowing, extrasensory ride. It wasn’t. At only 106 minutes (one hour and 45 minutes), Brainstorm played a lot longer, since it was boring, not the least bit mind blowing, and just a bunch of fizzy bubbles popped by romantic dramas between Walken and Wood’s estranged scientists. “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” denied.
Look, it’s an expertly put together, well-produced effort and the acting is on the green (expect for Louise Fletcher’s overacted death scene; it’s still cringy all these years later; the chain smoking — around all of the electronic equipment — is annoying, for there had to be a better way to set up her heart attack), but the film around all of that is sub-par and it just doesn’t make it to the cup — or skull cap, if you will. (Especially the whole pseudo-comedy set up with the two security guards up against the malfunctioning robotic production line; it looks like it’s dropped in from another movie. What were you thinking, Mr. Trumbull?) So, slag me for not like Brainstorm: I can deal. Just like I can deal with those who “can’t believe” I recommended them 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running.
But, to quote our favorite, existential PhD bouncer, Dr. James Dalton: opinions vary . . . down by the roadhouse or movie theater. You may like it. And, like that other, not so existential wrestler I respect, Shirley Doe: films are funny that way.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.