For years I’ve wondered why no one has anything good to say about Natalie Wood’s notorious final film, Brainstorm. What exactly, I wondered, was wrong with it? Was it simply that it was sloppily finished due to her untimely demise? Did audiences somehow blame the movie for creating the circumstances that resulted in her death? What?! Turns out, people say Brainstorm isn’t any good because it’s just not any good.
The film centers on a group of virtual reality researchers pioneering the field of secondhand sensory experience. Using their clunky electrode helmet, you can experience taste, sight, sound, and sensation via another user (who also must don this unwieldy apparatus). The applications, it seems, are endless. It could provide profound (i.e. dangerous and disturbing) insight into another person’s thoughts and perceptions. It could be used in military simulations. It could be used to record memories and serve as a time capsule. It could even be used as the ultimate voyeuristic sex toy.
All of these possibilities are suggested by Brainstorm, but more pressingly, our intrepid researchers must deal with government interference. Their studies are not done and the final product has not been fully tested or perfected. If the government intervenes now, the end result could be disastrous – not to mention the fact that no one wants them stepping in and stealing their baby. This would be a somewhat compelling storyline, as our heroes must evade their pursuers and keep their work safe, but it is complicated and diluted by a number of tangential plot points.
For one thing, Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) seems to be having a thing with Lilian (Louise Fletcher), his temper-tantrum-prone colleague. Why he would be having an inappropriate relationship with this chain-smoking battle-ax when he’s got two kids and Karen (Natalie Wood) at home defies explanation, but there definitely seems to be something going on. Meanwhile, Michael and Karen are struggling through a myriad of marital difficulties. He uses virtual reality to win her back, but matters are quickly complicated by the semi-unexplained death of Lilian and the ol’ government chase. It would be to the film’s credit if revealing her death was a spoiler of some sort, but it is so random that it’s only indicative of the movie’s haphazard storytelling.
Admittedly, it must have been difficult (both emotionally and technically) to cobble together any sort of cohesive film in the face of Natalie Wood’s unexpected death. However, it seems that Brainstorm lacked clear direction from the get-go. Had there been less focus on the wonders of virtual reality (ooh, here’s how it looks and feels!) and fewer half-assed relationship issues, the movie might have been a decent sci-fi thriller.
The sole extra feature on the Blu-Ray edition of Brainstorm is the original theatrical trailer. Given the level of controversy and mystery surrounding Wood’s death, it’s not surprising that the topic is avoided. However, some acknowledgment of the circumstances surrounding the making of the film and their affect on the end product seems appropriate, as does some sort of tribute to Natalie Wood’s life. As legacies go, this is an unfortunate last stop.