I have two thematically linked recommendations to start off my main contributions to this list:
(Douglas Trumbull, 1983)
Oh, the horrible irony of the only character who doesn’t
have a near death experience in this film being played by Natalie Wood, whose last film role this is and whose death just after the film was shot almost cancelled it entirely (there are couple of shots using body doubles that got it completed) and casts this whole story in a different light. Despite that, I think this is a quite beautiful, and strangely uplifting, film about life after death and the possibility of capturing that experience for others to view.
This is the only other feature film directed by Douglas Trumbull after Silent Running, and I think it is even better. Christopher Walken stars in the most Christopher Walken role that there has even been, naïvely too excited by the project to recognise the threats and having his marriage to Natalie Wood fall apart whilst his attention is elsewhere. Louise Fletcher is the more abrasive colleague well aware of the outside forces that are about to swoop in but even so can do nothing to stop the project from being co-opted, instead just left guardedly chain smoking and looking warily at Cliff Robertson’s slick boss assuring them of full participation in the project.
It starts as a small story of a research team having a breakthrough in a new wearable piece of headwear that records not just first person footage of another person’s experiences but every sensory experience associated with it such as taste and touch. You are not just watching footage as if you were riding a rollercoaster but actually experiencing what the original wearer of the device felt when they were recording the event. Even the emotional and physical experiences, which have the power of not just being able to provide the feelings of pleasure or fear but to also transfer across and cause the viewer’s own body to respond in kind. In an optimistic way of providing the sensation of being able to walk again to a disabled person, but also in a dangerous manner where a particularly strenuous lovemaking experience could cause a heart attack by proxy if someone in a more fragile state of health were to playback the footage.
Everything gets recorded to a giant strip of magnetic tape and stored in a library to be retrieved and accessed at any time. But when the main team members have their project taken away from them and the military comes in looking for new ways of training pilots (or even having them pilot planes remotely into a warzone from a safe distance) it leads to Fletcher fighting with both Walken and Robertson. In her anger late in the lab one night she accidentally burns herself and has a heart attack, but in her dying moments manages to put on the device and starts it off recording.
So now we have ‘the ultimate trip’ bequeathed by Fletcher’s character. What happens in the process of death? Its all there tantalisingly available right there on a spool of tape (the ultimate McGuffin?), only Robertson has (probably wisely) locked it away forbidding anyone from accessing it. Though tellingly has not immediately destroyed it, which perhaps suggests Robertson’s fatal flaw in wanting to appropriate the experience and keep it under lock and key for his own (or the highest bidder’s) use.
The second half of the film becomes a bit of a race against time thriller (and very
similar to Scanners) as Walken and Wood (their relationship getting strengthened in the process of Walken ironically pursuing a death wish) try to access the facility remotely set against Robertson trying any means necessary (getting blunter and blunter as desperation grows!) to gain access to the now locked archive to stop the playback machine from unspooling completely. It’s a great climax of physicality against the intangible, and we with Walken get to experience Fletcher’s final moments with that amazing moment of the playback being ended but things have now gone too far and Walken is having his own near-death experience directly now, which only the voice of a loved one can pull him back from.
I really love this film. Sure it might be a bit cheesy but its heart is in the right place, and that’s really what counts. Beyond the notions of the afterlife it deals with so many down to earth issues as well that are in the end much more important such as the collapsing and reforming of marriages along with the anger and betrayal felt of not being in control of your own research and what the company you work for decides to do with it (the moral responsibilities of the creators for the inventions that they unleash upon the world that might have wonderful applications, but also potentially devastating ones too in the wrong hands). Also I feel that the corporate usage of otherwise benign, even lofty, research for commercial or warmongering goals gets taken even further by the film into actively interrogating the aspect of human nature that reduces everything to just how it can be used for conflict or for sex. As well as the need for corporations and governments to ‘own’ and appropriate every aspect of human experience from birth to death, and now even beyond it to the new frontier of the afterlife as well. Its such a rigorous critique of human nature that I can forgive the slightly overblown climax (that tries, and I would argue succeeds, to outdo 2001’s “Beyond the Infinite” sequence) showing floating angels and suchlike, because that is kind of a forceful retreat into simple purity where after all experience and personality that makes up a human life is re-lived (relieved?) and stripped away we get a straightforward experience of love and acceptance
There is also the slowly building theme of appropriating people’s experiences, recording them and making them available to others to experience vicariously. Which is sort of suggested to be the end point of the cinematic experience if approached only as a pure sensory one and which is why it is so interesting that the film itself shifts to widescreen 70 mm footage for the ‘playback’ sequences from the device (and that following this film Trumbull himself moved into working in IMAX films and immersive theme park rides), almost as if the experience of using the device is ‘bigger than life’ in some ways in comparison to ‘normal’ day-to-day experience. Maybe it provides a more desirable experience than mundane life, which then makes people dismiss everyday life as just an unnecessary irritation to be tolerated to get back into the experience machine? I think that Brainstorm is wonderfully ambivalent about this situation and is both in thrall to this idea that we could one day capture and be able to share a totality of experience with others, yet also is simultaneously concerned about the dangers that has of not just physically harming people but removing the need for interpretation and artistic licence from life. That in the quest for ever more overwhelming sensory input from imagery it disregards the other qualities of film that are just as important, of narrative and a well told story.
Or in other words when I don’t have to (falteringly and imperfectly) describe an experience to you but just point you towards a piece of footage that will convey all of the necessary ideas and emotions directly what room is left for future development? Is everything that came before and will come after rendered pointless after reaching that final frontier? Does it make your individual experience pointless when all you are doing is living vicariously through the experiences of others, with no more input to provide on your own part? I think that is also what makes the arguably too blunt climax showing literal angels work beautifully too because it is getting at exactly that idea of too explicit a special effects visualisation of a concept, where in the world of the film that has removed any ambiguity from life itself, yet the film we are watching as an audience has to have made certain (arguably cheesy!) artistic choices to decide what and how to convey the afterlife! So we are seeing both the tyranny of removal of ambiguity for a single concrete vision, and yet another singular (or at least singular to this particular film) artistic interpretation of the afterlife simultaneously!
I think this is the ur-film to later devices that turn up in everything from Until The End of the World to that Daft Punk anime film Interstellar 5555
(there is a direct homage to the machine from Brainstorm as it appears in the recording studio as the band are laying down their first tracks on Earth). Even if they are not consciously homaging Brainstorm, there are a few films that I don’t think could have existed in the form that they do without its influence. Such as…
(Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
The recording of experience is very reminiscent of the machine in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, to the extent that I wonder if Brainstorm had an influence on the device there. Though in Strange Days the device does start out with some of the sci-fi ideas about what it is like to only live through the experiences of others (and the issue of death as the final frontier gets dealt with here too, starting with the opening bank heist gone wrong sequence which has not had its ‘snuff ending’ neatly snipped out. It is rather amusing that it is not the morality of taking footage of a crime or even revelling in the experiences of the criminal up to the point of their death being ethically questionable, just that the direct experience of first person death is too extreme for the clients that the footage is going to be passed along to as just a fun thrill ride by proxy!) but it all gets folded into a portrait of the world on the cusp of the millennium and the prospect of an ever darker future to come. Which makes Strange Days both immediately dated (both in its climax taking place on New Year’s Eve 1999 and
the grunge band fronted by Juliette Lewis! It is in the running for the most 1990s feeling film ever made!) and strangely prescient of smartphones and the future of streaming video to incite and inspire revolution too.
The device is the McGuffin to explore very themes of information dissemination and police state corruption, since the inciting event motivating the action here (though only fully revealed half-way through the film) is the Rodney King-style police beating, turning into killing being officially covered up as a gangland shootout, of a famous black rap star and his entourage after they get pulled over by a couple of rookie cops and the attempts by both the cops involved and the organisation as a whole to cover it up once they realise that one of the women in the car at the time was wearing one of the experience recording devices and captured the whole event. Its about the searing anger of witnessing such an horrible event carried out by those supposed to be protecting us without any of the mediation to mitigate the brutality that has the power to have an incendiary effect on the population at large. Which is a theme that has unfortunately always stayed current, because it always has a relevance to current events. Maybe it was always thus, just now there are devices to capture it and disseminate it immediately (really that's the main problem the characters in this film have that also dates the film to the mid 1990s: there is no internet to just upload the video to and then they would not have to have gone on the run trying to find a way to broadcast it!). And it is horribly ironic that eventually the hugely important piece of footage kind of becomes unnecessary in light of a whole new re-enactment of the violence with a new victim in the middle of the New Year’s celebrations in order to get the point of police brutality across yet again.
As much as Brainstorm, I think that Strange Days is paying homage to De Palma’s Blow Out too in its subplot of the politically motivated killing of the women who witnessed the initial killing being couched under the cover of 'just' a serial killer murdering random women. Argento (and The Eyes of Laura Mars) would seem to be references too in the use of the point of view in the stalking scenes and the horrible manner in which the killer forces the women to wear the device and experience the direct ‘thrill’ of their own deaths through it (which is the aspect of the film that caused the BBFC to heavily cut the film on its theatrical and video releases. I think it may still be edited in the UK)
Kathryn Bigelow pretty much remade this film a couple of years ago in Detroit, but almost paradoxically the more grounded and 'true story' setting there made everything seem less realistic! Perhaps that is the power of sci-fi, that it can often fully deal with potentially incendiary topics?