With all the recent talk about the re-opening of the investigation into the 1981 death of actress Natalie Wood, I thought I'd take a look back at her final film Brainstorm, which was almost never completed.
Co-starring Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson, Brainstorm tells the story of three scientists who develop a method of recording thoughts, dreams and experiences directly from a person's brain, using a device called "The Hat." Michael Brace (Walken) and his estranged wife Karen (Wood), along with their mentor Lilian Reynolds (Fletcher) have developed the device, though to what end is never made clear.
Team member Gordy (Jordan Christopher) records a sexual experience and shares the tape among a select number of colleagues. Hal (Joe Dorsey) splices Gordy's orgasm into a continuous loop tape, resulting in an episode of sensory overload which nearly kills him (but what a way to go, eh? Nudge-nudge, wink-wink). Of course, the military sees the device as a possible weapon and the resulting stress of seeing her project weaponized causes Lillian to suffer a fatal heart attack, which she somehow has the prescience to record. The Hat keeps recording, even after she has died, but the military seizes the project before anyone can review the tape.
Meanwhile, Michael has made a recording of his happiest memories, which he shares with Karen, resulting in a reconciliation. Michael shares his plan to retrieve Lillian's final tape and Karen agrees to help him do so. Of course, his first attempt prompts his own heart attack, and after removing the cardio-vascular reactions from the tape, he tries again, only to be shut down by the military. After a complicated scam involving a fake fight with Karen, Michael eventually jacks into the tape via a phone-booth (dial-up was apparently really good in 1983) and he manages to play the entire thing. The tape shows not only Lillian's heart-attack, but everything that happened afterwards, including a brief trip to hell before she ascends through space into to Heaven, accompanied by soaring angels; visions of loved-ones lost and the anecdotal 'Bright Light.'
Directed by Special Effects pioneer Douglas Trumball (2001: A Space Odyssey; Silent Running) and written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost; The Time Traveler's Wife), Brainstorm is a modest but fascinating Sci-Fi film with theological/philosophical aspirations. The performances are all fine, with Fletcher's (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) probably being the most effective. The visual effects are extraordinary, given the era in which the movie was made, though Rubin's script is a bit muddled. Of course, Wood's death (which happened while filming) forced some major revisions and I imagine Brainstorm would have been a rather different film had she lived to complete it. And while it may not live up to Wood's best performances (Splendor in the Grass; Inside Daisy Clover), its final sequence may have brought some comfort to the fans still mourning her loss when the film was finally released.
Most definitely a product of its time, Brainstorm is certainly worth viewing if you've never seen it. Of course, I prefer to remember Wood this way (even though Marni Nixon dubbed her vocals):