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By Douglas Trumbull
Produced By Warner Home Video
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Brainstorm is essentially a film along the lines of SimStim, or Simulated Stimulation.

It came along in 1983, long before virtual reality was a mainstream concept for the first time. It is nowhere near the level of colourful fluff that covers blockbuster VR films like ?the Matrix?, but, at the same time it more than holds its own. Brainstorm doesn?t deal with virtual reality par se, but rather with a similar technology, that of SimStim. It doesn?t refer to it as SimStim, which was coined in the earlier William Gibson novel ?Neuromancer?, but that is exactly what it is. Using a sensory jack to record one person?s senses and emotions, then playing them back to another person, as a wholesale experience.

Science aside, the film is regrettably stigmatised. It is usually associated with the death of actress Natalie Wood. She died shortly before the film wrapped in a highly publicised boating accident, cutting her lengthy career short, and putting the film in limbo for a year.

However, Natalie was far from the only leading voice in this intricate, and well-rounded story. It discusses an innovative technology in detail, goes to some effort to explain its workings, and how it has the potential to really change the world, then pursues the tack of ursurpal of those technologies by dark forces only after it is satisfied it has done all that. The plot is made more unique and all the more compelling by its constant attention to detail, fleshing out the characters whilst still moving things along at a brisk pace.

Even the special effects, now over twenty years old, still hold up today; they are very well done, carefully thought out, and not at all fluffy.

The Plot

Brainstorm, as the name implies, is a scientist?s story. Actually, it is the story of a team of gifted researchers, lead by Lillian Reynolds -played by Louise Fletcher- and Michael Brace -played by Christopher Walken. They have toiled for years on the problem of recording sensory information from the brain, and producing it in recordable form. As the story opens, they have finally made a true breakthrough in this work. After years of continual conflict over budgets, of which the film actively hints at, they have a new passive VR system that potentially revolutionises everything.

Reynolds and her team can capture everything--sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell, even emotion--and record it on tape.

Article Link: A Selection Of The Joyous Uses For SimStim
Article Link: A Selection Of The Dark Uses For SimStim

Every aspect of the human sphere is irrevocably altered if this becomes marketable. Of course, the initial design, is a tad unwieldy ? larger than a crash helmet, and covered with intricate electronics. Even so, it is used to create a demonstration tape, which is spliced together for investors to experience, including horse riding, shooting down a pool chute, and other conflicting full sensory immersions.

The film is loyal to the invention process enough, to cover the process of shrinking the device, slimming it down for the commercial market, and uses this segment for intricate personal development, including hints at more than a work relationship between Reynolds and Brace, over the objections of Karen Brace, his wife.

Unfortunately, all three of them soon find themselves at odds with the firm funding their research, as it becomes more and more apparent its just a front for the military. The boss of the firm, the sympathetic yet uncompromising Alex Terson is being lent on heavily by the US military who see weapon potential in it. They threaten to pull all of their funding, on this and other projects if Reynolds denies the Pentagon scientists direct access to her research.

Over the course of the film, Michael and Karen Brace split up, causing problems for Karen and their son. The break up triggered by his inability to keep work and home life separate. It all finally comes to a head when Lillian Reynolds, a rabid chain smoker, finally dies of a heart attack. Lillian, being a true scientist, even as she fights with her dying breath, manages to attach herself to her wondrous sensory recorder. A true scientist to the end, even her death, pushes the frontiers of science.

Michael Brace takes her death hard, and becomes obsessed with viewing this death tape. Seeing what happened when she died.

The military decide this fascination with death marks him as unstable, after his second attempt to view the tape. The first attempt nearly killed him, as the full sensations of a dying brain were replicated on his. After modifying his equipment to tone down the intensity of the stimulations he receives, he attempts a second time. However, unbeknownst to him, a second researcher decides to monitor him, tapping into the same feed from a second set of unprotected equipment. That second researcher?s death, causes the military to step in, pull Michael from the still playing tape, and lock it away before kicking him off the project.

When you muck around with a genius, however, you must make sure you have all the angles covered. A first attempt to hack the company, uncovers the brainstorm project, the military?s use of the technology to create tapes deliberately designed to unhinge a mind, and elicit confessions and data from the jabbering mess. The Brace?s son is inadvertently exposed to such a tape, delivering severe psychological trauma. From that moment on, both of his parents work to shut the project down once and for all. , Michael and Karen heal their problematic relationship in the next few days, as Karen works to destroy the factory producing the helmets via control of their automatons, at the same time as Michael hacks into the central databanks, to play the rest of that tape.

What follows is an amazing special effects odyssey of sight and sound as the Brace?s learn what happens when we die, and survive the experience. The special effects are actually of equal or superior calibre to the sort we see today.