Brainstorm was Douglas Trumbulls second and last feature film as director. Trumbull chose this project to showcase his long-time interest in 70mm widescreen filmmaking. The film is shot in standard 35mm but for the point-of-view scenes of the device in operation, Trumbull lets the screen expand and open up to 70mm. During the films original theatrical release, the screen would change between the two formats, an effect that is completely lost on the films tv and dvd screenings these days.
The film has a dazzling central concept even if most of the script is stolen from D.G. Comptons novel Synthajoy (1968). This makes Brainstorm one of the first films to deal with Virtual Reality well before the term was coined. (Although, the first Virtual Reality film was actually Welcome to Blood City ). For all the fascinating aspects inherent in the idea, it is something that the film fails to fulfill. The most interesting parts of the film are those that show the capabilities of the device one man trapping himself in a continuous loop of sexual experience or where Christopher Walkens son accidentally enters the experience of a psychotic. However, the rest of Brainstorm comes across largely as an extended IMAX test reel. It suffers from the same problems that all IMAX featurettes do that super-widescreen filmmaking is something that, while excellent for highly intense depiction of the pictographic, tends to so overwhelm sensorily that it is useless for telling all but the simplest stories. There are some nice widescreen scenes hang-gliding and riding on rollercoasters but the film still looks like a widescreen travelogue.
Douglas Trumbull captures a certain verisimilitude of showing scientists at work but when the film tries to develop a plot it merely resorts to military paranoia cliches and a laboratory destruction sequence that seems clumsily inserted. Trumbulls editing and set-ups are often sloppy the sense of wonder of the climactic venture into the afterlife is considerably undone by Trumbull constantly cutting away to the scenes of Natalie Wood hacking into the computer system. Trumbull is a far better effects man than director and his Tron (1982)-styled view of Heaven is stunning (even if the idea of Heaven looking like the inside of a computer circuit is one that goes strangely uncommented on).
Production of the film was crippled following Natalie Woods accidental drowning in 1982 towards the end of shooting. Although there is reportedly only one scene that this affected, MGM wanted to dump the film but Douglas Trumbull managed to salvage it with the help of an insurance policy from Lloyds of London. Natalie Woods performance is cut around well and the film is a fitting tribute to her career.
Subsequent to Brainstorm, Douglas Trumbull has abandoned special effects and feature filmmaking altogether and has vanished almost entirely from cinema screens. For a time his work concentrated on his long-planned Showscan process a series of short films made in 70mm and projected at 60 frames per second designed for projection in specially designed theatres. His 70mm short films include New Magic (1983), Big Ball (1983), Lets Go (1985), Leonardos Dream (1989), In Search of the Obelisk (1993), Theater of Time (1996) and Luxor Live (1990). Alas, Showscan never caught on and was eventually co-opted by the IMAX process, with Trumbull later becoming a vice-chairman of the IMAX corporation. Trumbull also directed Universal Studios Back to the Future ride in 1991.
The original idea for the film came from Bruce Joel Rubin who has gone onto write/direct a number of other films that all concern themselves with death and the afterlife, including Ghost (1990), Jacobs Ladder (1990) and My Life (1993).