Beyond the Stars
Jackson Arn on Brainstorm

“Okay, Hal, let’s slate it.”

In mute response, someone or something lurches forward, spinning around as easily as if there were no gravity. Men in white uniforms stare at the revolutionary spectacle, too rigorously trained to let on their amazement. The creature staring back at them from beneath a wide-angle lens only lingers long enough to catch a few stray details of the room before they bend unrecognizably and disappear altogether.

The scene is from Brainstorm, not 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the non-acronymically named Hal is a scientist, not a supercomputer. In 1983, many thought they were watching little more than a glib knock-off of Kubrick’s film, but there’s much more going on here. Brainstorm was directed by Douglas Trumbull, who worked as a special-effects consultant for 2001 fifteen years earlier, and his blatant nod to the film that launched his career is something like a Hitchcockian cameo, reminding us that his body of work is nearly as interesting to auteurists as it is to F/X enthusiasts. While he directed only one other film, the postapocalyptic Silent Running (1973), Trumbull’s greatest achievements as a special-effects consultant—2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner (1982), and The Tree of Life (2011)—together with the two films he directed, signal his fascination with effects both sleek and gritty, mundane and wondrous. It’s a fascination that stems from a craftsman’s awareness that all four sensations often originate in the same tiny models.

It’s a nearly mathematical truth that the Hollywood directors most celebrated for their deployment of special effects—James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg—have had long, prolific, and highly lucrative careers. The simplest explanation for why this is the case can be found in David Foster Wallace’s essay “The (as it were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2.” Directors who have the freedom to work with the most stunning visual effects must have access to high budgets, which they’ve earned by demonstrating that they can direct on somewhat lower budgets, which they’ve earned by demonstrating that they can direct on virtually no budget. The career of Douglas Trumbull, a Hollywood director whose special effects rank among the most stunning ever designed, looks nothing like the steady climb from C- to B- to A-list that Wallace posits. He was only 25 when he used thousands of tiny camera adjustments to create the flowing colors of the Stargate, the first time slit-scan photography had appeared on film. Five years later his first directorial effort, Silent Running, flopped, and for the next decade he was forced to design effects for other people’s movies (The Towering Inferno, Star Trek: The Motion Picture). It was during this period that he patented the Showscan camera, which could shoot in 70mm at 60 frames per second, but when he landed Brainstorm in 1979, MGM forbid him to use his own invention, reasoning that installing the proper projectors nationwide would bankrupt the studio. The result was a shadow of the film Trumbull had envisioned, shot mostly in 35mm and projected at a comparatively sluggish 24 frames per second. Then, in a Twilight Zone-worthy twist of fate, Natalie Wood, one of the film’s leads, drowned during production—guaranteeing that the only special effect every review talked about was the body double Trumbull hired to complete the shoot.

The machine around which Brainstorm’s plot revolves can transmit any combination of the five senses into any consciousness, provided that another human being live them first. While that may sound like the ultimate special-effects technology (indeed, the device Trumbull has been dreaming of for most of his life) it’s limited by human capability as even the simplest Hollywood pyrotechnics aren’t—a subject sent to collect transmittable experiences could walk the globe with a big camera strapped to his head for a decade and never record anything as stunning as Trumbull’s visions for The Tree of Life. Trumbull shot Brainstorm’s first-person footage in 70mm, using the same wide-angle lens Stanley Kubrick relied upon to show the world according to HAL, with the objects in the center of the screen appearing more or less as they do to the naked eye and those on the edges curving grotesquely. While the rest of the film was originally shot in 35mm, Museum of the Moving Image is showing it in 70mm, a decision that approaches Trumbull’s vision but also reinforces how far we are from Showscan.

In rendering banality and fantasy equally vivid, Brainstorm suggests a disparity between Trumbull’s own imagination and his characters’ lack thereof. Most of the POVs captured onscreen—truck, luge, rollercoaster, and helicopter rides—seem more like mundane weekend excursions than epiphanies, and as the scientists finalize their findings in the opening scene, they’re thinking small, preparing a childish concoction of steak and marshmallow for transmission and speaking vaguely of their little gadget’s “educational” applications. When they present their discovery to their supervisors, Trumbull cuts back and forth between footage of slides and ski jumps and shots of the seated executives, machines tucked around their heads like pairs of headphones, their smiles small and creepily fixed. Even after months of data gathering, the experiences the team deems fit to share seem curiously washed-out, a far cry from the VR worlds of The Matrix (green-tinged, action-packed,) or Avatar (deep blue, a giant nature park). This may be Trumbull’s self-deprecating way of saying that special effects—and the companies that sell them—promise adventure but wind up neutering their consumers’ ideas of what adventure can be.

Brainstorm is a special-effects film in the sense that it contains more than its fair share of visual trickery but also because it’s concerned with the people and institutions that develop that trickery. The team of scientists working on POV technology includes Michael Brace, played by Christopher Walken; his soon to be ex-wife, Karen Brace, played by Natalie Wood; and the head researcher Lillian Ross, played by Louise Fletcher. When Michael and Karen try out their invention, they inadvertently access each other’s memories, and what follows is a miniature version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: flashbacks of angry arguments, preceded by long periods of silence, then marriage, then courtship. Edited together, the weight of these memories is enough to convince Karen and Michael to fall in love with each other again. Trumbull is tough on his profession, until he’s hilariously messianic about it—done wrong, special effects rot the imagination, done right, they can save a marriage.

Is it any wonder, given its director’s career, that Brainstorm is palpably bitter about the bureaucracy and backstabbing involved in selling cutting-edge entertainment? Louise Fletcher’s character suffers the fate Trumbull narrowly avoided: she’s booted off her own project and replaced with a “hack” colleague who’s more pliable to executive manipulation. In many ways, the tyrannical corporation that lets her go is ahead of its time, its interest in usurping POV technology for the military an early precursor to drone warfare, its need for paradigm-shifting marketing strategies the same challenge the Google Car faces. Even the scientist who develops an addiction to his colleagues’ sex transmissions (recorded from the man’s perspective) is bingeing on Internet porn before there was an Internet. The film’s most prophetic point may be that digital technology, in spite of its apparent gender neutrality, is no less of a man’s world than the factory or the military. Lillian’s termination, then, isn’t a surprise so much as it is a nasty confirmation of what was already apparent in her team’s footage, in which women are invisible at best and sex objects at worst.

Yet for all these insights, Brainstorm ultimately confirms another Wallace contention: the inverse relationship between quality of special effects and quality of storytelling. When Michael uses his machine to access Lillian’s dying visions, he ends up watching her soul ascend to the next life. MGM found Philip Frank Messina and Robert Stitzel’s original screenplay dramatically unsatisfying on the grounds that it contained too many big, fantastical ideas crammed too closely together, so it’s ironic that the draft it settled on—featuring two big ideas, one established right away, the other left for the last half hour—breaks one of the original rules of drama by trading probable impossibilities for improbable possibilities (or even improbable impossibilities). Aristotle aside, it’s satisfying to see Trumbull rise to the challenge of depicting the afterlife and prove that his characters’ tastes in audiovisual thrills aren’t his own. Our impressions of Lillian’s death resemble the Stargate on a bad trip: an endlessly plummeting wall whose wires and switches look unnervingly like details from the laboratory where Lillian collapsed. As Michael moves past her death, the wall morphs into a vast Cartesian coordinate system with an orb of white light at every node; approaching one, he finds a swarm of little creatures, somewhere between moths and angels. The creepy pairing of glowing creatures and grimy machines recalls the retro-futurism and tech-noir of Brazil and Blade Runner. More overtly than in these other works, the effects seem to flow directly from a feverish brain—maybe Lillian’s, maybe Michael’s, but mostly Trumbull’s.

There are films—The Wizard of Oz is one—that, in the end, provide their audiences with a kind of decompression zone between the movie theater and the real world. There are also films—the aforementioned Avatar, for example—that conclude by plunging deeper into their imaginary worlds, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the finite nature of their art form. The end of Brainstorm takes the Oz approach, suggesting that fantasy, whether it’s spiritual or crassly hedonistic, should be experienced in small doses. This is a deeply unsatisfying “moral,” not in the least because Trumbull’s own career proves that he doesn’t subscribe to it. In recent years, he has improved on Showscan with Magi, a camera capable of shooting 120 frames per second, and boasts of a new 3D motion picture that will put Cameron and Jackson to shame. This might sound like the fiery ambition that’s made Hollywood so reluctant to give Trumbull another shot at directing, but coming after the three decades he’s spent on the edges of Hollywood, it’s a welcome confirmation that brilliant special effects, for all the arguing and ass-kissing that go into developing them, are well worth the trouble.

Brainstorm played August 8 and 9 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of See it Big, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.