Thirty-five years ago, a fantastic movie came out that starred four Hollywood legends, three of whom were Oscar winners. It was directed by one of the most important and influential visual artists in film history, and the plot foretold the invention of virtual reality decades ahead of its time. The script was written as a showcase for a new technology designed to change the way we see movies. One of the Hollywood legends died before the movie was finished, a mysterious death, and this ended up being her last movie—
And you’ve never heard of it.
We’re guessing you’ve never heard of it, anyway. In writing this article, we asked several dozen people if they had. One guy said he might have maybe seen it, a long time ago.
It was called Brainstorm.
Brainstorm was supposed to be huge. The director—himself a three-time Oscar nominee—was Douglas Trumbull, a visual-effects genius who had already worked on some of the most monumental films of all time: as Stanley Kubrick’s special photographic effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and as visual effects supervisor on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner(1982).
Brainstorm starred Christopher Walken, who two years earlier had won the best supporting actor Oscar for The Deer Hunter; Louise Fletcher, an Oscar winner for her unforgettable role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and Cliff Robertson, who had won a best-actor Oscar for Charly in 1968.
The fourth leading actor was Natalie Wood.
Wood’s performance at age nine as the star of Miracle On 34th Street remains one of the most memorable by a child in movie history. She went on to star in Rebel Without a Cause opposite James Dean, in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, in West Side Story, and inSplendor In the Grass, among many others.
By the summer of 1981, Natalie Wood was one of film’s most beloved stars. She had taken fewer roles in the 1970s as she raised her children, and Brainstorm was to be her big comeback.
When filming was almost complete, she and her husband, the actor Robert Wagner, invited Walken for a weekend excursion to California’s Catalina Island aboard their yacht, the Splendour.
Wood did not survive the trip. After an incident aboard her boat, her body was found on Catalina’s rocks on November 29, 1981. Wagner told police she must have hit her head and slipped into the water in the middle of the night. The death was ruled accidental by the Los Angeles police and coroner. But it was suspicious, and the case was later reopened.
What was the story behind Brainstorm, the movie that precipitated the fateful trip, and did it have anything to do with the death of one of the most famous actresses of all time?
By the late 1970s, Doug Trumbull had worked on some of the biggest movies in history. He enjoyed those experiences, and learned from Kubrick, Spielberg, and Scott. But on a deeper level, the state of cinema made him depressed. “I was at a point in my life where I was very frustrated with movies as a medium,” Trumbull says. “I felt it was really decrepit and not evolving to anything like what I had grown up on as a kid.”
What he had grown up on included Cinerama (“cinema” plus “panorama”), an innovative widescreen moviemaking process in which films were projected on a massive curved screen to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the movie, experiencing it. Three projectors in perfect synchronization covered the entire surface of the curve, and the goal was a sense of total immersion for the audience. This was the 1950s, when soon there would be a television in every living room. Hollywood studios and movie-theater owners saw a threat, and Cinerama was one of the new technologies they were exploring in order to keep the theatrical experience exciting.
Trumbull now wanted to do something equally transformational and immersive. He started thinking about what could make movies better—what could make them new again, and thrilling.
What he came up with was a two-part plan that sounded simple: Use wider film. Shoot more frames per second.
The industry standard for movies in the 1970s was the same as it is today—24 frames per second on 35mm film. Very few filmmakers ever strayed from that. Doing so would have presented a mechanical problem, for one thing: Physical film moved through a camera as sprockets caught holes along the side—there was a limit to how quickly the film could move. But it was also a complacency problem. Everyone was used to 24 fps. Everyone was used to 35mm. The screens and projectors in movie theaters were equipped to show it. It was less expensive.
It worked just fine.
Trumbull wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to try a faster rate for a sharper picture: 25, 48, 66, 96. He wanted to try 70mm film—wider, higher resolution. He tested all sorts of combinations with the able help of Richard Yuricich, a cinematographer who had worked with him on 2001. The effects of their experiments were astonishing.
“We were seeing stuff we had never seen before, because there was no blurring,” Trumbull says. “The frames were sharp as a tack, because the shutter closure was so narrow. The movie became incredibly vivid and powerful.”
They settled on 60 fps on 70mm film and named the technology Showscan, incorporating a company called Future General. “The reason I choose 60 was because that’s the same frame rate that television has been forever, because television is very narcotically stimulating,” Trumbull says. “We did this test in a laboratory at the university [California State Polytechnic] down in Pomona, California. We found these laboratory guys that were really interested in measuring human physiological stimulation—to gauge people’s reaction. We ran tests that could show all these films shot at different frame rates and do what they call a double blind study—mixing them and never tell anyone what the order of events are. We hooked individuals up to an electrocardiogram, and an electroencephalograph [which records electrical activity in the brain], and we measured galvanic skin response [similar to a polygraph]—all to measure the physiological stimulation at the different frame rates. It created this hyperbolic curve that got better and better the higher frame rate you went to. It was empirical. This was like a really epic discovery about how to make movies better. That was our mission.”
They started shopping Showscan to movie studios. At Paramount Management, an executive named Charlie Bluhdorn told Barry Diller, then the CEO of Paramount Pictures, and the studio chiefs that he wanted in. He advised Trumbull to make a movie that was half Showscan, half normal, so that the audience could see the difference.
Trumbull took that mandate and adapted a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin specifically to meet it. Originally titled The George Dunlap Tape, Rubin’s story revolved around a powerful, VR-like technology—a headset that allowed people to download their experiences and memories, and allowed other people to play back those sensations on tape and feel exactly like they were living it themselves.
“The story [initially] had a very big metaphysical aspect,” Rubin says. “The idea was that we were watching a tape that was being played by the machine. The machine would be looking for its creator, and that creator would be George Dunlap; it would be trying to re-create biological life at a time when all that existed were tapes playing themselves out over and over.”
Trumbull pared it down. “We got into this thing, and we were all saying, Holy shit, this is enough for three movies,” he remembers. “Let’s just make a movie that deals with the turbulence of the technology, before people start going solid state.” So the technology—that headset—became the focus, and that story became Brainstorm.
Rubin flew from New York to Los Angeles to see Showscan demonstrated at a theater in Westwood. He was shown footage of a roller-coaster ride, which Trumbull had filmed in a first-person view, as if you were the passenger. The increased film speed and aspect ratio shocked Rubin. “I’ve ridden on roller coasters in real life, and I rode the roller coaster in Showscan,” he says. “The memory locked in by the viewing of Showscan was stronger than the memory of actually going on a roller coaster. It registers in a very deep, impactful way.”
George Feltenstein is a film historian and the senior vice president of catalog marketing at Warner Bros., which now owns Brainstorm.“With the changing aspect ratios, the film changes as you go into this alternate reality,” Feltenstein says. “This is the way Doug’s mind is fifty years ahead of everybody else.”
That effect was going to play right into Trumbull’s vision for Brainstorm. During the parts of the story when no character was wearing the magic headset, the film would run as usual—24 fps, 35mm. But when a character put the headset on and entered another character’s consciousness, the aspect ratio would widen to 70mm and the frame rate would jack up to 60: Everything would seem bigger, crisper, hyperreal. Viewers would feel like they were wearing that headset themselves—a meta effect pushing the science-fiction plot into something approaching reality.
It was going to be sensational.
That’s not exactly what happened.
Those worries about the difference in film techniques being too expensive? They proved correct. Then there was a shakeup in the Paramount leadership. Trumbull was released from his contract. He took the idea over to MGM, which agreed to take on Brainstorm—sort of. They revised the plot, and reached a compromise on the filming: It would all be 24 fps, but the headset’s effect would be shot on 70mm film, and displayed with stereo sound, versus 35mm and mono sound for the real-world sequences. It wasn’t Showscan, exactly, but it would still create something like the duality Trumbull wanted.
Walken and Fletcher would play the two talented scientists who developed the technology. Wood signed on to play Walken’s estranged wife, with whom he gradually reconciles with with the help of the very technology he is working on. Trumbull successfully angled for Robertson to join as well, as the head of the company that funds the headset research.
A week before filming began, Trumbull gathered much of the cast and some crew at the famed Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, a retreat where, according to its website, “seekers” can “explore deeper spiritual possibilities…[and] forge new understandings of self and society.” The Brainstorm story has roots in the beliefs of Stanley Grof, a Czech psychiatrist who worked with Esalen and who was exploring the pursuit of altered mental states without the use of narcotics of pharmaceuticals. “The goal was to bring the cast together on a very deep emotional level,” Trumbull says. Grof’s hypertropic breathing work involved “looking at certain images, listening to certain kinds of music, and hyperventilating deliberately to over-oxygenate the brain. The idea was that this would bring out suppressed emotional material in the individual. Everyone tried it.”
Fletcher recalls a class about rebirthing, in which participants were shown how to experience their own birth again (“the ’70s, you know”), and one man who imagined he was a warrior carrying a stake. At one point everyone was in a hot tub, “although Natalie somehow cleverly avoided going in the hot tub,” Fletcher says.
Filming began in North Carolina, at Research Triangle Park and Duke University. Jason Lively, who was 13 and played the son of Wood’s and Walken’s characters, remembers the set as a congenial place. “This guy [Trumbull] knew what he was doing,” Lively says. “There was never any question of whether he was making the right call. I think that’s really commendable; it seems a lot more difficult, these days, to get that kind of respect out of everyone in a cast.”
Beyond Trumbull’s vision, beyond the charisma and ease of Walken and Wood, and Fletcher’s fierce and funny performance, there was the film’s other star: the fictional technology itself, the feverish Brainstorm/Showscan hybrid. “Even though it wasn’t technology that existed, it certainly looked like technology that could exist,” Lively says. “No one had to say, ‘Act like this stuff’s cool,’ because I thought it was cool.
“What really stands out was the rainbow tape,” he says, referring to the film spools that recorded and played back the characters’ experiences. “I had never seen anything like that. It looked like something they had gotten from NASA.”
In the middle of the story, Fletcher’s character dies of a massive, minutes-long heart attack while alone in the lab. She has the presence of mind to record her death while wearing one of the headsets. For the rest of the film, Walken’s character tries desperately to replay the tape in an attempt to learn what death is like—against the demands of the corporate and military men who own the technology and are trying to stop him.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had on the set in my whole life,” Fletcher says of her death scene—a long, tense scene that weaves in and out of her dying in the lab and the view inside her mind and soul. “The most fun. Why? Because I had that whole crew to myself for, I don’t know, a few days. Doug was excellent as a director. He collaborated in wonderful ways—wonderful little ways. During my death scene he just sidled up to me and whispered in my ear: ‘Eleanor Roosevelt.’ I swear to god! I was 11 when Roosevelt died, and everybody on our block came out of their houses when the afternoon paper arrived and it said that he was dead, sobbing and crying and hugging each other, What are we gonna do? And it was so great. And that was Alabama! Imagine it. Can you imagine that happening today? A Democrat? So weird. So the image of Eleanor Roosevelt was what Doug wanted. He didn’t want any long-suffering person. He wanted someone who was really brave. He knew just what to say to me. What would mean something to me.”
The special effects, she said, were essential “distractions” that as actors they had to work around and get used to. While filming one scene outside on the roof of the church, the sound of the 70mm film running through the camera was so loud it was difficult to hear what was going on. Trumbull says this was because the camera was umblimped, meaning it didn’t have the typical blimp, or sound-shielding bubble around it, to heighten the field of vision. Still, Fletcher says, “it all has a fluid feel when you see it.”
For an intense science-fiction movie, Fletcher says the mood on the set was fun, but professional. There was the fleeting but deep camaraderie that she has often felt on sets—a temporary closeness that can dissolve as quickly as it came together.
“Christopher was crazy and a lot of fun,” she says. “He’d do crazy things on the set like dropping his pants. I don’t know why he did that, except to just maybe give himself a shot in the arm. Give himself some energy of some kind that he needed. He would do shocking things right before the take to create an atmosphere, and once he dropped his pants. Kind of like mooning everybody. It was fun.”
She pauses and adds, “I haven’t seen him in ages. That’s what happens.”
By Thanksgiving 1981, filming was wrapping up. There were only a few scenes left to shoot, and then Trumbull would have staked his claim in the wild expanse of high-concept science fiction, would have shown the world the very beginning of what he could do with film.
Then Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken went out on a boat for the weekend.
In November 1981, during the Thanksgiving break from filming Brainstorm, Wood and Wagner invited Walken for a weekend trip to Catalina Island aboard their yacht, Splendour. It was named for Wood’s 1961 movie Splendor In the Grass, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. The other person aboard was the boat’s full-time captain, Dennis Davern.
Brainstorm was the reason Walken was on the boat—a fact often mentioned only briefly in reports and stories about the weekend. Walken lived in New York, and Fletcher guesses that Wood and Wagner were including him because he was away from home for the holiday. “It was Thanksgiving weekend, we had time off,” she says. “We were at the end of the movie, and we were out here [in L.A.]. Christopher was out here, and he was from New York. It was sort of normal for them to invite him.”
Walken and Wagner were nothing close to friends—they barely knew each other. Walken and Wood appear to have become friends during the filming of Trumbull’s movie, and there were tabloid rumors of a romantic relationship, and of Wagner’s jealousy. He even visited the set in North Carolina once. “Everyone thought it was a love triangle thing between R.J. Wagner, Natalie Wood, and Christopher Walken, which I think is totally bogus,” Trumbull says.
There are a few facts about the trip that no one debates: It was a two-night event. There was a lot of drinking. The second night, all four members of the party had dinner on shore, during which much wine was consumed, then returned to the Splendour, where more wine and Scotch were consumed. At some point, glass was broken. Sometime shortly after midnight, Wagner informed Davern that Wood was missing. During this time, Walken was in his stateroom, apparently asleep. Approximately six hours later, Wood’s body was found floating in the waters off Catalina.
Wagner has always maintained that Wood probably got out of bed because the Splendour’s dinghy was knocking against the stern and the sound was keeping her up—a common annoyance for boaters moored at night. He told police she must have gone up on deck to shorten the line, to stop the bumping.
Walken told police that Wood’s death must have been an accident, that he didn’t recall any fighting on board, and that the glass broke when he made a toast and threw his glass on the ground, as was his custom.
Davern, at the time, went along with Wagner’s version of events.
Shortly after she died, Wood’s death was ruled an “accidental drowning” by the Los Angeles County Police. Thomas Noguchi, the chief medical examiner for the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, performed the autopsy. He concluded that there was “no evidence of foul play,” and that a cut on Wood’s cheek suggested that she had fallen, hit her head on some piece of the boat on her way down, and fallen into the water and drowned. “It was not a homicide, it was not a suicide,” Noguchi said in a press conference. “It was an accident.”
But questions remain about Noguchi’s work on the case. He didn’t scrape under Wood’s fingernails, a common autopsy practice, and he may have mischaracterized her bruising, downplaying it. He also seemed to simply go along with everything Wagner said, unquestioning.
Others have maintained that Wagner’s story just didn’t seem plausible, and that the police did not investigate it thoroughly.
Davern has said that he felt forced to cover up for Wagner, and that he never believed Wagner’s story. He says that Wood, who was small in stature and had an avowed aversion to being in water, would never have gone by herself to retie the dinghy after midnight on a cold, moonless night in rough water—she would have asked him to do it. He also claimed that Wagner and Wood were in a heated argument on board, concluding with Wagner smashing a wine bottle and screaming at Walken, “What are you trying to do, f**k my wife?”
Davern’s credibility as a witness is questionable, as he has repeatedly, and largely without success, it seems, tried to sell his story to tabloid outlets and publishers for money. Still, his statements contributed to the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to revisit the coroner’s report, which led to the case being reopened in 2011. “The case was reexamined based on a coroner evaluation, and will remain open pending further workable information,” a deputy with the information bureau of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department told Popular Mechanics.
In 2012, the coroner’s office amended its original 1981 report, officially raising the possibility of Wood being struck and killed before she entered the water: “…this Medical Examiner is unable to exclude non-volitional, unplanned entry into the water…The location of the bruises, the multiplicity of the bruises, lack of head trauma, or facial bruising support bruising having occurred prior to the entry into the water. Since there are many unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined.”
In reopening the case, the police also named Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood’s husband at the time of her death, now 88 years old, a “person of interest.”
THE FIGHT TO FINISH THE MOVIE
Doug Trumbull learned of Wood’s death the Sunday morning her body was found.
He had completed most of the shooting for Brainstorm on location in North Carolina. Most of what was left would be shot on sets in Los Angeles. On most productions, the studio takes out an insurance policy to cover its losses in the event of a catastrophe—a fire that destroys the set, for example, or the death of a primary cast member. This is called force majeure, and means the movie is unsalvageable. Typically, the first thing the studio does is ask the director: Can you finish the movie?
That’s not what MGM did, according to Trumbull.
“What happened the next day—like, within hours of her death—the studio declared force majeure and filed a $15 million insurance claim to recoup their losses on the movie, and that they were terminating the production on the movie,” Trumbull says. “I was taken into a meeting with [then-MGM chairman] Freddie Fields and he said, Doug, it’s over. Terminated. I was notified that I was fired and everyone on the crew was fired, and the entire cast was fired.”
Trumbull pushed back. “I said, this is ridiculous. I can easily finish this movie without Natalie Wood. I’ve been in the cutting room and I figured it out. She only had three or four minor scenes left to perform, we don’t need to shoot them with Natalie. I don’t have to do any tricks or doubles or voiceovers anything like that. And they said, No we are not going to allow you to do that, and I said but I can prove to you that we can do it. And so—this was my own choice—I barricaded myself in the editing room alone to cut together the scenes on a Moviola to prove conclusively that we could finish the movie. I was in there for two days and my wife was bringing me food,” Trumbull says.
MGM was unmoved by Trumbull’s efforts to prove that Brainstorm could be salvaged. But Lloyd’s of London, the insurer covering the film, decided not to approve the claim. The type of policy that MGM had taken out, according to Lloyd’s, provides cover for “perils that result in filming postponement, stoppage or abandonment.” After depositions of Trumbull and other cast and crew members, including Louise Fletcher, the insurance company decided that abandonment wasn’t necessary and put more than $6 million of its own money toward the completion of the film, to pay for the new scenes and some special effects.
“We all got T-shirts that said ‘Lloyd’s of London presents Brainstorm: Coming Soon To a Theater Near You,’” says Rubin, the screenwriter. “We were very grateful to them for completing the film. Studios are very mercurial, and you never know what they really want. I think they would have been happy with the insurance money, but Doug really heroically stood in front of that vault and protected the negatives.”
A final scene had to be filmed, in which Walken was being chased through the halls of a hotel by evil men from the corporation. Trumbull filmed those in the hallways outside the offices of the very MGM executives, including CEO David Begelman, who had tried to shut the production down.
In 1981, Trumbull points out, $15 million was a lot of money to a movie studio. “I had to get this movie made against the will of the studio,” he says. “I was hated at the studio. I had deprived them of their $15 million and MGM tried to get Richard Yuricich, my cinematographer, to sign legal documents. Hello, what’s that about it? We didn’t sign them. When this document came for me, if I signed it, MGM would be the heir to an insurance claim on my life, which would have made it impossible to finish the film, maybe. And I say, well, um. My lawyer’s calling me saying don’t get on the plane that MGM just booked for you. So I’m worried about my life. I’m standing between them and their coveted $15 million insurance claim. I’m totally the bad guy. I was a basket case.”
He continues: “The Los Angeles Police Department has never asked me anything. I’ve never been deposed by them about anything. I don’t think they have a clue about anything that was going on financially at the studio with Lloyd’s of London or anything else.”
Frank Rothman was one of the lawyers at MGM/United Artists who filed the insurance claim. (He later became chairman of the company’s board.) He told The New York Times at the time of the film’s 1983 release that the company never disputed that the film could be completed. The policy, he pointed out, specified that the studio could stop the project if it deemed it not “reasonable and practicable” to continue. “Where we got into a dispute with Trumbull and the insurance company was over those words ‘reasonable and practicable,’” Rothman was quoted as saying. “The position of MGM was never that Brainstorm could not be finished. I don’t believe there is any picture that can’t be finished, and Brainstorm was 90 percent in the can. But the studio made a creative decision that we could not film the script that had been originally approved.”
When Trumbull finally got the green light from Lloyd’s to finish the movie, some scenes had to change. Back on the set, the shock and sadness of Wood’s death pervaded the remaining work. Fletcher and Walken got to work. “We just hugged,” she says. “We didn’t speak of it.”
There’s a scene where Lively’s character tries on the headset when his dad (Walken’s character) isn’t looking. He is yanked into a nightmarish vision of his father yelling at him.
That’s not how it was first filmed.
“The trauma and the psychotic episode I had was originally them drowning in the pool,” Lively says. “I don’t know if she was in it, too, but Christopher Walken was—I was being drowned by him. That’s how it was initially going to be, but we never got to film it.”
There was another scene that was shot, Lively says, where Walken’s and Wood’s characters were out in a boat. “He was rocking the boat and she said, ‘Don’t rock the boat, I can’t swim.’ That’s another scene that got pulled.” Trumbull confirms that this scene was removed out of respect for Wood.
When Brainstorm came out in 1983, opening on a weekend dominated by The Big Chill, the reaction was muted. Reviews by Roger Ebert and by Janet Maslin in The New York Times noted that this was Wood’s final film, praised the technology, and mostly gave the plot a pass. “It didn’t do well at the box office, particularly,” says Rubin, who went on to write the 1990 hit Ghost. “I did learn early on that having a movie that didn’t do well financially is like having a baby that died: You don’t talk about it.” So he didn’t talk about it, and neither did anyone else, really. Brainstorm fell out of our collective pop-culture memory.
“We needed a film that did what Brainstorm did when Brainstorm did it,” says Scott Bukatman, a professor of film and media studies at Stanford University. “It was of its time in a really profound way.”
Bukatman was writing his doctoral dissertation on science fiction and electronic culture when Brainstorm was released. He recognized it as the first film that had tackled the idea of what virtual reality—a term that wasn’t in the lexicon yet—could be.
“[Science-fiction] narratives were so often an attempt to grapple with what’s real and what’s not real, what’s human and what’s not human, what’s experience and what’s not experience, what’s simulated and what’s actual—and that’s where Brainstorm sits,” Bukatman says. “Can you download a personality into a machine? And is that still a person?”
Those questions, posed with such skill and rigor by Rubin’s story and Trumbull’s film, have only become more urgent. Thirty-five years after Brainstorm came out, nothing exactly like the scientists’ fictional headset exists—you can’t taste what someone else tastes, as Walken does in one scene, or feel someone else’s death. But virtual reality and augmented reality exist. The Oculus Rift and Google’s Daydream VR enable simulated experiences you might never have in real life. It’s not precisely the intimate experiential onslaught of Trumbull’s magic rainbow tape. But it’s closer.
“There is a world we are entering now that has to do with technologies that were hinted at in Brainstorm,” Rubin says. “I think those hints are meaningful in terms of how things can be used well, and how they can be corrupted by society. And I think a lot of what we need to talk about is very much in that film.”
And Showscan, Trumbull’s big innovation?
After the battle with MGM, he left Hollywood. A few years later, he successfully repurposed Showscan as a revolutionary enhancement for theme-park rides, which at the time was a fast-growing business. Trumbull integrated the technique with a kinesthetic motion platform, and built a flight-simulator ride—the world’s first—called Tour of the Universe, which ran from 1986 to 1992 in Toronto’s CN Tower.
Universal Studios tried the same concept for an IMAX ride based on the Back to the Future franchise, on which passengers would feel like they were in Doc Brown’s DeLorean. But it wasn’t calibrated correctly and induced severe motion sickness. Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Back to the Future, brought in Trumbull—his old partner on Close Encounters—to consult, and ended up fixing it with a masterful combination of real-world mechanics and special effects.
“The Back to the Future ride was kind of my rehab project,” he says. “I haven’t directed a film since [Brainstorm]…that whole scene almost destroyed my career.”
To hear Bukatman discuss Trumbull’s work, that was a true loss—he couldn’t think of a contemporary visual-effects auteur whose work compares to Trumbull’s contributions. “Trumbull provided so many of these special-effects sequences that were not only worth the price of admission, but were arguably what people had paid to see,” Bukatman says. “For me, Trumbull is one of the key figures that I can point to and say, This is where the brilliance of science-fiction film lies.”
Over the years, few other directors have experimented with faster frame rates. Peter Jackson notably shot his 2012 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps, to mixed reaction. Portions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), directed by Ang Lee, were shot at 120 fps with 4K resolution, and critics were similarly split, unsure if they liked the loss of traditional film’s illusory qualities. Those directors ran into the same snags Trumbull had: Most movie theaters just aren’t equipped for the format, most studios have no appetite for the cost, and—as Charlie Bluhdorn at Paramount had suspected all those decades ago—most audiences just don’t understand what they’re looking at.
“Brainstorm was a lot of fun,” Fletcher says. “Until it became tragic.”
Who knows what the movie could have been? If Showscan had been given a chance. If MGM’s leadership had remained intact. If there had been promotion, marketing, a press tour.
If Natalie Wood had lived.
“It’s one of those sad historic footnotes in film history,” says George Feltenstein, the Warner Bros. film historian. “We’ll never know, had the tragedy not occurred—had she not died—and had the film been completed on time and released when intended, it would have been released by the same regime that greenlit it. The only reason this picture even happened was that Doug just wouldn’t give up. But I think it gave him a terrible taste in his mouth about Hollywood. I think he would have directed more films had that not been such a grueling, crushing experience.”
And yet the Brainstorm we got is, in its own way, momentous. It is worthy of being Natalie Wood’s last movie—her performance is smart and tough and wise and sweet, and it softens the edges of the clinical, sci-fi parts of the plot. We got Walken at the height of his powers, and Fletcher tearing across the screen with humor and rage.
And we got Douglas Trumbull, telling us a terrific story, wielding every technological trick he could fathom, and the patience and wisdom required to draw greatness from his actors. Brainstorm is a little romantic, a little strange, but in the end, it’s quite magical. It is a piece of art, and a showcase for technology, and it deserves to be remembered.
And it deserves to be seen.