BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jul 31st, 2012 •

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This Christmas, audiences will have the choice of seeing THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY at 24 frames per second, or at 48 frames per second. Peter Jackson’s digitally-shot epic marks one of the only times since the dawn of sound that a feature will be run at a standard other than 24 or 25 frames per second. Now, shooting at higher frame rates is not exactly a new concept. Mike Todd’s Todd-AO process filmed 70mm at 30 frames per second, while visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull came up with a format called Showscan that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second.

Showscan was going to be unveiled to the public with Trumbull’s second feature as a director: BRAINSTORM. The plans for shooting and showing the film at 60 frames per second were nixed however, when exhibitors and producers balked at having to run two-and-a-half times as much film for the Showscan process. Nonetheless, Trumbull still wanted his movie to be unique in its presentation, and he certainly succeeded.

Ironically, BRAINSTORM is about showmanship, at least in it’s first third. Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood (in her final role, more on that later), and Louise Fletcher are scientists testing an augmented reality device that can perfectly record any sensory experience. Their work impresses everyone they come across, but attracts the attention of the military who want to take over the project in order to use the device for nefarious purposes.

The story takes an unexpected turn when one of the scientists dies, with their death being recorded by the device. From there, the movie focuses on the pursuit of the ‘toxic’ recording of the scientist’s death, which Walken is intrigued by, stating that he wants to “take a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face.” At the same time, the military is keeping the recording under wraps, and conducting its own experiments with the device.

BRAINSTORM is a pretty engaging drama. Walken gives an interesting lead performance, and there’s a compelling, sweet scene with him and Wood sharing memories with the augmented reality device. The real star of the show is Fletcher. She plays her role to perfection; a frustrated, overworked, but ultimately caring scientist trying to balance her ambitions and her friendships.

The pacing is a little choppy, and at times the film feels unfinished, as if there’s coverage or post-production elements missing; sort of like watching a TV movie. This could be due to the death of Natalie Wood (again, more on that later), and is a little baffling because of Trumbull’s economic approach to filmmaking and storytelling with SILENT RUNNING, a full decade before BRAINSTORM ever entered production.

Regardless, the visual effects are, as expected from someone with Trumbull’s pedigree, visually arresting. The finale, similar to the one Trumbull designed for 2001, is rightfully trippy and gorgeous. The ‘death tape’ the final act of the movie revolves around gets some stunning effects as well; the camera zooms around a series of thousands of spheres, each with a different memory from the characters.

Trumbull’s idea of showmanship and advancing film technology may have hit a snag with the dropping of Showscan, but he did the next best thing. The augmented reality scenes are shot in 70mm, and play at an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, while the rest of the film was shot in 35mm and is presented at about 1.70:1. The Blu-Ray handles this in an interesting way; the 35mm material is windowboxed within a scope framing, the same way it was done in the film’s 70mm premiere engagements. This is sure to cause no shortage of headaches for people with smaller monitors, and the disc could have benefited from also including a version that handled the picture size differently, with the 35mm filling the screen, then going to letterbox for the 70mm sequences, as it was on earlier laserdisc and DVD releases.

Warner’s Blu-Ray gives the film a spectacular presentation; the 70mm sequences have the depth and sharpness you expect, while the 35mm portions maintain a film-like appearance. The 5.1 sound mix isn’t terribly aggressive, but suits the film well. There are no extras, save for a trailer.

Most people don’t know BRAINSTORM as a Douglas Trumbull project. Whenever it’s brought up, it’s always preceded by the words ‘Natalie Wood’s last film’. During a break in filming on November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood drowned. Following Wood’s death, MGM wanted to scrap BRAINSTORM in order to receive insurance money that would cover the film’s budget. Trumbull convinced them to let him finish the film, which was finally released in September, 1983. Wood’s sudden death meant the film wasn’t finished as planned, and you certainly get that impression watching the final scenes, where the movie ends somewhat abruptly and with a few questions left unanswered.

Trumbull was so disillusioned with Hollywood after this that he didn’t work on another feature for 28 years. Instead he made ride films, including BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE RIDE, which used IMAX technology, for Universal Studios theme parks. He only returned to features last year, assisting in effects work on Terrance Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE.

BRAINSTORM is a flawed but noble effort from Douglas Trumbull. If you have an interest in Trumbull, visual effects in general, or the 70mm format, give it a whirl.

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One Response »

  1. What a great review. Will give it a go.

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