In September of 1983 an ambitious science fiction film by the visionary special effects guru behind “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner” was dumped into movie theaters with little fanfare.
“Brainstorm” had been shelved by the studio for nearly two years after the shock of a devastating tragedy, the death of the one of the film’s stars. The legendary Natalie Wood died in a drowning incident during a break in production on November 28, 1981.
“Brainstorm” was based on an original screenplay entitled “The George Dunlap Tape” written by Bruce Joel Rubin who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar winning for “Ghost” (1990) and wrote the mind-tripping “Jacob’s Ladder”(1990).
In addition to being one of the innovative pioneers in the then just emerging special visual effects industry, Douglas Trumbull had directed “Silent Running” (1971), an acclaimed science fiction film with independent, art house sensibilities that has gone on to cult status. So when Trumbull became attached to “Brainstorm” as the director, it seemed like a perfect fit. Trumbull announced he was creating a brand new filming process for “Brainstorm” called “Showscan”, a 60 frames per second 70 millimeter format, a precursor of the IMAX scenes used by Christopher Nolan in “The Dark Knight Rises”.
The film’s opening seemed to serve only as a reminder of the tragedy, and despite some positive reviews, especially when it came to Louise Fletcher’s intense performance, the film quickly vanished after a tepid release in a small number of theaters.
“Brainstorm” is an intriguing, well-acted science fiction drama that in many ways it was ahead of its time. It is arguably one of the first “virtual reality” movies, along with “Videodrome” (1983) and “Tron” (1982). One aspect of “Brainstorm” that was noticed by anyone who experienced the film in 1983 and something that still resonates more than ever today is the outstanding musical score by James Horner.
“Brainstorm” is a young James Horner (under 30 at the time composed this) at his most innovative and creatively confident. The music in “Brainstorm” infuses the film with a soul-stirring orchestral and choral element that gives the movie the spiritual sense of mystery and wonder it needs to work.
James Horner re-recorded the score with the London Symphony Orchestra for a soundtrack album that was released on CD by Varese. It was one of the earliest digital releases of a soundtrack and the sound quality of the disc is outstanding even by today’s standards.
The album opens with a haunting choir in “Main Title”, an imaginative seductive piece that introduces us to the metaphysical colorings used to score the film’s big revelation and visual effects sequences. “Brainstorm” is sparse and spot on in its utilization of choir and foreshadows such later Horner works as “Glory” (1989), “Mighty Joe Young” (1998) and “Avatar” (2009).
Track two on the album, “Lillian’s Heart Attack”, is a breakthrough cue packing such tremendous, visceral power, it literally jolts the listener and gets the heart pumping. This is the kind of track that will grab you by the throat, shake you, and remind you of the insane talent Horner was at such a young age.
Track three “Gaining Access To The Tapes” is an efficient, fluid piece of montage action underscore that is more or less standard Horner stuff. But it is in the next track, “Michael’s Gift to Karen” where Horner takes his artistry to an entire new dimension. It is a gorgeous, classically flavored, flowing piece of music that represents the art of film music at its most expressive.
In track five, “First Playback”, we experience a burst of the avante-guarde. The suspense continues to build in track six, “Race For Time”, as the characters played by Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood go up against the Industrial Military Complex and fight to gain access to the mind blowing technology they helped to create.
Horner unleashes the full might of his progressive composition in the final track, “Final Playback/End Titles”, an imaginative work of awestruck musical wonder that brings the score soaring into an emotionally satisfying finale.
“Brainstorm” is a remarkable achievement in imaginative film scoring, an influential score with moments of sheer wonder. Nearly three decades later this classic soundtrack sounds as good as ever.