Vintage Cable Box: “Brainstorm, 1983”

“Why do you have to die to let go?”

Brainstorm, 1983 (Christopher Walken), MGM/UA

Where does our yearning for technology originate? Is it the most foolish form of narcissism; the desire to create “artificial” life to earn god-like stature in the pantheon of universal nature? Where does virtual reality fit? Is that our fatal flaw as humans? That, rather than experience life through the natural receptors of our eyes we, instead, want to replicate reality through the circuitry of a computer’s architecture? As Brainstorm opens, scientist Christopher Walken samples a technology that allows him to experience the reactions of another. In this case, a goofy co-worker who tries a piece of steak with marshmallow sauce and a cherry on top. As a gag, he substitutes his interface for that of a chimp, which nearly fries Walken’s brain, but the test is successful. It’s a wonderful moment that also points to the inherent dangers of going down rabbit holes, or in this case, up jungle vines. It’s interesting to me the connection to primates, as I tend to view our human relationship with computers comparable to lower primates and their relationship to us.

Removed from the movie’s staggering science, we plunge into Walken’s strained relationship with his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood, in her final role). It’s never clear to me why they are separated, other than the requisite work-obsessed husband who doesn’t give enough of his soul to his marriage, or that Wood, while initially a warm person, is emotionally distant from her husband. Meanwhile, aforementioned rag-a-muffin/science dork prankster Gordy has the most fun, working flight simulators, riding horses and driving race cars all while recording the experiences for the software. Karen works out the marketing for the device. Her problem is to make the unit much smaller than it presently is (basically a motorcycle helmet with a lot of circuitry attached). She convinces Walken to reduce the circuitry so that it can be worn in something similar to a bicycle helmet. The applications of this device are off-the-wall. Machiavellian CEO of their firm, Alex (Cliff Robertson) is blown away by the system and immediately sees dollar signs. Walken and colleague Louise Fletcher are understandably worried about long-term effects on the brain and other consequences.

Let’s go back to the fatal flaw. Why do we put so much time and work into replicating and simulating life experiences rather than enjoying them on our terms? I understand practical applications. The movie takes pains to explain that the Military would love to get their hands on the technology, but there’s also the obvious “harmless” application: games. Unfortunately, as the movie pre-dates virtual reality technology being made today, it also makes recent attempts by Google and Microsoft look primitive by comparison. While somewhat cost-prohibitive right now, I can see a future where everyone will wear devices like these on their heads, perhaps experiencing simulated “life” while simultaneously engaging in the more mundane aspects of their real lives. Maybe parachuting into an active volcano while grabbing a carton of milk at the supermarket? Our friend, Gordy, produces the virtual reality equivalent of a “sex tape,” which he proffers to a co-worker, who then goes into what I can only call an orgasm-induced state of catatonia. If computers are perfect, yet imperfect man creates perfect computers, then computers aren’t really perfect, are they? Doy.

In the muddle of Walken and Wood’s domestic troubles, there was the very interesting (and disturbing) idea that feelings could be recorded along with the sight stimulation. I don’t think we ever go further than that, except to finally see that we, as humans, can become irredeemably lost in our thoughts and feelings, and that the computer will never know when to stop destroying us with our fears. There’s a lot to admire in Brainstorm, but the movie feels oddly cold, lacking the true human connection we need from Wood and Walken; the best scenes are when Wood relives their courtship and marriage, and the couple reconcile as she sings a song to him under a bed-sheet. It’s such a beautiful (and sad) moment, you wish there were more scenes like these. MGM and director Douglas Trumbull swore up-and-down all of Wood’s scenes were shot before her untimely death, but she feels like a ghost in this movie. Walken, with his unusual mannerisms, makes for an interesting protagonist. You never know what he’s thinking. Fletcher is exceptional and was robbed of an Academy Award nomination. Her death scene is spectacular. As she dies of a heart attack, she records her experiences on the virtual reality software. Brainstorm could’ve been an incredible movie with a little more heart.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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