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A 1983 sci-fi film, notable for being Natalie Wood's last film.

Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken), Lillian Reynolds (Louis Fletcher), and Michael's wife/co-worker Karen Brace (Natalie Wood), develop a device called "The Hat", which can videotape one's experiences while you're having them, then play the tape back to anyone.

The lab's general manager, Alex (Cliff Robertson), wants them to develop a recording that would "knock his socks off," so they do, developing one where it shows some amazing experiences, including eating, hang gliding, riding a roller coaster and even a quick shot of the large breasts of some very attractive ladies. The people funding the lab are, shall we say, very impressed, because apparently it has significant uses in teaching people too. Of course, later we get the obligatory Anvilicious sermon because we find out that the military is funding the lab to develop new ways to train soldiers.

The movie goes on to push other problems with the development of this technology, some good, some bad. The consequences of being able to receive others' experiences is not always so good. During the film, one of Michael's co-worker's becomes addicted to the bootleg video where another co-worker taped himself and his very attractive girlfriend having sex. One particular tape was so bad, so black that it would cause psychosis if you saw it; of course, his curious son plays it and has a psychotic break that sends him to the hospital.

Michael's hypocrisy of becoming addicted to seeing a particular video becomes evident when his colleague, Lillian, videotapes her own death from a heart attack, and he attempts every effort to be able to see it. The management decides to have someone monitor the tape Walken is watching, and despite the warning to disable the feelies, goes ahead and runs it straight, and, of course, drops dead of a heart attack.

An interesting effect of this is, the experiences, which required a kind of very shiny metallic-optical tape about four inches wide, could be transmitted using an acoustical coupler modem over a phone line going to a pay phone. So we're not talking about DSL, folks. That's right, they can do the entire virtual reality experience over a voice-grade line at about 1200 bps!

A few scenes of the film had to be re-shot because Wood died before the film was finished. It's a really good film, even if the idea that they can do a full virtual-reality experience, video, sound, touch, smell, taste and even sex, over the bandwidth available on a telephone was a big stretch of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Tropes used in Brainstorm include:
  • Another Man's Terror: When Michael plays back Lillian's final recording, he experiences everything she did when she died. And as Michael says himself, "It's a chance to take a scientific look at the scariest thing a person ever has to face."
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The video "tape" used to record a full virtual reality experience, like an optical film, about four inches wide.
  • Armies Are Evil: The military is very interested in the technology for use in defense and training programs — as also a means of psychological torture.
  • Actor Existence Failure: Wood's death, as noted above.
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: The really cool effects people got to experience.
  • Go Into the Light
  • Foreign Queasine: When the mind-recording device is first being tested, one of the people wearing it orders up a "stake sundae" to test the sensation of taste, which tastes rather disgusting to Michael on the receiving end of the device.
  • In Another Man's Shoes
  • In Memoriam: The film has the dedication "To Natalie" at the end of the credits in honor of Wood.
  • Journey to the Center of the Mind
  • Mental Picture Projector
  • Mental World
  • Must Have Nicotine: Lillian is a rabid chain smoker who almost always has a cigarette in hand. Unfortunately this lifestyle choice of hers, combined with the stress of work, causes her to have a fatal heart attack while working alone one night.
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: Well, Lillian's life to Michael that is.
  • Near-Death Experience
  • Technology Porn: Oodles of shots of instrument panels, blinking lights, and spools of "tape" winding around.
  • The Rule of First Adopters: As mentioned above, one of the first non-scientific uses for the technology was to record sex acts and replay them as full-body experiences.
  • To Hell and Back
  • Troubled Production: The film was nearly canned by the studio as a result of Natalie Wood's death, but director Douglas Trumbull said the film could still be completed, and it took about two more years to work things out and finish the movie before it was finally released in 1983. The stress of finishing the film after Wood's death pushed the director away from moviemaking as well.
  • Visual Effects of Awesome: It was directed by special-effects master Douglas Trumbull, so this shouldn't be surprising.
  • What Could Have Been: Brainstorm was supposed to be the debut of the director's new film technology called Showscan, which can record and project 70mm film at 60 frames per second (compared to the industry standard of 24fps), in order to make make the film more realistic and exciting during the "virtual reality" segments. But unfortunately the plans fell though to use this new film process, so the director made a compromise by filming said segments in 24fps but with 70mm and adding surround sound effects, while everything else was filmed in normal 35mm with mono sound and a less-wide aspect ratio.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Lillian dies while hooked up to the machine. Someone else "watches" the recording, and has the exact same heart attack, dying in the process. The tape records all brainwaves and some physical indicators, so playing that tape unmodified would literally give the watcher the same heart arrhythmia.