Brainstorm: The First Hacker Movie

I crave authenticity in entertainment. I want my stories to be like seeing behind the curtains into some strange world. For that reason, I was truly struck by the management/labor dynamic in Alien. You never see plumbers on spaceships even though you’d absolutely have to have them as liquid management would be critical to any long voyage.

The Voigt-Kampf machine in Blade Runner and the tiny details of Deckard’s gun absolutely sold me on the world they were building in that movie. I’m also fond of the tricks private detectives use, as when Marlowe flips the brim of his hat up and transforms into a nerd so he can interrogate a book shop worker in The Big Sleep (a scene borrowed for Blade Runner).

One of the most stunning acts of authenticity in any movie, for me at least, was the entire process of creating the sensory recording device in Brainstorm. I can’t think of a movie before that one where the technological MacGuffin isn’t presented as a whole and complete product, including marketing input, from the very start.

In Brainstorm, we’re treated to the process of taking the device from a room full of stray equipment latched together by cobwebs of cables all the way down to a large suitcase, which, along with speculative technologies like optical recording tape, just made you feel like you were hanging out with a bunch of tech hackers in their garage workshop in the warehouse district.

The next time I would truly get that feeling would be with Shane Carruth’s inscrutable but hypnotic time travel movie, Primer (2004).

The movie itself, most often remembered as Natalie Wood’s final performance before her murder, is uneven but fun. Christopher Walken plays all the black keys as usual, of course, and the writing brings out some truly interesting ideas. The most fascinating being the sales rep who borrows the machine for a weekend so can experience sex with a pretty blonde on a loop. Afterward, when he comes out of his coma, he tells them, “You don’t understand. It changed me on a fundamental level. I will never be the same again.”

Which raises all kinds of questions about how our experiences form our reality.

It’s a good, if not great, film and an experience that should be in every SF lover’s life, that only truly fails when it attempts to show something unshowable at the very end. But for me, it’s most noteworthy for being the first film about the wave of tech hackers that was just then poised to change the world.

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