The Brain Machine

November 22, 2010 at 1:00 am (5 Heads, Brain Machine) (, , )

The Brain Machine – 1972 – United States

The Brain Machine’s (aka Grey Matter and Mind Warp) IMDB score is justifiably bad. Brain Machine is an ambiguous mess—a flick that deals thematically with conflicting motivations and intentions without clear motivations and intentions itself. Brain Machine’s creators allude to Big Ideas (nature, faith, mortality, freedom, surveillance, AI), only scratching the surface but somehow muddling them all up anyway. It’s a convoluted mess of philosophies, but its head is in the right place, and if you work hard, you’ll find something to think about.

Benign scientists study overpopulation (apparently, but this is unclear) with a computer that measures brain “impulses”. Four subjects (priest, veteran, poet, and hillbilly girl) harbor dark secrets. As the computer confronts them, it’s apparent the experiment is not what it seems. Shadowy government agents have hijacked the computer for mind control research. Quoting one: “Eternal surveillance is the price of liberty”. With lots of exposition but little explanation, the experiment disintegrates as the computer enters Fail Safe. Conducting its own tests, it strip mines the subjects’ minds, driving them insane.

So I think. I’ve condensed Brain Machine with a fair bit of guesswork, so it’s hard to claim any accuracy. The plot must be attentively extracted from endless scenes of scurrying people in scrubs and suits, speaking in techno-babble and shadowy allusions. Numerous nameless characters and quick editing further obfuscate Brain Machine’s already vague thesis. That said, the parts I comprehended were interesting. In one poignant scene, a government agent ruminates on the inefficiency of surveillance. “If you really want to know your enemy, you’ve got to know what he’s thinking, not what he’s saying.” In another particularly chilling bit, the computer discovers mortality through the deaths of each test subject. These vignette-like sections don’t collectively make a plot, but comparing them, a semblance of meaning forms.

Brain Machine is aesthetically unsettling as well. The muted colors and angular compositions turn the offices and laboratories into a landscape of sterile bleakness. Humming, beeping, and whirring sounds punctuated by harsh electronic music evoke claustrophobia. Other reviews criticize ponderous camera movement and recurring establishing shots. To me, this stillness and repetition contributes to the palpably sinister dreariness. Brain Machine is unpleasant to watch—aggravating, in fact—but it’s stylistically cohesive whether purposefully or not.

At the review’s end, I’m as guilty as Brain Machine—lacking intent and contradicting myself. Inarguably, Brain Machine is a confused jumble rife with creative and technical shortcomings, but it’s still engaging if you pick it apart, rearrange it, and inject meaning. Part of Brain Machine wants to be enjoyable, mixing science and philosophy into a conspiracy thriller, but mostly it’s indulgent and apathetic to its audience. Conquer your ambivalence/agitation/repulsion and you might find a flick with content deep down.

Rating: 5/10 Shrunken Heads. Dig through its layers, if you dare…

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