Review: The Brain Machine (1977)

The Brain Machine

Directed by Joy N. Houck, Jr.
Starring James Best, Barbara Burgess, Gerald McRaney

The most helpful IMDb review of The Brain Machine is a list of non sequiturs: “The acting is pretty bad. Everyone is emoting. Everyone is keeping secrets. […] Those little rooms and those chaise lounges [sic]. The awful wallpaper (was it wallpaper?).” There’s no other way to put the viewing experience into words. One moment a character is sharing childhood memories and the next an evil computer is trying to smash a set of lawn furniture into splinters. The Brain Machine is one of those movies that never gets out of its own head: It knows exactly what it’s trying to say; We can only watch in silent wonder as everyone emotes and everyone keeps secrets.

This state of confusion only further obscures the film’s plot: The titular device is a government-sanctioned experiment designed to read minds and make inquiries. No one, not even those in charge of the experiments, seems to understand how this machine works, but a few shadowy higher-ups are convinced that it could eliminate crime as we know it. “Eternal surveillance is the price of liberty,” someone in sunglasses says. “If you really want to know your enemy, you have to know what he’s thinking, not what he’s saying.” Someone else in sunglasses nods.

There are two different plotlines here, both of which are needlessly complicated. While four volunteers are submitted to inquiry and experimentation through the mind-reading Brain Machine, a number of nameless scientist types are shot down by a number of nameless government types, usually in ridiculous no-holds-barred fashion. A man is composing a letter in his apartment when the door bursts open and he’s shot off his chair, left to bleed to death on the floor. Someone else is chased down by a truck and shot with a rifle in broad daylight. As the United States government mercilessly spills the blood of its own citizens, the volunteers are left in the hands of a HAL 9000-inspired nightmare computer that says things like “Subject does not accept fact of death” and tries to crush them into people goo. All the while, everyone emotes and everyone keeps secrets.

What makes The Brain Machine worthwhile is character development. Each of the four volunteers carries a tragic backstory that is kept shrouded in secrecy until the final moments, when the computer forces them to submit to its inquiries. A ditzy blonde comes clean about a previous marriage. A reverend reveals a life of sin. The only thing they can’t come to terms with is their inevitable death. “No one believes they’ll ever die,” someone astutely points out, “Human faith to a computer doesn’t compute!” The cold, calculating computer can’t handle the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the human brain. This idea is echoed in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, set in a possible future in which humans can date an operating system. The computer in Her doesn’t try to smash anyone, but it, too, fails to see eye-to-eye with the human brain, as its accelerated learning capabilities quickly outpace those of Joaquin Pheonix’s Theodore Twombly. Another example of artificial intelligence integration can be found in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, set in a distant future populated by “replicants,” or artificial people. Here, the story’s conflict lies in the negligible difference between humans and robots: How does the definition of “human” change when we become capable of manufacturing perfect replicas of our own species? The release dates for all three of these films is indicative of a sort of artificial intelligence learning curve. In 1977’s The Brain Machine, a computer error causes human death. In 1982’s Blade Runner, humans and robots are one and the same. And in 2013’s Her, the capabilities of an operating system easily outstrip those of a human brain.

While The Brain Machine might be a fascinating artifact from the 1970s, the fact remains that it’s an untenable mess. Half the running time is establishing shots. Much of the first 30 minutes is dull, inconsequential nonsense. But buried somewhere inside its heart is a potent human drama about the lies we tell ourselves and the truths we keep concealed. It’s easy to find yourself somewhere within the confusing, convoluted narrative. As a wise person once said: Everyone is emoting. Everyone is keeping secrets.

Life is like that.

Links:

YouTube – Complete Movie

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