And our leads? The oft-confused Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. This movie's actually a helpful mnemonic for those of you who have trouble remembering which is which: who'd make a better head-in-the-clouds neurologist vs. who'd make a better corporate shark?
Pullman is the neurologist, Rex, whose livelihood is threatened by shady goings-on involving his old college buddy turned plutocrat, Jim (Paxton). Soon, Rex's very sanity is on the line; he begins to experience hallucinations after agreeing to perform experimental brain surgery on a company drone (Cort) who knows too much.
Paxton's pretty much in Chet mode here, replete with oily grins and trying to seem threatening but just coming across as adolescent. Perhaps the fault here partly lies with his ridiculous hairstyle, and really the whole '80s-on-steroids look of the company. Pullman's performance is more real, which is fortunate because has much more screen time—and because something had to help this movie seem real.
Near as I can figure, Brain Dead's supposed to take place in the near future—or at least the near future as imagined in the late '80s. Yet I also perceived an attempt at quirkiness of an almost Buckaroo Banzai flavor, what with the weird sets and weirder acting. (They threw in a reference to Miskatonic University, too, which I thought was cute.)
But just because you like quirky movies doesn't mean Brain Dead should be on your list. About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative begins to fall apart—on purpose, in a sense, because this is one of those movies where the line between the protagonist's "objective" reality and what he perceives is obliterated, and he keeps waking up (or does he?) from dreams (or are they?). Now, if you have a tightly woven script, this can be engaging; Brain Dead doesn't, so it becomes tiresome. The story seems to want to substitute wacky scene upon wacky scene for actual development. Maybe they figured they'd leave things open for a sequel that could tie everything together (e.g. explain what the significance of Halsey's secret knowledge really was), but that's a charitable guess. Or maybe they thought the final shot would embody the wry horror-humor they thought they were attaining. Or maybe the filmmakers just assumed brains were inherently scary, which meant building tension and scares wasn't really necessary.
So the tone of this movie is kind of all over the place, but I think the fundamental issue with it is that, too often, it tries to seem unhinged but comes off as whimsical. (Case in point: the nameless neurosurgeon's line right before the end is read with all the gravity of Larry Fine.) At times it even veers into boring, though not for long and hardly at all after the first half. In the end, it's just corny and doesn't really go anywhere despite all the spiraling illusions—and in that way, it reminded me of Inception, though at least Brain Dead doesn't take itself as seriously.
Star Score: 2 out of 5