The Brain Machine


Year 1977

James Best as  Rev. Emory Neill
Barbara Burgess as Dr. Carol Portland  
Doug Collins as Dr. Roland Roth
Thomas Hal Phillips   as The General
Stocker Fontelieu as Saxon
 
Director - Joy N. Houck Jr.
Screenwriters - Thomas Hal Phillips  
  - Joy N. Houck Jr.
  - Christian Garrison

As an attempt at a complex plot that doesn't quite come off, The Brain Machine is better than it should be. That's saying a lot considering the cheesy sets, lame dialog, and forced complications.

At a government research facility, there are two experiments underway. One of them is CIC, which in my world is like CICS or Customer Information Control System. (CICS was middleware for handling a hierarchical IBM 360 database. Maybe that's where the screenwriters got it from since there's a big sign for an IBM 360 in the lab. Ah! The days of JCL and COBOL. <sigh>) As for the movie's CIC, it's never explained but events let the viewer decide for himself how CIC is a mind surveillance project.

There's a second project that has something to do with the environment called ESS, which in my world is an Electronic Switching System as developed by AT&T. That acronym is never explained either, but the premise is that if everyone is truthful then the world's environment will be saved...or nonsense to that effect.

To set the stage, the CIC experiment has been sabotaged and may default to computer control which has unspecified effects. But The General in charge of both projects wants to piggy back the CIC effort onto the still viable ESS to create a hybrid project. Not the best decision and the computer ends up taking control of both projects...sort of.

Like any good movie, which this really isn't, this has more to it than a linear point A to point B plot. There's a paranoia theme that is exposed through the actions of the characters as they are carried along by the plot. It's layered and this layering is what saves the movie from the under a rock inclusion.

This is one of those movies where the writing is bad. Really bad. Attention to detail is lacking. Theres one scene where The General shows up to watch something. To show how important this is, he snatches off his glasses. Uh. Wouldn't that make him blind as a bat? But snatch he does and then intently watches the fuzzy things dance in front of his blurred vision, I guess.

But, the fact that the writing is so bad actually works to the film's benefit. Even if the writers tried to tell you something directly, they couldn't. So, you're left guessing about what's going on. The writers had something in mind, so your effort in trying to piece things together won't be wasted. In fact, this chaotic approach is one of the reasons that I like this movie. It's a shame the writers couldn't turn off the ambiguity when it wasn't warranted.

To give credit where credit's due, the writers were imaginative in some areas of their vision and nearly every scene moved the plot along. Sometimes as a wounded survivor limping to the next scene, but nearly everything mattered. The beginning of the movie did everything it was supposed to do, but in such a clumsy manner that it's easier to make fun it of than appreciate it.

The scientist (you know he's a scientist because he's wearing a white lab coat) in charge of the CIC project uncovers the way his research will be misused. So he steals some files, I guess to use as proof, and escapes to the local town where he takes a room in a hotel and makes some telephone calls. O-o-o-k-a-a-y. Rather than just take the files and leave, say, at the end of his shift, he leaves the file drawers open and furtively scurries about the building calling attention to himself at every opportunity before deciding to finally leave about an hour or so later. Then, still in his lab coat, he traipses through the woods near the facility and finally makes his way into town.

The thing is, his actions set up the rest of the movie and establish the ground rules. First, there's the fact that the projects are independent of each other. Second, even the environmental ESS project is nefarious in nature. (Environmental? Nature? Nevermind.) Third, there's a "failsafe" computer system that this guy put in place. Fourth, there's a senator involved. Fifth, the military is involved. Sixth, the price of betrayal is death. Seventh, the person in charge of the ESS project is Dr. Roth.

That's a lot of information in the first ten or so minutes. You can't fault a person, or trio of screenwriters, that go down trying. However, you can fault them for the whole thing looking like a first grade play.

Now for the main plot. Four damaged people are used as subjects in the ESS. They need to tell the truth. But three of them have a deep dark secret that they need to keep secret. There's an addlepated woman (as opposed to a semi-retarded one - which is so-o-o non-PC!), a Reverand who's twisted with guilt, and a ne'er do well who did something bad in the military and got away with it.

They're stuck together in a room that the computer takes control of via the CIC project. Thanks to some sort of magical mind control (Look, Ma! No wires!), they're forced to reveal their secrets and be destroyed as a result. In the end, the government wins.

This movie made me think of West World and Colossus: The Forbin Project, both of which are better. Nevertheless, it made me think of them. Also, every time I saw The General, I thought of how much better the movie would have been if John Vernon were playing the part. He would've made the snatching off the eyeglasses scene work!

It also made me think of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb when personnel in the CIC room were going about their tasks and flipping switches and talking gobble-de-gook like the the crewman on the B-52. They said things like James Earl Jones' "negative function" when the switches didn't work.

I'm not saying that anyone should seek out this movie, but it's got enough "that's a legitimate scene" moments to balance out "he's not a scientist unless he's wearing a lab coat" or "I think I'll run away by checking into a local hotel and phoning some people who might want to reach me" moments. To give you some idea of what you're in for, James Best of The Dukes of Hazzard and The Killer Shrews fame, gets top billing. To be fair, he's not a bad actor despite the implication.

A little blasphemy, one or two curse words, and no nudity. I can only think of one woman I know who'd have sat through this thing with me, so it's low on the chick flick potential.


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