Research scientists Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) develop a device that can record and playback physical, emotional and intellectual sensations from the brain, allowing anyone to re-experience them in exact detail through a tape and headset.
Successful demonstrations get their project some corporate funding but also attract military ‘observation’ of the device’s development.
Pacifist Lillian argues against the military intrusion, straining a suspect heart already overloaded by her conspicuous chain-smoking, and then succumbs to a fatal heart attack while still hooked to the recording machine, thereby recording all the sensations of her own death.
Michael becomes obsessed with the possibility of experiencing Lillian’s last tape. Forbidden to risk it by benevolent boss Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson), and eventually banned from his own lab on military orders, Michael gets comprehensively miffed by the discovery that the heavies are nefariously refining his device into a brainwashing tool.
His rampage of revenge, with his wife, Karen (Natalie Wood) and other old comrades in tow, is achieved by cracking computer codes and causing remote-control chaos in the labs. And his hard-won glimpse of heaven is eventually filched from Lillian’s tape via the public telephone network.
The protracted multi-million dollar production suffered the traumas occasioned by the untimely death of co-star Natalie Wood and a limbo period when the studio (MGM) threatened the withdrawal of completion funding.
A new ending was written for the film, and Lloyds of London paid out $3 million so that the film could be completed.