Altered States (1980)

Writer Paddy Chayefsky’s last film and unfortunately, not his best. Altered States is very entertaining and thought provoking, as well as visually trippy (given special effects in 1980).

Chayefsky (Network, The Hospital), one of the top five writers in Hollywood, adapted his novel for the screen. This film was a difficult birth. The first director, Arthur Penn, left the film after disagreements with Chayefsky, to be replaced by Ken Russell (Tommy, Women in Love). Things did not flow any better with Russell, but the studio refused to fire a second director. It was Chayefsky who left the film and pulled his name from the credits.

The film basically asks: Can we find a way to travel back through our own evolution to the beginning of the universe? Chayefsky says yes; by way of sensory deprivation and mind altering drugs, can we find that hole in our being that allows transportation to our darkest corner of creation.

This a fascinating subject for a film, but it’s top-heavy on the religious symbolism and quick determination that anything unexplainable has a religious basis. Why does every experience involving the subconscious immediately trigger religious connotations? So we use science to discover God?

William Hurt plays Dr. Eddie Jessup a genius researcher of mysteries of the brain. He uses current research methodology involving a water-filled chamber that blocks human sensory, so the brain takes over to fill in the gaps with its own reality of sorts using the subconscious as a neurological sensory pallet. Hurt play his usual aloof and self-centered character. Jessup’s reputation is catnip for the chicks, as Jessup has no double talking colleagues and students into bed. Hurt is a fine dramatic actor, but a romantic lead he is not. Hurt, as well of others in the film are busy citing studies, theories and methodology so fast that the viewer just thinks, whatever. Yes, we are impressed with Chayefsky’s own research, but frankly he could steer some of that dialogue to creating more character depth. We already accept that these folks are brainiacs.

Blair Brown is Emily, an equally distinguished academic, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, who wants to marry Jessup. I never quite understood the attraction, and she assumes the relationship will not work. The film jump cuts through their relationship, from meeting to the dissolution of their marriage to Jessup’s dangerous research pulling him from reality.

Brown is a great choice for Emily, who is smart, later a great single parent, sexy as hell, and every bit as tenacious as Jessup. Emily is the most developed character in the film.

The film is both Jessup’s search for the primordial cells of life, and his rejection of happiness with a soul that will not allow him to experience life right before his eyes. Human life just does not compute for Jessup.

This film was pretty heady stuff in 1980, even though the subject matter of finding God was not that original, using science to do it was a new trick. Sensory deprivation research was being done, but the inclusion of untested drugs that could heighten different mind altering reactions, this might have been very new territory.

Chayefsky’s talent for taking us to the edge of reason, actually over the edge, along with director Ken Russell’s over-the-top visual style, overloads the viewer with so many images it is difficult to process viewing the film. I had to see the film more than once to absorb the flood of imagery and give it context.

As Jessup goes deeper into his research, he travels to Mexico to learn how a tribe achieves shared hallucinatory experiences using a potion they brew. He participates in their ceremony and experiences a bizarre reaction. So naturally, he brings back some of the potion to use while in his deprivation chamber. Feed your head.

Jessup tries to convince his colleagues that he was able to experience actually regressing into a baboon. He emerges unable to talk and has blood on his face when he gets out of the tank. His X-rays show the bone structure of a baboon. Later, his body takes on momentary characteristics of the beast as he suffers flashbacks.

In one of Jessup’s trips in the sensory deprivation chamber he emerges as a half man, half baboon, escapes from the lab and wakes up, naked in the zoo, after killing and eating a goat.

Even though they are no longer together, Emily bails him out of jail. She is still in love with him and is the only one who tries to really understand the mix of his research and his restless soul. She does, but we don’t. Her attraction to him is not developed enough to make it realistic.

Jessup goes into the tank one more time, but things go seriously wrong. Lights and pressure blasts from the chamber, engulfing Emily and Jessup’s colleagues. Jessup is a strange molten figure as the chamber blows up and shatters the lab. Emily wades through a swirling pool of mist, while director Russell shows a series of images suggesting that Jessup has found the way to the eve of creation, which Emily also experiences as she finds Jessup and embraces him.

Later, Jessup is taken to Emily’s house to recover. She is distraught about not being able to connect with Jessup. After Jessup’s colleagues leave, he tells Emily that she saved him, brought him back from whatever he was headed. Just then, his body begins to turn into a glowing, disfigured form of energy. Pounding his fist on the wall and the floor, fights off the metamorphosis, temporarily. Emily reaches out to him and she begins experiencing the same glowing field of energy. His body has returned to normal and reaches out to embrace her, which brings her back. He tells Emily that he loves her and what he was searching for he now realizes was empty, it wasn’t real. Only what’s before him is real. His realization saved himself and their marriage. This is how the film ends.

Conceptually, the film is very impressive and the 1980s era special effects are good, although at times a bit confusing. The supporting cast of Bob Balaban and Charles Haid is quite good. Brown is excellently cast, but Hurt only plays half of the character. Hurt did receive a Golden Globe for his portrayal, so not everyone agrees with me. Chayefsky was quite angry with Russell interpretation of his script, and in the end, the film tries to cover too many bases. There are parts of the film that are brilliant and other parts that are almost silly. All in all, I still like the film, I just overlook the weaknesses.

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