Directed By: Ken Russell
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban
Tag line: "When he heard his cry for help it wasn't human"
Trivia: This was the first American movie for British director Ken Russell
Altered States, a 1980 horror /sci-fi flick starring William Hurt (who, at the age of 30, was making his big-screen debut), was one of the films that played regularly on cable TV when my family first signed up for the service. While I never did sit down to watch the entire movie back then, I remember catching a few scenes here and there, usually in spurts of a couple minutes at a time, and based on what I saw, it didn’t look like something that would interest me. Having now seen it in its entirety, I can tell you this is not a film you can watch piecemeal, then come away thinking you know what it’s about. A sometimes dazzling, often compelling motion picture, Altered States is, by design, a fully immersive experience, and if you turn yourself over to it, I feel confident that, by the time it’s over, you’ll agree it’s one of the most unique movies to emerge from the ‘80s.
It was while studying schizophrenia in the 1960s that Professor Edward Jessup (Hurt) first became interested in other states of consciousness. Considered a bright but somewhat quirky researcher by his peers, he would spend hours in an isolation tank, during which he’d have visions suggesting the mind holds the key to mankind’s past, that the memory of thousands of years of evolution lay dormant inside each and every person, and with the right stimulation, these memories can be brought to the surface. Nobody, including his girlfriend Emily (Blair Brown) and his best friend / assistant Arthur (Bob Balaban), can understand Edward’s obsession with unleashing his “true self”, yet he doesn’t let that bother him. He knows he’s onto something big, and is ready to prove it to the world.
The years pass by, and Edward, now married to Emily and the father of two girls (one of whom is played by a very young Drew Barrymore), laments the fact he never completed his research. His marriage on the verge of collapsing, he makes a trip to Mexico, where he spends time with an indigenous tribe that’s discovered a special root, one that supposedly offers those who ingest it a mind-altering experience. Bringing samples of this root back with him, Jessup once again enters an isolation tank, and during his time inside, he begins to change, as if he were regressing to an earlier stage of evolution. At first elated by the results, Jessup soon discovers his “devolution” doesn’t end when he leaves the tank. Undaunted, he remains determined to see his research through, and aided by Emily, Arthur, and colleague Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), he continues his experiment, realizing full well that, once it’s completed, he may never be the same again.
Directed by Ken Russell (Tommy), Altered States is, at times, visually stunning, with montages (which usually crop up whenever Edward is in the isolation tank) as vibrant as they are imaginative (one of Edward’s earliest visions concerns the death of his father, and features imagery that’s religious in nature, everything from a demonic goat to the Shroud of Turin). Yet as engaging as these sequences are, they pale in comparison to what happens to Edward later on, when he undergoes a physical transformation (one segment in particular, where he emerges from the tank in a primitive state and runs out into the street, is handled brilliantly). In addition to its aesthetic qualities, Altered States is a very intelligent movie, with discussions and debates on topics ranging from religion to the potential of the human mind. Written by Paddy Chayefsky (Network), Altered States is a rarity in that it remains interesting even when its characters are just sitting around talking to each other.
The early ‘80s turned out a number of smart science fiction films, including Death Watch, Tron and Brainstorm, yet even in this select group, Altered States stands apart from the rest. I recommend you watch it with a few friends, because this is a movie you’ll definitely want to talk about afterwards.