Research scientist Eddie Jessup (William hurt) believes other states of consciousness are as real as everyday reality. Using sensory deprivation, then adding powerful, hallucinogenic drugs, he explores these altered states..and endures experiences that make madness seem a blessing. Academy award winner William Hurt as Jessup (his film debut) heads a solid cast featuring Blair brown, bob balaban and Charles had. Working from paddy Chayefskys novel, director ken Russell guides us with a sorcerers skill through eddies magical and horrific journey as Altered States gyrates with dazzling visual bravado and bracing emotional impact.
Altered States 8.25
eyelights: the basic premise, the trippy visuals.
eyesores: the incomprehensible conclusion.
“We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.”
‘Altered States’ is a 1980 motion picture based on the eponymous novel by Paddy Chayefsky, the only person to ever have won three solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay – the most recent of which, at the time, was ‘Network‘. It follows Eddie Jessup, a researcher who is using himself as the test subject in an experiment to find humanity’s primal self, and the impact this has on his sense of reality.
Although it’s primarily the character study of a cerebral and confounding individual, ‘Altered States’ is also a psychedelic suspense film, featuring some of the most trippy dream/fantasy sequences put to screen. In fact, one of its main draws are the hallucinations that Jessup has through the use of a combination of drugs and an isolation tank; although they are dated, they remain a visual feast.
When I first saw this picture, some seven or eight years ago. I had no idea what to expect and I was utterly blown away: it was in my top five films in 2007, back when I used to watch way more new movies than I do now (so the fact it made it so high in my list certainly says something). ‘Altered States’ was akin to watching the ending of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ over the course of 100 minutes.
It was that trippy.
For people who like abstract/psychedelic/surrealist imagery, this is a terrific movie. While some of Eddie’s hallucinations seem random and nonsensical, there are others that are clearly influenced by events taking place in his personal life; it’s not impossible to deconstruct, especially the earlier ones. It’s as he gets closer to his goals that they become harder to figure out.
By that point, however, the film has built up so much tension that it delves into horror: it keeps us at the edge of our seats as we try to figure out where it will all go, and how it will end. Understanding the imagery is no longer as essential, because we are so concerned with Eddie’s growing devolution that his nighmarish visions are of little consequence compared to his safety and sanity.
Eddie is played by William Hurt, in his first silver screen role. He has a freshness about him that reminded me of Keanu Reeves, but with hints of skill and charisma the latter couldn’t even dream of. I’ve never been a great fan of Hurt, whose delivery seems somewhat bland to me, but he has an unmistakable presence that he would learn to develop to greater depths later in his career.
Here Hurt manages to imbue Eddie with enough enthusiasm for his work that he manages to excite us about his mind-blowing -but scary- experiments; we truly want to know what he will discover. He also convinces us that Eddie is an eccentric, without making him off-putting. If anything, he comes off more as an extremely focused explorer on a journey that few would dare go on; he is utterly fearless.
To balance him out, to humanize him (in as much as it possible for such a detached character), the story introduces a romantic element in the form of Emily Jessup, whom he meets early in the picture and later marries. As she is also a researcher, they have a meeting of minds, even though she finds him detached and far too intellectual. But she remains his strongest supporter and anchor throughout.
Blair Brown plays Emily to perfection: one can see the emotional underpinning of the character lying beneath her intelligence and pragmatism; one has no doubt that she is a scientist, but a human being first and foremost. She is also extremely beautiful without being a glamour puss, which makes her seem more realistic contextually-speaking. I would love to see Brown’s other film appearances.
Rounding up the cast are Bob Balaban as Arthur, Eddie’s closest friend and long-term lab partner. Balaban is always good, and he plays smart-yet-down-to-earth with ease, making him an excellent counterpoint to Eddie. The picture also brings in Mason, a more skeptical scientist who is asked to oversee some aspects of their experiments. Although he rails uncontrollably, he lends their results credibility.
By the third act, when things get completely out of hand, with everyone (including ourselves) questioning Eddie’s insane assertions, ‘Altered States’ loses some of the solid footing that it once had, leaving us wondering if Eddie is becoming schizophrenic or if he’s having flashbacks from all the mind-altering substances he’s been taking. Thankfully, Mason is there to clear things up for us.
The finale makes no sense whatsoever, sadly, taking us onto a metaphysical level that most (including myself) simply won’t be able to grasp. But, by that point in the picture, we are simply holding on, gripping our armrests until the end of the ride. And while it’s not nearly as satisfying on an intellectual level, it most certainly is on a visceral one, throwing violence, scares and effects at us.
In the end, ‘Altered States’ may not be remembered for anything but for having started a few careers, but it’s a motion picture that science fiction, fantasy and horror buffs should absolutely get their hands on. It’s not an easy watch, especially since it’s not very action-oriented, but it’s got enough to stimulate the senses and the imagination to warrant the viewing. Or two. Or three.
In fact, I know a lot of people who should see it, and to whom I will lend my DVD.
Date of viewing: May 4, 2015