|Review||Altered States (1980)||Director||Ken Russell|
|Cast||William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Miguel Godreau, Dori Brenner, Peter Brandon and Drew Barrymore|
“If I don‘t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual…I shall go out of my fucking mind” – Eddie
Eddie Jessup (Hurt) is an unconventional scientist who tries out experiments in sensory deprivation with an isolation chamber where he uses himself as the subject. In the chamber he experiences hallucinations that are religious based and he’s a an atheist. Years later Jessup is a respected professor and married to Emily (Brown), herself a scientist, and they have two children. Fearing he is going out of his mind living the normal life he continues his experiments with a more developed isolation chamber along with his colleague Arthur (Balaban). This time Eddie uses hallucinogens from a Mexican ritual to enhance the experience. The experiments start to have an even bigger effect on Eddie and progress to having externalizing consequences as Eddie’s body starts transforming while in this altered state. What has he tapped into and how dangerous will it be for him?
The passing of William Hurt on March 13th prompted me to go through my collection and check out some of his work. I’ve always thought he was a very good actor and I was quite saddened to hear he was gone. I don’t own a lot of his movies but “Body Heat” (1981) is a big favorite, “The Big Chill” (1983) as well and also “Altered States”. There are a few movies I really like but I’m not sure why and “Altered States” has always been one of those. I know painfully little about the film’s late director Ken Russell and have seen only one other film of his; “Crimes of Passion” (1984), which I do like as well so maybe I should check out more of his films.
“Altered States” is a film I find difficult to classify. Essentially it’s a drama piece about an obsessed individual searching for the absolute truth no matter the cost. Eddie is very self-centered, not all that likeable and clumsy socially speaking but his intentions are pure and his determination attracts a chosen few around him who either follow him or love him unconditionally. When Eddie may be in real danger he doesn’t care as long as it may yield some hidden knowledge but it’s very tough for those who care for him. Story wise “Altered States” presents a fairly involving drama with these people who are in for one hell of a journey with Eddie.
The screenplay by the prolific playwright Paddy Chayefsky (who wrote the screenplay for “Network” (1976) – one of the most prophetic and brilliant satires about the media industry) is based on his novel of the same name (published in 1978) and it’s very gripping and thought provoking. It’s credited to Sidney Aaron (Chayefsky’s birth name) as the writer didn’t care for Russell’s handling of his material and in particular the dialogue. But no matter if Chayefsky was angered at this as it’s precisely Russell’s treatment of the material that makes sure it connects with the audience. The most scientific and theoretical jargon is presented in an organic and authentic manner and the heavy handedness of the subject is far more accessible than it would have been if handled with more…let’s say…seriousness. There are so many head scratching discussions between the characters and thanks to their appealing personalities (and the actors’s performances) these scenes are always engaging.
Eddie isn’t a crazy individual but he is obsessed and one thing in his hallucinatory state that stays with him is his religious imagery. A backstory is revealed about his father dying a slow death of cancer which affected Eddie’s belief system and this makes him all the more determined to continue with his experiments. This opens the doorway for the director to really put his stamp on the material as the film’s use of crazy, surreal and nightmarish imagery is on full display while Eddie is in the isolation tank and, later, beyond the isolation tank. Russell really let’s loose when showcasing Eddie’s images and visually speaking “Altered States” is a one of a kind experience. Especially when considering that the film is narratively straightforward and very much based in the real world. Some things on the screen are fairly disturbing, possess a shock factor and veer into horror territory on occasion. Once Eddie starts transforming externally the film becomes quite suspenseful and unpredictable.
Of course none of this is resolved in any way come the end credits but the film’s resolution side steps that in a nice way. Eddie’s quest for absolute truth was never going to reach a satisfactory answer so his ultimate discovery is more of a personal nature. In fact what “Altered States” boils down to in it’s simplest form is an age-old knowledge that we know is true but the journey to it is different for each one of us.
“Altered States” was Hurt’s feature film debut and he’s absolutely terrific here. Eddie is a complex character which might have been difficult to tolerate had his portrayal been different. Hurt is not only extremely likeable but he manages to convey Eddie’s obsessions with earnestness that makes the viewer root for him while they secretly wished he’d let it go and care more for those around him. Brown, Balaban and Haid give good support but this really is Hurt’s show all the way.