Altered States (1980)

“There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be.”

Altered States Poster

In search of the Ultimate Truth, a determined psychiatrist (William Hurt) takes hallucinatory drugs and undergoes sensory deprivation — but when he starts experiencing physiological changes, his wife (Blair Brown) and colleagues (Bob Balaban and Charles Haid) begin to fear for his safety.


Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this surreal, mind-bending cult favorite by director Ken Russell — based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky — a “Jekyll-and-Hyde variation” which “takes viewers on [an] ambitious, if hokey, exploration of man’s origins” and “advances [the] intriguing theory that there can be genetic change if one’s consciousness is manipulated”. Through foolhardy experimentation with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation — Chayefsky’s story was purportedly inspired by “John Lilly’s mind-expansion experiments in the mid-sixties” — Hurt’s Dr. Jessup actually turns into a primitive apeman (played by dancer Miguel Godreau) and eventually regresses into an “embryonic state”. Given this fascinating sci-fi/horror premise, it’s too bad that “towards the end, the storyline drops several intellectual planes” and is content with making “simplistic points” about the nature of Truth and Life. Without giving away spoilers (like Peary does), suffice it to say that the film “unfortunately avoids controversy” with an overly pat ending that is perhaps meant to appeal to mass audiences, but will likely alienate the type of viewers most drawn towards this type of heady material.

Peary does point out, however, that “there is much that is noteworthy” in the film — including its “blasting soundtrack” (which “won the picture an Oscar”), special effects by Bran Ferren (which Peary argues are “often ill-chosen but dynamic”, though I found them appropriately surreal throughout), and the “remarkable make-up work” of “the legendary Dick Smith” (who worked on, among many other titles, The Exorcist and Scanners — click here for his website). Peary notes that Russell “keeps things under surprising control for a change”, and does wonders with Chayefsky’s “overwritten script”; in his more detailed analysis of the film for his Cult Movies 2 book, Peary explains that Russell “solved much of [Chayefsky’s] overwritten dialogue problem by having his actors talk so quickly that lines that would make no sense to the average viewer anyway are lost” — a technique which works remarkably well, and actually helps to impress upon us the essential fact that “the characters are loquacious about erudite subjects”. As Peary notes, the fine ensemble cast “are all believable, and smooth, as they deliver intellectual diatribes” (with Blair particularly noteworthy in what could have been a somewhat thankless role). Despite its flaws, then, film fanatics will surely want to check out this audacious, visually evocative, finely acted headtrip at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Hurt as Eddie Jessup
    Altered States Hurt
  • Blair Brown as Emily Jessup
    Altered States Brown
  • Bob Balaban and Charles Haid as Eddie’s colleagues
    Altered States Balaban Haid
  • Memorable hallucinatory imagery
    Altered States Imagery
  • Dick Smith’s makeup
    Altered States Makeup
  • John Corigliani’s Oscar-nominated score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite by a famed director.



One Response to “Altered States (1980)”

  1. A must – not because it’s such a great movie (I’m not a big fan), but it has earned its place as a cult favorite and, as such, ffs will want to experience it.

    I saw this when it was released, then probably just once when it became available on VHS. Haven’t had much of an urge to return to it since. Watching it again, I found myself side-tracked by certain elements (brought out in the overview) which can become bothersome during a repeat viewing: mainly Hurt’s non-stop “mumbo jumbo” (which gets to be a bit much, even though he manages his speeches with a fair amount of aplomb).

    In a sense, the crux of this ‘mad scientist’ tale is so patently absurd (man’s quest for ‘truth’ notwithstanding) that Russell’s madcap, endlessly inventive flourishes make a kind of ‘sense’. …Until they don’t: say, about the last 20 minutes or so. At that point, you really have to throw up your hands and enjoy the ride.

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