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It's been a quarter century since I first experienced Altered States,
Ken Russell's take on Paddy Chayevsky's novel of the search for a
common bond between all of us, the ability to love. I personally don't
care if Chayevsky disowned the movie or if Russell resented him for it
or how many angels you can set on the head of a pin, for that matter.
Altered States is a harshly beautiful and intellectual movie based on a
book with the same adjectives.
I'm not going to praise the fine performances, the dazzling special effects, or the painful, emotional epiphany that the lead character, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) experiences as he fights his way past the roadblock of pure intellect. I want to praise Altered States for its emotional and intellectual message of the power of love to embrace us all and heal our wounds.
Altered States is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended. The imagery is disturbing and, at times, repulsive. There are scenes of blasphemy that I know have put off Evangelical friends of mine. But the central idea of a commonality, a kinship that humans have with one another and the danger of setting oneself apart to avoid the pain of interacting and loving is, I believe, supremely satisfying at both an intellectual and emotional level.
Altered States isn't one of the very best films I've seen, but it surely has been a source of joy for me. And if it doesn't turn your crank--or turns it the wrong way--then find your joy in another film or other media . . . and remember to love.
If you are a thinker now, or grew up looking up at the stars and trying
to figure out how the universe could just go on and on forever, this
film is for you.
If you like boundaries, and the familiar you will not understand why this film was made, or why this film was made the way it was.
Chayefsky's material is brilliant, and challenging. Russell's approach is startling; more like abstract expressionism than any kind of realism. The performances, especially by Blair Brown and William Hurt are raw and completely authentic.
From start to finish, this film is fascinating, original and consistently realized.
Altered States is not everything that it could be, and that's because director Ken Russell was more interested in assaulting the viewer with a series of startling (by 1980 standards) images than he was in exploring the stories subtext. Eddie Jessup is a scientist so introverted and afraid of human connections that it's not enough to abandon his family, he also has to further deprive himself of any and all stimulation, performing sensory depravation experiments on himself to attain better understanding of "ultimate truth." Jessup proclaims himself to be an atheist, but the visual content of his hallucinations reveals him to be a man who's more at war with God than a man who disbelieves. His descent into a more primal state of being is an obvious metaphor for how easy it is for a man with commitment issues and fear of intimacy to turn completely inward, leaving the real world behind. Some of what the character says early on about family and love make his motivations clear... Jessup is a man shattered by his father's death and unable to accept the vulnerability of the human condition. A viewer has to really work to absorb and enjoy these metaphors, though, as Russell never slows his onslaught of special effects. The movie also suffers from smart but unrealistic dialogue and ham-fisted performances from some of the principle characters (watch Blair Brown's over-the-top breakdowns in the last act). Altered States isn't the total package, it doesn't combine the visceral and the philosophical as well as movies like Jacob's Ladder or Natural Born Killers. But it's better than most of today's equivalent movies (Donnie Darko, etc) that want to stimulate and provoke the viewer and don't quite pull it off.
Okay, the character of Dr. Eddie Jessup is kind of a pompous ass, and
there are a few groaner moments of, call it, self-importance.
But this movie breaks real ground.
One of my all time favorites.
And I'd like to point out that everyone is crazy about the much-touted and notoriously-expensive hallucination sequences, ...
Of course if you've seen Russel's "Tommy," some of the over-the-top sequences will look familiar and tinged with peculiar British-isms. And then there's the ending - well, it's controversial, that's for sure - anticlimax or not ?
But for me the most electrifying parts are the ensemble cast acting.
In the scene where Blair Brown is trying to cope with the trauma of the events in the isolation tank room, there's a very beautifully conceived long single shot through house windows. Russel needs credit especially for the argument between Balaban and Haid - some of the best acting I've ever seen - character actors hardly EVER get to put this kind of stage-acting energy on film. It stays with me still. They truly seem absolutely furious with each other, their lines overlap, it's absolutely convincing.
Some of the greatest effects of this movie are simply good movie craft - when Jessup first sees the love of his life walk through the door, fantastically back-lit, and the music comes up and cross-fades into the next scene - it's breathtaking.
It's the moments like that, and the very intro of the movie, with the slow title crawl, the deadpan lines read by Balaban, the first shots of Hurt in the tank, the eerie music ... This movie still stands out, still looks good,... and stands superior to other, more recent imaginings of internal hallucination become external.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Watched this movie for the first time the other night, after hearing
about it for years from mates who raved on about it. Most descriptions
went along the lines of: "This professor who takes trips and gets into
sensory deprivation, man. The dude turns into an ape and all kinds of
crazy $#!+. It's a real mind f**ker". So with glowing praise such as
this how could I not watch this film!!! William Hurt gives an
outstanding performance and is kind of like Magic Johnson to the
surrounding cast, in the sense that he makes them better, and they
continually feed off his energy.
To top it off you have special makeup effects by a true master in the field, Dick Smith.
While I can certainly agree with the mindf**k comment, I felt this film went much deeper than what the average stoner thinks. This movie asks some pretty powerful questions, and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
I look forward to another viewing of this film!!
This is one of Ken Russell's best films. He manages to balance plot and wild visuals as never before. The acting is also first rate. I watched it again recently I think it still holds up surprisingly well compared to many modern sci-fi movies. The plot is intriguing, I keep thinking that there might be some truth to the concepts presented, and the fact is that our own brains are still largely unexplored territory. A special mention to the extraordinary music written by John Corigliano, and for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. It dares to be loud and violent, and complements the visuals extremely well. This is a wild, original movie unlike any other.
Who'd guess that one of the finest psychedelic films wouldn't be
released in the late 60s or early 70s but 1980! "Altered States" ranks
up there with "El Topo", "2001", and "Performance" as the finest film
about hallucinogenics. Don't expect this to be any mere pretentious
trip film geared to appeal primarily to stoners. "Altered States" is an
intelligent film that shows more and more depth upon repeated viewings.
It may be a head-trip movie, but you don't need to be on drugs to enjoy
and appreciate this film.
This is probably Ken Russel's best film. Russel is mostly known for gaudy and over-the-top camp such as "Tommy" and "The Devils". This is one of his most surprising films because for once he keeps his visual excess under control. Its only during the hallucinations that you're reminded this is a Ken Russel film. The effects during these sequences are fantastic and probably the highlight of the entire film. The acting is also first-rate if largely overwhelmed by Russel's direction and the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.
The only minor complaint I have is the transformation sequence. When Hurt turns into a gorilla, it goes from being surreal to outright silly. Still, this is a Ken Russel film so I guess he had to include a bit of camp. Its still entertaining and not distracting enough to detract from the film's overall brilliance. (8/10)
Bizarre cinematic head-trip that is far better and more entertaining than anyone could guess from a description. I put it on my Netflix queue without realizing it was directed by Ken Russell. If I had seen that earlier, I would have avoided it. Thankfully I didn't. It contains everything that is good about Russell, that is, his crazy imagery, and none of the bad stuff. That is, it's not an enormous bore. The script was written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his own novel. Not the writer you would associate with horror or sci-fi, which is the proper genres to which Altered States belongs. He disowned the film before he even saw a cut of it, despite the fact that Russell was contractually obligated not to change a word of the script. The greatest asset of the film is the fantastic acting. William Hurt makes his screen debut as a mad scientist, a Harvard professor, actually, who is experimenting with sensory deprivation, mixed with some choice hallucinogens. He hopes to lose his modern mind in the sensory deprivation tank and regress to a primitive state. Unfortunately, some mushrooms that he finds in Mexico help him regress not only mentally, but physiologically. Blair Brown plays his estranged and worried wife, and Charles Haid and Bob Balaban (love the Balaban!) play colleagues who help Hurt do his experiments. The plot is silly, but it's legitimately eerie and frightening, thanks to Russell's surprisingly excellent direction. The film ends up in territory very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I thought it all worked pretty well. Drew Barrymore makes her film debut at age 5, and also keep an eye out for John Larroquette.
If there is any reason to like a film as meaningless or pointless as this, it's that it is a "Cedar Point" of a special visual effects ride! I still haven't figured out how or why the things in Altered States happened the way they did. But I think that this is one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Who cares if the plot or characters worked or not? When you are watching the mesmerizing images and special effects (which are only slightly dated), then you will understand why this is such a great movie! I still don't know how Ken Russell got these images on film. And the very intricately constructed images fly by so fast in the quick cuts, that it's like a dream that we can barely remember. It's a dream that you can't define or put your finger on. And that is the real reason why I like this movie. I just purchased the Dolby Digital reissue on LD, and I hope more special editions of this film come soon!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Altered States is a visually stunning movie, a tour or force as they
say, that is more thought-provoking than even 2001: A Space Odyssey.
William Hurt in his first movie debut plays Dr. Eddie Jessup, a man who
has been influenced by his father's death by cancer. As such Eddie is
driven to find what he thinks is the true meaning of life.
First he does so by using a water tank formerly used for sleep studies, but when the "ultimate truth" still eludes him, he seeks out and tries a drug used by Indians to elicit their first memories. Still not getting the answers he seeks, Eddie begins to combine the two only to discover that some of his hallucinations are becoming all too real and are getting out of control.
He is going beyond mass and energy, his body regressing to earlier physical states. At one point Eddie becomes an "ape man" is found wandering the Boston Zoo after one his trips. But his friends are still skeptical, while his wife (played by beautiful Blair Brown) is becoming terrified that Eddie really did regress hi body back to some primitive form.
To prove that he is telling the truth, Eddie tries for one more experiment that starts slowly but suddenly takes a unique turn as Jessup's body regresses way too far back. I won't spoil the ending, but it is far more stunning than anything even Kubrick could do. But I will say for some of those that don't quite know what's going on, Eddie has discovered the power of the mind and it is through that power-- call it psychokinesis-- that he destroys the laboratory with and maybe even regresses himself back to his beginnings. Eddie discovers the Ultimate Truth and it nearly destroys him. It is his thoughts and fears that damn him, yet it is also his will to live that ultimately saves him in the end; his will made flesh in one of the most mind-blowing endings ever made.
I just love this movie! It's too bad Paddy Chayefsky couldn't see how much infinitely better Ken Russell had made his script than the dry, dull, book the movie was based on.
Rated R for Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity and Graphic Violence.
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