William Hurt is so well known for his work in dramatic roles itís easy to forget that he made his film debut in a science-fiction/horror film directed by one the most iconoclastic directors of his day. The film is Altered States. Less a real narrative than a philosophical rumination on man, creation and the meaning of existence, Altered States was largely written off as a nonsensical special effects show when it was first released.
Time has a tendency to be kind to grand follies, though, and the 80s had more than its fair share of them. The decade of decadence gave us some of the biggest, most ambitious disasters ever that are now ripe for rediscovery. In Altered States, we have one such movie. What could have come off as pretentious exercise in special effects wallowing actually winds up working exceptionally well, due mainly to a central love story that succeeds in a seemingly effortless way.
Itís the psychedelic 60s and while the hippies are dropping acid to tune out, Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) and his assistant Arthur (Bob Balaban) are experimenting with sensory deprivation. At first the research is aimless and curiosity driven, an offshoot of their work with schizophrenics. Jessup becomes more and more fascinated by the hallucinatory dream states he experiences while in the deprivation tank. He starts forming a hypothesis: that so-called ďmental disordersĒ are really just different states of consciousness. After one such experiment, Eddie attends a faculty social event where he meets Emily (Blair Brown), a fellow whiz kid PhD candidate. Sheís an anthropologist and is fascinated with Eddieís work, but more fascinated with the man himself. He takes her back to her place for a night of passionate lovemaking. Afterwards, Eddie opens up to her in a way that he never has before: he discusses his work and, most difficultly, he shares his painful experiences surrounding the death of his father.
Flash forward a few years. Emily and Eddie are married, though Eddie consented with great reluctance, and have settled down in to the appearance of a normal domestic life. They have an apartment and a couple of young children (one played by a very young Drew Barrymore) and are both tenured Harvard professors. The appearance is a sham, though. Eddie is unhappy and wants a divorce and although Emily still loves him, she agrees to separate and takes the kids with her.
Eddie is still obsessed with altered states of consciousness and travels to Mexico in search of a native tribe that is purported to have a hallucinogenic substance that causes a common experience to all who ingest it. Could this be part of the key to unlocking a deeper state of human experience? The question is too intriguing for Eddie not to investigate. He ingests the drug with the Hinchi Indians but is unconvinced of it efficacy, bringing a sample back to the States to get Arthur to synthesize it. When he combines the drug with the sleep deprivation chamber he gets far more than he bargained for. Instead of just his mind regressing through manís evolutionary past, the regression begins to physically manifest. Jessup devolves, first to an apelike pre-human then later to proto-human state. When Jessup seems on the verge of losing his humanity forever, only the determination of the woman who still loves him can bring him back.
Altered States is a difficult movie to categorize and describe. It has elements of science fiction and horror but isnít interested in playing up either. At times it seems on the verge of being a cautionary tale of science gone wrong but then it takes great pains to denounce Jessupís single-mindedness. I guess itís why Altered States is never about what itís actually about. The genre trappings are just a means to an end, a vessel through which the bigger questions the film is dancing around can be asked. The film is less concerned with the plausibility of regressing through our genetic past and more interested in what weíd find. Thatís why Altered States is, for my money, a superior sci-fi movie. Asking questions is easy; contemplating what the answers might be when you have no idea? Thatís a bit trickier. Given its huge ambitions itís a miracle that Altered States is even halfway coherent, much less the stunning success that it is.
Paddy Chayefsky, author of the screenplay and novel on which it was based, was reportedly unimpressed with Russellís final cut. Despite the fact that the dialogue in the film is taken almost verbatim from his script, Russellís camera barely pauses long enough for the actors to deliver their lines before it moves to another part of the room to catch a snippet of another conversation, or Russell cuts away from the scene altogether. Chayefsky wanted the film to be a motion picture screed on his theories about brain chemistry. Russell crafted a film that, while faithful to letter of the script, has an entirely different spirit. Chayefsky disowned the film and the financial failure of Altered States returned Russell to his independent roots.
A big highlight of the film, for me at least, is the hallucination scenes. Some people find these scenes problematic and I can meet these complaints only half way. The idea of hallucinations serving as a trip back through over evolutionary past is a provocative one, but the Judeo-Christian imagery used kind of undercuts the whole idea. Why would a trip back hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years result in images of crucifixions? Thatís as valid a criticism of surrealism as possible, I suppose, but I think it reveals a distressingly literal mindset. Weíre not seeing what Jessup sees, weíre seeing what he thinks he sees; all his visions are filtered through the lens of his own lapsed faith (his monologue after the first time he makes love to Emily explicitly states this). Even if this explanation is not enough and the sequences still feel problematic, itís still hard not to appreciate such cool and trippy imagery.
In his motion picture debut Hurt is as good as weíve come to expect him to be; his performance is both extremely physical and subtly nuanced, a difficult balance. Hurtís tendency to underplay has left him one of the most unsung actors in recent memory, and thatís a shame. But itís Blair Brown who really holds the movie together. At first glance it would be easy to write her role off. Emily, for all her good intentions, is too passive and willing to have the distant Jessup manipulate her emotions. What she reveals at the end, however, is not that she been servile, just that sheís been patient. She recognized the good man that Jessup was and was willing to wait for him to outgrow his boyish fascinations with Truth-with-a-capital-t and realize that heíd found the answer before heíd ever asked the questions.
The search for greater meaning is futile. Our brief existence only has the meaning we imbue it. In Jessupís case, he had to go to the very beginning of existence to learn that, and only the love of his wife was enough to pull him from the primordial pool and back into her arms. In a lot of ways, Altered States is the most romantic horror/sci-fi hybrid ever. Itís this surprising heart beating at the center of what could have been a cold and cerebral exercise thatís the most exciting thing about Altered States, and the biggest reason why it endures thirty years later.
Hard to believe itís been fourteen years since Altered States was first issued on DVD. Though it represented a huge step up from VHS, the transfer was less than stellar. Now that itís finally got a full re-mastering for its Blu-ray debut Altered States looks better than it ever has before, though there are still a few areas of contention. First, the good: the source material is pristine, whereas the DVD of Altered States was struck from a dirty, damaged master. The damage was heaviest during the optically composited hallucination sequences, the highlight of the movie. In contrast, the Blu-ray is completely absent of the scratches that plagued these scenes. Colors are a lot brighter and more saturated but contrast is also a lot deeper and in certain darkly lit scenes, detail disappears in the darkest areas of the screen. It looks like the DVD was artificially lightened. This has been corrected and the artificial edge enhancement that made the DVD a noisy mess has been removed. The result is a film that sometimes looks a lot softer than youíd expect from a film in HD. The whole palate of the film has changed, too; itís a cooler shade of blue rather than the brownish, nicotine-stained hue of the DVD. Having never seen this 30 plus year old movie in the theatre, itís tough to make an objective judgment on how well the Blu-ray represents how the film is ďsupposedĒ to look. I can say, however, that the strengths of the Blu-ray far outweigh the flaws and the improvements should please any fan of the film.
I was never a huge fan of the 5.1 Dolby Digital re-mix included on the DVD and was dismayed that the original stereo track wasnít included as well. Itís still not included on the Blu-ray, but the DTS-HD Master Audio remix is done well enough that the original track isnít missed as much. The audio is sharper, dialogue clearer and the overall the track has more presence. The surrounds are active enough, but not in an aggressively showy way. Mainly theyíre used to add atmosphere and ambiance during the more intense scenes. There is a missed opportunity to play with the surrounds during the party scenes to make them feel more enveloping. Iíd still like the film to be reissued with the original theatrical audio, but I can definitely live with the soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
No new supplements are included with this release, just the same trailer that was included on the DVD though itís not treated to the same upgrade in quality that the feature enjoyed.
Iím happy to see that Altered States enjoys a mild cult following. I think it is truly a fantastic film, one that improves with repeat viewings and has aged far better than a lot of it contemporaries. Altered States represents one of the most serendipitous pairings of a visual stylist with strong material you are likely to see in a studio film: director Ken Russell doesnít short the film when it comes to visual pyrotechnics and the screenplay is intelligent. Itís the emotional core at the center of the film that resonates strongest, though, and what makes Altered States is genre filmmaking at its best. Though it lacks in features, this Blu-ray is a must own for fans of the movie. Its presentation is superior to the DVD is every way possible.
Great review! Thanks for the comparison screenshots...very interesting color changes there. This is a movie that I really didn't like all that much the first time I saw it years ago when much younger, but every time I do rewatch it I appreciate it more and more. It's since become a favorite of mine.
Remember the SNL spoof on this "Altered Walter"?
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