You gotta watch out when it comes to those sensory deprivation tanks. They may look like fun and it might seem like a pleasant idea to spend a while floating in and out of a state of consciousness but those tanks will mess you up. Especially if you’ve got unresolved issues with your family and religion.
Also, if you’re going to go to Mexico to try a powerful hallucinogenic, make sure you’re not appearing in a Ken Russell film because again, those drugs will mess you up. It’s like you’ll close your eyes and, when you reopen them, you’ll be in an 80s music video or something.
Now, to be honest, Altered States came out in 1980 so it’s a bit unfair to complain that it looks like a music video from the 80s or, for that matter, the 90s. Instead, it’s more fair to say that a lot of the music videos from those two decades looked like Altered States. That shouldn’t be particularly surprising since this film was directed by Ken Russell and Russell was a director who specialized in combining music with wild imagery.
Altered States may have been directed by Ken Russell but it was written by Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky, of course, is best known for writing the script for Network. (He also wrote the script for the Oscar-winning film, Marty.) Chayefsky is one of those writers who is always cited as an inspiration by writers who are trying justify being heavy-handed. For instance, when Aaron Sorkin was criticized for both Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, his supporters started talking about how he was just carrying on the proud tradition of Paddy Chayefsky. In his autobiography, A British Picture, Ken Russell portrays Chayefsky as being a pompous control freak who refused to allow any changes to his dialogue-heavy script. Russell responded by directing his actors to speak the dialogue as quickly as possible, rendering much of it incoherent. In a few scenes, he even specifically had the actors eating so that their mouths would be full as they spoke. Chayefsky was not amused and eventually demanded to be credited under his real name, Sidney Aaron.
As for the film itself, it tells the story of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, in his film debut), who is convinced that he can cure schizophrenia by exploring states of altered consciousness. As mentioned above, this leads to him floating in a tank and taking hallucinogenics in Mexico. Somehow, this leads to him turning briefly into a caveman and then into some sort of primordial energy creature. His wife (Blair Brown) is not happy that Eddie appears to be determined to reverse evolution and return to mankind’s original form. For that matter, Eddie’s bearded colleagues (Charles Haid and Bob Balaban) all think that he’s playing a dangerous game as well. Eddie’s daughter (Drew Barrymore, making her film debut) isn’t particularly concerned but that’s just because she’s like five and probably thinks it would be fun to have a primordial energy monster to play with. Anyway, it all becomes a question of whether or not all questions need to be answered and whether love can defeat science.
Anyway, this is a deeply silly movie but it’s also kind of compelling, mostly because the uneasy mix of Chayefsky’s pompous, serious-as-Hell script and Ken Russell’s aggressive and semi-satiric directorial style. Chayefsky obviously meant for the story to be taken very seriously whereas Russell takes it not seriously at all. Though Chayesfky and Russell ended up hating each other, Russell keeps the film from becoming the cinematic equivalent of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s twitter account. Chayefsky’s greatest objection was that Russell directed the actors to not only speak quickly but to also speak over each other but this actually works to the film’s advantage. Eddie and his colleagues are young, arrogant, and determined to make their mark. Of course, they’re going to speak quickly. They’re excited and there’s no time to lose. The film’s best moments are the early ones, where it’s hard not to get swept up in Eddie’s enthusiasm. Of course, once Eddie turns into a caveman, it pretty much becomes impossible to take anything that follows seriously.
For all the talk about the origins of mankind and whether or not love can save the day, the main appeal of this film is to watch William Hurt totally freak out. Jessup’s hallucinations allow Russell to do what he did best and they’re the highlight of the film. Despite Chayefsky’s ambitions, you don’t watch this film for the science. You watch it for the seven-eyed ram and the scenes of Eddie walking into a mushroom cloud. Ken Russell was smart enough to know that audiences would take one look at William Hurt, with his WASP bearing, and totally want to see just how fucked up Eddie Jessup actually was. On that front, Russell totally delivers.
This film is a mess but at least it’s a Ken Russell mess.