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Altered States
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by Jay Seaver

"The really creepy stuff doesn't age."
5 stars

Lots of horror or sci-fi stories take as their premise that there are things that humanity is "not supposed to know" or not ready for; it's usually just a way for the movie to not be very specific. "Altered States" seems different; it seems like director Ken Russell and author Paddy Chayefsky actually have some conception of what we're not supposed to understand.

You can tell by the conversations the characters have, filled with scholarly terms and academic hair-splitting. The film's science and philosophy haven't been simplified to the point of absurdity, but they're presented in language that anyone who is willing to let their brain keep working while sitting in the cinema can comprehend. This is not a film that will offer up a simple metaphor for the lazy audience member and then proceed to act as if that metaphor is a literal truth. Or at least, it doesn't appear to; at it's heart, it's still a scientist finding things at the edges of science that wind up literally being dangerous ideas.

That scientist is Edward Jessup (William Hurt). When we first meet him in the late 1960s, he and friend Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) are messing around with a sensory deprivation chamber while finishing up their doctoral work. Arthur introduces Edward to Emily (Blair Brown); she and the aloof Jessup marry and move to Massachusetts when Edward gets a post at Harvard. When Arthur moves to Boston a decade later, Jessup notes that there's a chamber on the Harvard campus, and if they combined that with a hallucinogen that Jessup acquired on a Mexican expedition...

The scientist in this sort of movie must be arrogant - if only for the self-experimentation - but Hurt and the filmmakers have a unique take on this. Jessup bites off more than any sane man can be expected to chew, and he's a jerk, but he's not a hostile jerk. He respects his colleagues, and insists on his experiments being properly monitored because he doesn't really know where they'll lead. He doesn't act as though his wife or friends are stupid, he just doesn't know how to relate to them emotionally. Hurt creates a character who hasn't retreated into cold intellectualism, but marched there willingly. He's spent so much time trying to analyze humanity as if a detached observer that he's become one. His marriage is falling apart and he does very little to combat that because anthropologically, it seems inevitable. Hurt doesn't make Jessup sympathetic or misunderstood; he's interesting because he's an extreme of human behavior, an outlier personality, and his interactions are different than ours.

He clearly fascinates the people around him. Blair Brown's Emily is arguably exactly what he needs, intelligent enough to keep pace with him, while gregarious enough to keep him from disappearing into a lab and never coming out. Brown makes Emily warm and concerned while still being curious and never anti-intellectual. Balaban's Arthur is a cautious, low-key presence at Jessup's side; it's never explicitly stated, but he's probably a somewhat lesser scientist than Jessup, content to be around and part of brilliance if he can't originate it. Charles Haid's Mason Parrish is the one who gets reluctantly sucked in, throwing sarcastic comments out at Jessup's every action, ostensibly more concerned as a physician for Jessup's health than with the science itself.

There's actually very little of the typical horror movie trappings that generally come along with this type of story. We see the primal creature released from Jessup's mind very little, although there are some very cool effects of his body attempting to reshape itself (darn impressive for 1980 technology). The majority of the money shots are Jessup's dreams and hallucinations, and these mystical images are as well thought-out as the earlier science talk. Russell doesn't use familiar gothic or biblical imagery; he combines the cosmic with the animalistic, with the music becoming downright atonal, to present us with a vast, complicated universe while forcing us to take a perspective that can't comprehend it. Sure, we're given some quality jump moments, but the real freak-out isn't some monster, but the idea that there are some very basic things that our mind can't handle.

Lots of movies try for that, but few actually deliver; they don't approach the unthinkable thought as much more than an abstract. Russell and Hurt give us a glimpse of it. And though the film doesn't use something prosaic as a metaphor for the unknowable, it does have its hands on a great central metaphor: The idea that science alone can be a blunt tool. Jessup is science personified, but he alone is not able to manage what he discovers; he needs Mason, Arthur, and Emily, people concerned about human beings rather than abstracts, to keep it from consuming him. Or you can look at it the other way, that Jessup is all intellectualism learning to be human by directly accessing his primal opposite, so that he can at least try to be really involved in a human relationship. He must, to get cutesy with the title, alter himself from a purely intellectual state to something more complete.

This richness is why "Altered States" still stands tall even while other horror movies of the period perhaps don't. Good effects, shocking moments, vibrant imagery and sometimes even an atmosphere of mounting dread may not always age gracefully, but fine acting and a good story certainly will.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3274&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/16/06 16:46:56
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User Comments

10/29/16 morris campbell cool psychedelic sci-fi BUT NOT 4 EVERY 1 4 stars
3/31/15 Dr. Lao Well, that was different 4 stars
9/03/12 Courtney Not great but, an interesting watch. 3 stars
4/27/11 art AN INTELLIGENT SCIENCE-ficTIOn MOVIE! 4 stars
2/21/10 action movie fan good drug and sensory deprivation tale of scientist regressing to ape-interesting and eerie 4 stars
11/20/09 art THIS IS A BIZZARE MOVIE! 2 stars
1/17/09 Adrian Creepy, disturbing, & smart..and it has boobs for good measure. Don't watch it on acid! 5 stars
12/31/07 Joe Manca Most important film ever made, esp to us who have experienced what Eddie Jessup found 5 stars
11/24/06 Melissa Tokarczyk Scary and intellectual at the same time. 3 stars
6/30/06 Gerry Irons saw it on tv-very silly- much ado about nothing- 1 stars
6/19/06 Jason Hyde I miss the days when Ken Russell was crazy and good. Now he's just crazy. 5 stars
8/15/05 Indrid Cold Very ambitious both visually and intellectually, and it follows through for the most part. 4 stars
2/19/04 Cas The Wep A good film for the time it was made in, although scientifically incorrect about drugs used 4 stars
1/25/03 Jack Sommersby Outlandishly absurd yet always entertaining. 3 stars
11/22/02 Charles Tatum Russell can't overcome stale story 3 stars
9/07/02 Cliff Still poses important questions compellingly and entertainingly 5 stars
4/05/02 R.W. Welch There's a reason Chayefsky had his name removed from the film credits. 3 stars
1/01/02 Tolga I had seen it long ago but still remember almost every scene. one of my all-time favorites. 5 stars
8/04/01 MLC In right brain mood: classic, in left brain mood: camp howler 5 stars
9/11/00 Jed Not bad although it looks "I was a teenage werewolf" & "2001" although it isn't bad. 3 stars
5/21/00 Jed A really average cult film. (I'm sorry about it'll hopefully won't happen again.) 3 stars
5/13/00 Jed Not as good as "I was a teenage werewolf" but pretty passable. 2 stars
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  25-Dec-1980 (R)
  DVD: 01-Jun-2004



Directed by
  Ken Russell

Written by
  Paddy Chayefsky

  William Hurt
  Blair Brown
  Bob Balaban
  Charles Haid
  Drew Barrymore

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