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"Defy it, Eddie. You made it real - you can make it unreal...."
Warner / 102 Minutes / 1980 / Rated R / Street Date: July 10, 2012
His unusual works are susceptible to ample criticism, but at least director Ken Russell (Women in Love, Crimes of Passion, Gothic) does not play it safe when it comes to the subject matter of his films. Often focusing on the meaning in life with an emphasis on sexuality, Russell delves into areas commercial Hollywood directors shy from discussing. Many such filmmakers possess scarcely an inkling of desire to devote the time and energy necessary to forge such offbeat creations. Consistent with his accustomed nontraditional style, Russell treats Altered States as an exploration into the supernatural while still maintaining a slight foothold in our so-called reality.
Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a brilliant professor who has an interest in the unconscious mind and its primal origins. In the late 60s he performed various experiments using an immersion tank, but those experiments were soon ended with lackluster findings. During this period Eddie meets Emily (Blair Brown), another intellectual scholar who immediately finds him attractive even though she has been warned of his eccentricities. Emily soon falls in love with Eddie, although the passion is not reciprocal. But Eddie agrees to marriage anyway.
Flash forward to the present, and Eddie has become bored and restless with his life. He has lost interest in his marriage, and in an effort to invigorate himself he travels to Mexico hoping to obtain valuable research from an Indian tribe. The tribe is known for its use of a hallucinogenic drug concocted from mushrooms, and Eddie wants to examine the effects of the drug on himself. Eddie takes the drug and has one helluva trip. He brings the drug back home with him. Convinced that the drug might have powerful scientific implications, he decides to take the drug in combination with the immersion tank. Little does he know that this experiment might have drastic physiological consequences.
Despite the possible risks Eddie appears ready to make the sacrifice, either in the furtherance of science, or just in an effort to spice up his mundane existence. Russell offers up a kaleidoscope of images during Eddie's hallucinations. While some of the effects are dated, for the most part they are effective in conveying an imaginative depiction of an altered state. These depictions include blatant symbolism and even an impressive few seconds of what Hell itself might look like. The hallucinations are definitely the high point of the film.
Unfortunately the story becomes goofy and preposterous in the last third of the film. The pat ending indicates Russell was unsure how to end the film, so he just threw together a scene involving Eddie, Emily, and some special effects. Still, the rest of the film is remarkable enough to warrant a viewing.
William Hurt is quite impressive in his film debut. He plays the Eddie character with vigor but with just enough restraint to preserve the viability of Eddie's theories even as they are being dismissed by his skeptical friends. In the "before they were famous" category, if you watch closely you will notice John Larroquette playing the lab technician and a very young Drew Barrymore as Margaret Jessup
Altered States is based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, Network), whose other filmed works bear little resemblance to Altered States. On the other hand the film begs comparison to Ken Russell's other work with its similar themes and structure. This suggests that the film is much more Ken Russell's vision than anything Chayefsky "had in mind." Indeed, even though the screenplay is credited to a person named Sydney Aaron, a short investigation into the background of the film reveals that Sydney Aaron is actually a pseudonym used by Chayefsky, who was evidently unhappy with Russell's finished product.