Altered States (1980) **Ĺ
Ken Russellís Altered States may well be the weirdest movie to have come out of a major American studio in the whole 1980ís-- itís almost certainly the strangest thing Warner Brothers released during the decade. ďHallucinatoryĒ is just about the only word in the English language that quite does it justice. Basically, if you took Faust, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Timothy Leary, tossed them into a blender with the writings of Carlos Casteneda, and sprinkled the resulting concoction with Stan Winstonís signature makeup, the optical effects from a Sid Pink movie, and a whole lot of (mostly male) nudity, you might get something like Altered States.
The action of the film unfolds over what must be about ten or twelve years. It begins in 1967, with an eccentric experimental psychologist by the name of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt-- if youíre reading this, youíre most likely to remember him from his recent appearance in Lost in Space), a man so consumed by his search for The Answers as to nearly blind him to everything else, studying the sorts of altered states of consciousness that can be induced through sensory deprivation. What he learns from his student volunteers fascinates him so much that he decides to start experimenting on himself. At this early stage, Jessup isnít exactly sure what heís looking for, but he finds himself strangely attracted to the spiritual and religious aspects of the hallucinations he has while floating in the sensory deprivation tank.
Itís difficult to get a handle on the passage of time during this phase of the film, but it seems that maybe a year or two go by between the first scene and the next. Jessup has relocated to a different university to continue his work. At a faculty party, he meets a young anthropologist named Emily (Blair Brown, who showed up recently in a small role in The Astronautís Wife), with whom he becomes romantically involved, and an indeterminate amount of time later, Jessup and Emily marry, almost entirely at her instigation. The movie then jumps forward jarringly to a time several years in the future. Jessup and Emily have successful careers teaching at Harvard, an attractive house in Boston, and two children (one of whom is played by Drew Barrymore, by the way). They are also about to separate, with the intention of divorcing within the year; apparently, Emily has had less success pulling Jessupís head out of the clouds than it might have seemed.
It is against this backdrop that the main action of the movie unfolds. To begin with, Jessup embarks on a field expedition to Mexico, in the company of a respected older anthropologist. His intention is to observe the rituals of an isolated Indian tribe, who are said to preserve ceremonies that go all the way back to the Toltecs. Naturally, these rituals involve the consumption of a potion made with powerfully hallucinogenic mushrooms, and it is this that has drawn Jessup to them. It comes as no surprise that Jessup is not content merely to observe, but wants instead to be an active participant in the ceremony. What follows is the first of many elaborate dream/hallucination sequences, worthy of David Lynch or David Cronenberg in their outlandishness. Afterwards, Jessup persuades the Indian shaman to give him a bottle full of the mushroom drug to take with him when he returns to Boston.
And now we come to the real reason to watch this movie. Up to this point, Altered States has been pretty disjointed and unsatisfying, and it will become so again, but for the next half-hour or so, this is a fine little film. As Jessup continues his experimentation with the sensory deprivation tank and the Mexican mushroom drug, ultimately combining the two into a single program of research, a sort of unifying theme emerges in his hallucinations. They increasingly focus on origins-- the origin of life, the origin of the Earth, the origin of thought, the origin of humanity. Jessup becomes convinced that the drug he has been taking has opened up a kind of physiological pathway that gives him access to the vast untapped recesses of his genome, the primitive, atavistic genetic heritage of his most distant ancestors that lies inactive at the center of his every cell. In essence, he believes he has found a route back into the biological or physical memories of his body, a concept that has been postulated again and again by various bullshitters throughout the ages. The thing is that heís right, and one night, after his colleagues, Arthur (Bob Balaban, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2010) and Mason (Nightbreedís Charles Haid), have decided heís crazy and needs to be kept away from his work until such time as he is able to approach it from a more rational perspective, Jessup sneaks into his lab for another session with the tank and the drug. This turns out to be a really bad idea, resulting in Jessupís transformation into the sort of australopithecine protohuman about which he has been hallucinating. The trajectory of the next few scenes will be familiar to anyone whoís ever seen a werewolf movie.
On the upside, the otherwise bad business of turning into an ape-man at least convinces Arthur, Mason, and Emily (who has recently returned from some fieldwork of her own, and who still cares deeply for Jessup) that heís not completely crazy, that he isnít just making up all this shit about latent biological memories buried in his chromosomes. Jessupís three friends agree to help him repeat his experiment a few days later (hey, these people are onto a fucking breakthrough here-- you donít expect them to just bury their heads in the sand and ignore the implications of whatís been happening, do you?), but the result is rather surprising, to say the least. Instead of an australopithecine, Jessup turns into... well, something else. Remember how, on the old ďTransformersĒ cartoon, the bad guys used to call humans ďflesh creatures?Ē Well, that wouldnít be a bad name for whatever it is that Jessup becomes at this point. Imagine a significantly larger version of Belial from Basket Case, and youíll probably get the idea. And somehow, in the process of turning into this thing, Jessup destroys the lab with a tremendous burst of energy. And somehow, Emilyís touch turns him back to normal.
As you might have guessed, this is where Altered States becomes disjointed and unsatisfying again. I might as well just come right out and say it: I have no fucking idea how this movie ends. Not because I havenít seen the ending, mind you-- I have, repeatedly-- but it makes no more sense to me now than it did the first time. Jessup turns back into the flesh creature at home, somehow turns his wife into something that could perhaps be called a living nervous system, and then somehow makes everything okay again by banging on the wall a lot with one of his pseudopods. Like I said, I just donít know.
I canít be too hard on this movie, though. Yeah, I could do without William Hurt, and yeah, it takes much too long to get moving, and it comes completely unglued at the end. But the middle section, leading up to and including Jessupís first transformation, is strangely gripping. This half-hour seriously contains one of the best cinematic treatments of the misguided-scientist-accidentally-turns-himself-into-a-monster idea that Iíve ever seen, and it goes a long way toward redeeming what is otherwise a rather frustrating film.