Title: Altered States (1980)
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Drew Barrymore
I wish Paddy Chayevsky had written more films; sadly he died shortly after Altered States was released. I enjoy his writing because there’s always this depth in themes that I don’t get from many screenwriters in Hollywood. His screenplays spoke of intelligent, relevant themes. By way of an example, he wrote Network (1976), which I still consider to be one of the most controversial anti-system films around, very subversive, very critical of society. Now you pair Chayevsky’s writing with an equally good director like Sidney Lumet and the result is nothing short of brilliant, Network is a film I love, it’s like a thunderbolt of truth, highly recommend checking it out. Altered States is also a good example of the kind of writing Chayefsky was good at, brainy stuff with intelligent characters searching for the ultimate truths about God and the origin of man. Can’t get any deeper than that! So how did Chayefsky’s writing pair with a surrealist director like Ken Russell?
In Altered States we meet Eddie Jessup, a scientist experimenting with isolation tanks, hallucinatory drugs and an attempt to regress to a more primal state of existence, namely, Eddie Jessup wants to connect with his inner caveman! You see Eddie thinks that hidden within our DNA are the past experiences of our ancestors and that we could reconnect with those ancestors somehow. This idea is not all together alien to me because Frank Herbert played with similar themes in his Dune novels; the idea that we all have somehow, the lives of our ancestors hidden within us, in our minds, in our DNA and that we could, if we wanted to, reconnect with that collective knowledge and experience. Of course it’s all trippy as hell and many would call it hippy mumbo jumbo, but in my opinion it makes an interesting premise for a sci-fi film, and in the case of Altered States one that explores some very interesting themes.
Like for example, where did we really come from? Who was the first human being? Who is God? Should we even ponder such questions? The character of Eddie Jessup is a very intelligent one, he is always questioning everything and he’s never afraid of exploring his psychological boundaries. Brainy people tend to wonder with their curiosity into mental territories that most would find terrifying and this is the type of theme that Altered States explores. At the center of the film is the kind of character that likes to poke around existential matters, so existential, so in depth that others around him can’t take it. Similar characters have appeared in films like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), a film centered around a mathematician looking to decipher the mysteries of the universe through math equations; ultimately that films message is don’t break your head trying to find answers to questions that have no answers. It might just drive you mad. I think Altered States is this kind of film, it’s main character, Eddie Jessup is always pondering the edges of human knowledge, he dives deep into the pool of the unknown. When he comes back from these depths, is he the same guy? Or is he changed somehow?
The film was based on a novel written by Paddy Chayevsky; he even wrote the screenplay himself, which is a good thing in my book. Even though according to director Ken Russell the dialog on the film is almost word for word Chayevsky’s novel and screenplay, Chayevsky was never happy with the resulting film. He thought it was too loud; he didn’t like the overall tone of the film, which is at times overtly dramatic, especially when it comes to William Hurt’s performance as Eddie Jessup, which some might consider a bit over the top, I personally enjoyed it. I mean here’s a guy trying to face god in his experiments! It is my humble opinion that Ken Russell was actually the perfect director for such a surreal and introspective film because his films are always filled with religious iconography, proof of this are films like Gothic (1986) and Lair of the White Worm (1988); two very surreal and nightmarish films. Since the main character in Altered States always ends up thinking about god and the origins of man, Russell exploited this angle of the story and used it to infuse Altered States with his trade mark religious imagery, which translates to lots of crosses, goats, bibles, crucifixions, images of hell, snakes, the whole shebang. So be ready for an onslaught of surreal biblical nightmares. Visually speaking, the film is a complete delight, so many awesome images and colors. By the way, this was also one of the first films to deal with computer generated imagery. But my point is Ken Russell goes all out with some truly special dream sequences, they are one fo the many highlights of the film.
It’s this awesome mixture of intelligence and art that makes Altered States worth revisiting. Chayevsky commented that while many saw Altered States as him going into more surreal territory, he always thought of the book as a love story, because it’s about this guy who goes after confronting all the darkness and the nothingness, what brings him back is love. Love once again, is what keeps us sane.
Rating: 5 out of 5