As he investigates shared human memory and still shaken by the loss of his father to cancer a year previously, Dr Eddie Jessup becomes obssessed with finding the meaning of life and undergoes increasingly vivid and illuminating experiences as he combines senseyr deprivation with hallucinatory drugs. His marriage starts to suffer as Jesup is consumed by his work, then starts to undergo changes as his research starts to manifest itself physically…….
Ken Russell has made his share of wierd, sometimes wonderful and quite often controversial movies, but I believe Altered States could be his best movie. Amazingly it was a fairly major Hollywood studio production and even did quite well at the box office, all this despite many production problems including the writer Paddy Chayefsky leaving and taking his name of the project when he saw what Russell was doing to his script. He was wrong-Russell,with his vivid use of imagery, was the perfect director to visualise his story, yet he also seems focused in a sense that he understood the strength of the tale and the profoundness of the ideas and never let self indulgence take over.
Of course it’s basically a riff on the age old idea of The Scientist Who Goes To Far, and I read one review which called it Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on drugs, but almost right from the outset the film introduces a lot of philosophical elements [what is the meaning of life, what is truth,etc] which may sound pretentious but very few ‘mainstream’ films even attempt to ask these questions. Along the way we’re shown Jessup’s hallucinations and even in this age of CGI they are still really impressive and often disturbing, from a goat with many eyes to a brief descent into hell. Supposedly the director and some of the cast and crew took either LSD or mushrooms and it shows,from personal experience I can say that they are quite realistic! Of course no user of psychedelics has actually turned into an ape man and some say the film loses focus around this point but it adds to the cautionary element of the story, as a metaphor for Jessup becoming so wrapped up in his work and isolated that he literally feel like he is regressing, and anyway the sequence of the ape man runnning around is very well staged and exciting.
Towards the end things get really wierd and the climax can probably be best compared to 2001, it’s probably up to the viewer to comprehend what’s going on as we’re not given all the answers and although in actuality quite simple, the final ‘trip’ is pretty mind blowing. Without saying too much, there’s a happy ending which may initially seem rather ‘hollywoody’, as if studio execs forced a different ending, but underlies the basic theme of the film, that instead of trying to understand life you should just enjoy and appreciate it. I would have preferred a more interesting ending, but the ideas and impact of the film are not really diminished. Despite all the ‘far out’ stuff going on, some of the calmer and more ‘normal’ scenes are excellently handled too, such as when Jessup first sees his future wife, from a distance, enter a corridor, she’s bathed in a bright light as if she’s an angel, and in many ways that becomes her role. Despite all the odd stuff there’s tons of dialogue, as Russell was reportedly ordered not to remove a single line of dialogue, and one gets the sense he was getting exasperated with it as he often has his cast speak very quickly and excitedly. It kind of works for the film and keeps things moving at a fast pace but is a little annoying at first!
William Hurt gives a really committed,driven performance as Jessup,sadly Blair Brown as his wife is nowhere near as good but it doesn’t mar things too much! The film’s score by John Coroglioro, which often sounds more like wierd sound design than music, is an extroadinary work, really inventive and really rather frightening. Altered States is an amazing film, you can still enjoy it as a sensory experience even if don’t get into all the philosophical and mind bending stuff, but if you do you may find it really quite deep while still being highly entertaining. And the DVD cries out for a director/stars commentary!