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As he investigates shared human memory, and still shaken by the loss of his father to cancer a year previously,  Dr Eddie Jessup becomes obsessed with finding the meaning of life and undergoes increasingly vivid and illuminating experiences as he combines sensery deprivation with hallucinatory drugs. His marriage starts to suffer as Jesup is consumed by his work, then starts to undergo changes as his research begins to manifest itself physically….

Ken  Russell has made his share of weird, 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, 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 i.e. what is the meaning of life? what is truth? This 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 feesl like he’s regressing, and anyway the sequence of the ape man runnning around is very well staged and exciting.

Towards the end things get really odd and the climax can probably be best compared  to 2001: A Space Odyssey; 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 it underlies the basic theme of the film; that instead of trying to understand life, you should just enjoy and appreciate it. I would have personally preferred a more interesting close, 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 Emily, 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.

There’s tons of dialogue, because Russell was ordered not to remove a single line of dialogue form Chayevsky’s screenplay, 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 even if it’s a little annoying at first. William Hurt gives a really committed, driven performance as Jessup; sadly Blair Brown as Emily is nowhere near as good but it doesn’t mar things much. The film’s score by John Coroglioro, which often sounds more like weird sound design than music, is an extraordinary work, really inventive and 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!

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆


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About Dr Lenera 1980 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.


  1. Great review, DL. I would also add that the sound FX, especially during the final trip is quite stonishing too. I don’t think I would have wanted to go near that deprevation tank either during those final 15 min’s. Another movie that I would bite your hand off to see at the cinema. I’ve only marked 1 off my top 5 list when I saw 2001 at the Odeon about 5 years ago. What an experience.

    • Thankyou. I would also love to see this at the cinema. I also have attended a cinema showing of 2001, many years ago. Unfortunately I had been clubbing the whole night before and instead of relaxingly tripping out, I just slept through the whole thing!. I’ve never forgiven myself!

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