“Some of these tank trips can get pretty creepy.”
If you can forget for a minute all of its pretentious ideas and scientific nonsense, 1980’s “Altered States” provides some dazzling visual delights, which is really what the whole film is about. It’s another of those sci-fi movies where it’s a lot more fun just to look and listen than it is to think.
Ken Russell directed the film, so expect his usual indulgences. If you remember, he’s the fellow who gave us things like “The Devils,” “Tommy,” “Gothic,” “Crimes of Passion,” “The Lair of the White Worm,” “Salome’s Last Dance,” and “Whore.” Russell directs a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky (“Marty,” “Network”) taken from his own novel. That would be impressive, except that when Chayefsky saw the finished product, he got so miffed he asked the studio, Warner Bros., to take his name off it. They apparently compromised on using “Sidney Aaron,” Chayefsky’s real first and middle names.
William Hurt, making his big-screen debut, stars in the film. He plays a research scientist, Dr. Edward Jessup, who specializes in sensory deprivation experiments in order to explore altered consciousnesses. At the time the movie starts, it’s 1967, an era when drugs and hallucinogens were all the rage among folks intent on finding some sort of cosmic awareness. Jessup delves into the private perception, the inner soul, the primal being as he calls it. In fact, he becomes so wrapped up in his work, he decides not to use volunteers for his experiments but do them himself. He throws himself into his work, so to speak.
So, here’s what he’s up to: He goes into this big isolation tank, suspended in water, with electrodes and such strapped to his head, and stays in there, in silent darkness, until he begins to reach into his inner psyche or goes a little nuts. Now, at first we’re unsure of the results. You see, Jessup is a fairly weird guy to begin with; he tells his girlfriend he sees visions of God and the crucifixion when he’s making love. He’s obviously ripe for an exploration of altered states of consciousness.
Jessup wants to find Man’s “inner self” by reaching into the farthest depths of his mind, including participating in Native American rituals involving dream-inducing psychedelic roots and mushrooms. Russell may have made the film in 1980, but it really is a throwback to the Sixties.
Anyway, it’s Jessup’s hallucinatory states that the viewer may find most fascinating, accompanied as they are by modern classical composer John Corigliano’s spaced-out music and Bran Ferren’s (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Star Trek V”) special, pre-CGI effects. “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Indeed, these two fellows are the real stars of the show, even though Hurt puts in another of his usual persuasive performances.
The film starts out rather slowly, with a good deal of talk, but it quickly accelerates the tempo and scoots around at a pretty good clip by the second half. Along the way, we meet the woman Jessup will eventually marry, Emily (Blair Brown), a fellow academic, an anthropologist; and his friends and colleagues Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) and Mason Parrish (Charles Haid). You might also look for minor roles by Drew Barrymore playing the Jessup’s young daughter and John Larroquette as a lab technician.
As I say, the film zips along quickly once it finally gets rolling, making the entire affair seem like a combination Science Channel documentary and full-fledged horror movie, filled with a ton of grotesque imagery. I mean, once Jessup starts seeing things, we see them right along with him, including extended glimpses of hell and the like. It gets a bit “2001” on us at times.
The movie may not actually mean much, despite all the highfalutin scientific and psychological talk, but it does get wonderfully spooky at times. And poor old Jessup; he almost dies during his experiments, yet he’s nothing if not relentless. He comes to believe that during his altered states, he physically changes. Is he simply crazy? His friends think so. Or is he able to become…something else? A monster, perhaps? The transformation shots we see look more than convincing, again without the use of CGI, as Jessup taps into Man’s primitive, primordial mind.
In the long run, we get in “Altered States” a slow opening, a quickening pace, a hyperactive finale, and something of a cop-out ending. Nevertheless, as I say, it’s fun to sit through, and as an actor Hurt is so good and so sincere, he almost makes it believable.
The WB video engineers retain the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio using a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. The image quality they obtain may or may not look like the original print because it’s been over thirty years since I last saw the film on a big screen, so I couldn’t say for sure. In any case, the PQ is OK. The filmmakers intentionally wanted much of it dark, and things are a bit murky in dimmer scenes. What’s more, details, at least in the transfer, look excessively smooth, soft and occasionally smeared, although color contrasts appear quite pronounced, giving the picture a kind of glassy, glossy look. Then again, some of the outdoor photography is razor sharp. Go figure.
Warners use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 for the soundtrack, which does a good job spreading the spacey music out between the front speakers while adding a touch of ambient bloom to the surrounds. There is a good bass response, too, and moderately strong transient impact in the film’s climactic moments. Voices are sometimes a touch metallic and pinched, though.
There’s not much here in the way of extras. About all Warners could round up was a widescreen theatrical trailer in what looks like standard def. There are, however, a robust thirty scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case.
Granted, “Altered States” is little more than “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” dressed up in twentieth-century, scientific mumbo jumbo. Still, with Hurt putting in another compelling performance and Ken Russell pulling out all the stops to produce the most-lurid possible effects, the movie has an oddly appealing energy and excitement about it. Think of it as an extravagant and exhilarating, if over-the-top, piece of filmmaking that’s silly, to be sure, but engrossing at the same time.