Though written by three-time academy award winning writer Paddy Chayefsky (adapting his own novel), Altered States had a surprisingly tough trip to the big screen. Pawned off by production companies, plagued by budgetary issues, and shunned by a litany of directors, the film eventually found salvation in Ken Russel. Altered States’ heady, sometimes silly, mix of science, faith, academia, and hallucinogenic drugs is, in hindsight, so perfect a match it’s a wonder they bothered asking anyone else to make it.
William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, an intense intellectual with near-comically intense post-coital chat and a fascination with exploring subconscious states through acid trips in sensory deprivation. His obsession with discovering the meaning of existence, or at least experiencing something close to rebirth, makes him an academic outsider and a lousy husband to Blair Brown’s pragmatic Emily.
The two are opposites. Whilst Hurt spends his time looking for answers, she is content in the conclusion that there is no meaning to life except what we make it. Love, she thinks, is an experience which gives life meaning. It’s a relationship which extends behind the scenes.
Whilst Chayefsky’s script feels thoughtful, inquisitive, meditative, but often dense, Russell’s direction is rapid-fire delirium. Through this union, Altered States is less a balanced conversation on metaphysics and more a representation of academia as an utter madhouse which the Average Joe can’t hope to understand. Rather than capturing the metaphysical arguments, Russell uses his brand of evocative audio-visual mania to hammer the raw power of the subconscious rebirth home. So, essentially, Russell makes us feel what Chayefsky can only make us think.
As with any Russell film it’s a sometimes-silly experience despite its own lofty ruminations. It’s as though Russell finds our desperate attempts to understand ourselves immensely funny. He can’t help but find an obscene kind of comedy in attempts to know the unknowable, just as he couldn’t help finding humor in the faith-based terror of The Devils. Though horrific, there is indeed something innately, darkly, comic about a man turning himself into primordial soup before ever being content with love.
Perhaps this is why Chayefsky had his own name stripped from the project.
Like Cronenberg’s The Fly 6 years later, Altered States is a descendant of Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein. Both films center around the dangerous persistence of scientific curiosity, the resultant body horror of boundary breaking, and the existential dread which drips from the aftermath.
It doesn’t offer any particularly deep insights, though. That’s not the point. Altered States’ soul-searching pseudo-scientific setup is just the perfect mannequin for Russel to spatter his explosive quasi-religious psychedelia over. It’s a heady mix of surrealist imagery, epic Milton-esque Hellscapes, and entrancing abstract forms. Altered States is a trip down the rabbit hole which catapults the audience to the beginning of existence, then right up to the face of God, before setting us back in our seats. If nothing else, this is Russell’s finest visual feat and an unforgettable experience.
Dir. Ken Russell
Stars. William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid,