Inspired by reading Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films (nifty title!), I’ve loaded up my queue with just about all the Russell films that are on DVD. First up is Altered States. It’s a surprisingly restrained film for Russell, and its flaws are, despite Russell’s looniness, not attributable to him.
It’s the late 1960s and mad scientist manqué Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his big-screen debut) is conducting experiments with sensory deprivation. His somewhat vague goals are to find some sort of Ultimate TruthTM. Or that’s what he says to Emily (Blair Brown), an anthropology student who becomes Jessup’s lover and later his wife. Jessup’s quest for Ultimate TruthTM soon lead him to add hallucinogens to his sensory deprivation experiments and somehow this combination causes him to actually alter his DNA and physical structure, and eventually transmogrify into an apeman and a fetus/amoeba thing. No, really.
Despite having one of cinema’s more fractious productions (first-slated director Arthur Penn dropped out of the project, Russell and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky despised each other, Chayefsky took his name off the credits without even seeing the film), Altered States has some undeniable strengths. The movie was Russell’s first American film and he shows that when he’s not getting carried away with being Ken Russell he can be a strong, effective director. Even the hallucination scenes work within the context of the story and serve to give us some insight into Jessup’s mind. They’re rife with surreal and at times religious imagery, and there’s a curiously tactile quality to the second hallucination scene in particular – Russell uses fireworks to demonstrate the physical and mental discomfort Jessup is experiencing, and the sequence has a strangely haunting coda as the figures of Jessup and Emily turn into stone and are eroded by a sandstorm.
Greatly aiding Russell are the cast, all of whom acquit themselves very well and create sympathy for the characters that isn’t generated by the screenplay. Hurt has a physical attractiveness and charm that distract the audience from his character’s unlikability. Brown convinces us she loves Jessup even when we see no reason why she should. Adding some humor and common sense to the proceedings are Bob Balaban (who would later go on to direct the completely deranged movie Parents) and Charles Haid.
Altered States’ fatal flaws lie in is screenplay. Written by Paddy Chayefsky from his novel, the screenplay serves up huge chunks of expository dialogue that is never convincing (I hang around guys who design spacecraft and they don’t talk like this), along with bogus “science” that asks us to believe a person can alter their physical structure by tripping on ‘shrooms. Though forbidden to change even one word of the dialogue without being sued by Chayefsky, Russell and the actors (probably sensing that a reverent treatment of the dialogue would make the movie as exciting as watching congressional hearings) manage to dodge the clunkiness by having the dialogue be said at breakneck speed, with characters overlapping each others’ words or even speaking through mouthfuls of food.
But they can’t get around the inherent silliness of the concept, nor can they make us really care about Jessup and his search for Ultimate TruthTM. There’s a brief attempt to create sympathy for him when he reveals his search was instigated by sorrow over the death of his father, but this is never mentioned again. Hurt is handsome and charismatic in his debut, but even he can’t make us care about the selfish, pretentious, monomaniacal character. It’s a testimony to Blair Brown’s performance that we believe she loves Jessup but never see her as pathetic for doing so.
The effects of Altered States hold up surprisingly well. Save for the “moment of creation” hallucination, which strongly resembles Laser Floyd, the makeup and visual effects are well-executed, even when the underlying concepts are ridiculous. The effects have a strong physicality that couldn’t be achieved using modern CGI technology.
Altered States is one of the better interesting failures I’ve seen. As long as you don’t think about it too much and just go with the flow, you’ll likely enjoy it.
The extras are just sad. Text-only bios and other information, and presented in a horrible green shadowed font over a background that’s a collage of scenes from the film. It’s like trying to read an instruction manual printed on a Magic Eye picture. Ouch.