10 July, 2010

Movie Review: Altered States (1980)

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky successfully fought to have his name removed from the credits of Altered States. Though the shooting script remained entirely faithful to his story and his words, he felt that his dialogue, when voiced by these actors (William Hurt in his first role, Blair Brown, Charles Haid) under Ken Russell's direction, was rendered incomprehensibly silly and raving mad. His assessment was a fair one, but it's hard to imagine any way in which these lines could not come across as being the words of lunatics. (Take, for instance, this line delivered by a totally drunk William Hurt at a bar to his buddies: "What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.")

I find it baffling that Chayefsky, who wrote Network, one of the most perfect screenplays of all time, just a few years before, produced a script that sounds so written and unrealistic. Perfectly formed sentences using convoluted jargon to express solidly constructed, complex ideas. You can hear the pointedly pronounced commas and semicolons. No one ever falters or stutters here. No one is ever at a loss for words, which is surprising, given the mind-blowingly bizarre subject matter.

Altered States tells the story of Eddie Jessup (Hurt), a young Harvard scientist experimenting with isolation chambers and psychoactive drugs to explore altered states of consciousness. He's a strange young man, extremely driven, obsessively focused, constantly manic, and almost pathologically antisocial. He meets Emily (Brown), a beautiful anthropologist, marries her, and has children, but their life together always takes the back seat to his career, a situation that she knowingly enters. As Jessup secretly experiments on himself with an undocumented tribal drug from Mexico, he begins to tap into genetic memory, collective consciousness, and his primal roots--not just mentally, but physically. On a path to unlocking the mysteries of the self and the meaning of the universe, he takes a crash course backwards through the ages of the cosmos, with brief interludes as a caveman and as a gelatinous blob of primordial ooze. At risk of transforming back into a unicellular being and perhaps even assimilating with the universe in some sort of reverse big bang, he finally looks outside of himself for one moment to see the despair of his wife and realizes that maybe love, companionship, and mere normal existence is preferable to scientific nirvana.

You heard me right. Taking shrooms in an isolation tank physically transforms him into a caveman. And then into a blob. There's some mystical, pseudoscientific explanation for this, something to do with genes never changing throughout the course of history and with the mind/soul having as much direct influence over the body as the body does over the mind/soul. It's absurd, of course, but that's clearly what Ken Russell was aiming for. (Was Chayefsky not aiming for absurdity? If not, then that calls his sanity and brilliance into question.)

Ken Russell, who directed the phenomenally strange and enjoyable The Who musical Tommy, relishes in bizarre imagery and surreal, drug-induced moments of absurdity. Unfortunately, for a movie so surreal, I found the offerings to be rather tepid and customary. Jessup's hallucinations/experiences borrow heavily from loaded Judeo-Christian symbolism. Christ hangs on a cross, his head replaced by a goat's in a nod to J.G. Frazer's theories about Christ as a sacrificial scapegoat (see The Golden Bough). Emily as Eve feeds Jessup as Adam pudding in a rather English garden of Eden while a serpent slithers nearby. Cast out of paradise, they enter brutal reality, wandering into an atomic explosion. There are images of lizards that draw upon the idea of the reptile brain. There are rather stereotypical descriptions of caveman life, and the universe in its earliest stages is seen (just as in the Bible) as a watery Chaos waiting for God to carve into order. It seems to me that bizarre, surreal hallucinations wouldn't be so archetypal, straightforward, and obvious. For a movie that's supposed to simulate a bizarre, eye-opening trip, the visuals are rather pedestrian.

What's most bizarre, in fact, is how nonchalantly the characters respond to to these increasingly impossible revelations. After an extended sequence in which Jessup, transformed into a hairy, goofy, squealing hominid, has raced down corridors, attacked security guards, climbed fences, defecated in public, and killed and eaten a deer, he returns to his normal body, his wife, and his home with only a foggy recollection of the experience. He describes to Emily his motivation during the spree--how all thoughts of the past and the future, all worries and concerns and complicated yearnings had slipped away, replaced with the mere need to survive, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to stay alive. Dewy-eyed and smiling, he tells her, "I hunted, killed, and ate a small gazelle. It was the most satisfying experience of my life."

Needless to say, she is horrified.

Which highlights the only truly interesting quandary in this film: what is knowledge or enlightenment if it removes you from the things that make you human? Is the ending, in which Jessup chooses to stay with Emily and to love her rather than to attain the ultimate solution to his questing, a victory or a tragedy?

Altered States could have been a pretty good movie, but subpar acting from Hurt and Brown (only Charles Haid, as a loudmouthed, Southern-twanged scientist friend, shines in this film) and unrealistic dialogue prevent its message from ever being driven home.

Altered States (1980)
d: Ken Russell W: Paddy Chayefsky
(William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban)


PGWNYC said...

Good review. I wanted to point out that it's Charles Haid, not Bob Balaban as the "loud-mouthed, Southern-twanged" scientist. (He's my favorite character too.)

stephen said...

Oh, wow. You're absolutely right. Thank you.

Ron H. said...

There's nothing absurd about the idea that the mind can control the body; medicine and psychiatry rely upon that basic tenant all the time. But Jessup takes it to an extreme one wouldn't think possible-- or be desirable. But, hey, it's still a good movie; there hasn't been any others like it before or since... :-)

Ron H. said...

There's nothing absurd about the idea that the mind can control the body; medicine and psychiatry rely upon that basic tenant all the time. But Jessup takes it to an extreme one wouldn't think possible-- or be desirable. But, hey, it's still a good movie; there hasn't been any others like it before or since... :-)

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