I’ve seen Altered States several times, and each time that I watch it, I think that THIS viewing will be the one to make me love it. And each time, I’m disappointed that I don’t love it. I really do want to love Altered States, as I’m a fan of many of the creative people involved with it (director Ken Russell, actors William Hurt, Blair Brown, and Bob Balaban, writer Paddy Chayefsky, and makeup effects artist Dick Smith), but my reaction after seeing it every time can be best summed up as “meh.”
The plot concerns Dr. Eddie Jessup (as played by William Hurt in his film debut) and his experiments with altered states of consciousness. His only love is the search for truth, which, understandably, leaves his wife (Blair Brown) feeling somewhat underappreciated. At first, Jessup plays around with an abandoned isolation tank that he finds in the basement of his campus building. He then starts experimenting with psychedelics used in the religious rites of a Mexican Indian tribe. But when he combines the two in a search for whatever whacked-out form of the truth he’s looking for, his physical body starts altering as well.
Director Ken Russell seems to be a lot more interested in showing what these consciousness-altering trips are like than in stringing together a compelling narrative. So, whenever he’s given the chance, Ken Russell goes all Ken Russell-y, and we get to see such sights as a man with a multi-eyed goat’s head, a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired trip into the roots of consciousness, a naked “proto-humanoid,” and two disemboweled animals. Look closely for Drew Barrymore in her first role, and watch for John Larroquette as the aptly-named “X-Ray Technician.”
I guess that the main thing that I learned from Altered States is that, if I suddenly start mutating into a being made of pure energy, beating on the nearest wall hard enough will cause me to revert to my usual corporeal form. And if, while in this state of pure energy, I have touched someone else (such as my wife, perhaps), thus turning her into some sort of lava-being, once I have reverted back to normal, I can hug her and change her back to normal as well. I hope that I never have to use this information, but knowledge is power…and at least I now have it, thanks to Altered States.
Wanna watch the trailer? Of course you do.