Altered States (1980), or Carlos Castaneda In An Isolation Tank

9 05 2009

People throughout history have often considered hallucinations to be very important spiritual and personal experiences that represent the unseen forces at work behind the veil of the cold and unforgiving universe. It’s a fascinating concept and the impetus of a number of important works in the Pantheon of art. In reality, of course, they don’t mean anything; they’re malfunctions in the brain caused by any number of different catalysts resulting in a disturbed and warped reality. But the power of the phenomenon persists, and if used appropriately it can be a powerful device for any art form as a mercurial metaphor. In 1980, Ken Russell broke new ground in exploring the occurrence of hallucinations and their significance with his film Altered States, and after watching it today, I’m more interested than ever at the mystical periphery at the edge our consciousness.

William Hurt stars as a college professor Edward Jessup, who discovers a surprising link to our waking state of being and our other subconscious states. While studying schizophrenia, he postulates that perhaps the selves beneath our commonly accepted reality are just as real and as palpable as the people we are everyday in our awakened life. To study this idea further, he starts taking hallucinogenic mushrooms and creates a sensory deprivation experiment in a flotation tank at the school (what a cool teacher!).These experiments open up his subconscious mind and release some surreal, powerful visions that completely transforms his mental state. To his shock, however, he finds that his postulations are correct, and the older, more primordial selves beneath the conscious mind are indeed real. Because the experiments are making him change physically, de-evolving him into something not quite human…

It’s one thing to introduce the possibilities of something like this, and it’s another to actually pull it off. Altered States is a gloriously gutsy picture about navigating the limitless possibilities of man’s transcendence/de-evolution through the awakening of our older, animalistic selves. I found its ambition refreshing, although such ambition is not without costs. It asks a lot of questions, and filling in the blank with your own conjecture is fine, but asking any serious questions of the film in return pokes a hole in the facade and it begins to border on ridiculousness. Jessup’s transformation is a terrifying prospect on the surface, but to take it seriously and extrapolate the concept makes it all feel a bit silly. Enjoying it at face value, though, and going along with the pseudo-science makes for a very compelling cinematic experience.

There are some remarkable effects here that I can’t see being done in 2009 without computer-generated assistance. Six-eyed beasts, tiny primordial men, alien landscapes, and William Hurt’s unfathomable transformations are all done with make-up and a good ol’ fashioned SFX department. It’s quite admirable in this day and age that in 1980 something so mind-blowing could be made without any help from a computer. The hallucinations are a mix of both well-performed effects and editor Eric Jenkins making some expert decisions on how a scene would be best placed within a nightmarish dreamworld. The results are spectacular on a scale that most other mind-bending films just cannot compete with.

William Hurt, in only his second movie role, dazzles with a confidence and a strength that would later define his roles in classics like Body Heat and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He plays Jessup with a deep hunger for knowledge that might never be satisfied until it becomes too late. It’s a wonder to watch anyone try to carve out a niche for themselves in the industry with a role, but especially Hurt because he had more than just a desire to get a gig after this, he had the talent to back it up. Blair Brown plays Jessup’s wife Emily, and I was quite taken with her in parts of the movie. She doesn’t have that eerie artificiality that comes with most actresses. She seems warm and incredibly human, which works extremely well considering that she represents Jessup’s ties to the waking world.

It’s a daring film, one of Ken Russell’s best directorial efforts, and a standout performance in William Hurt’s amazing career. Other than an ending that felt disingenuous and banal, as well as a willingness to play along with pseudo-science being a prerequisite for maximum comprehension of the plot, it hit all the right notes for me. I found Altered States fascinating and bizarre, just at that threshold between terrifying and humorous, where a concept is almost laughable but grossly stoic simultaneously. It’s a film that probes the darkness of our minds; not so much looking for anything, but just to see what’s in there. I enjoyed it, and it makes for a great Saturday night movie to watch in the dead silence of the evening (hint, hint: go rent it, people!!!). I give it 8 1/2 tiny primordial men out of 10.

Come back tomorrow, where I ask all of you a serious question: what’s the deal with Barton Fink?

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