Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Altered States (1980)

Seen: On dvd on our big screen/projector set-up, from my personal collection (recently acquired for $2 at a dvd sale at my workplace!). 83/100 on the Sci-Fi List.

When Dr Jessup (William Hurt), a confident young scientist, begins experimenting with an isolation tank he taps into his long-dormant religious fervor. After subsequent years as a professor at Harvard and distant husband to fellow academic Emily (Blair Brown), he delves back into this research by pairing it with a mysterious substance used by a native Mexican people. He experiences crazy hallucinations that eventually develop into actual periods of regression to a pre-human state.

Gahhh I cannot seem to collect my thoughts on Altered States. The story makes less and less sense as the film goes on, moving from innocent isolation tank science to de-evolution, primordial meltdown, and progressively trippier imagery. The plot is fairly loose, focusing mainly on Jessup's continuing experiments and how his closest friends (including Bob Balaban) and wife respond. William Hurt is phenomenal in the lead (his first film role!), imbuing Jessup with charisma and a slightly manic edge. Also he's naked, like, ALL the time, but you don't see much except a few butt flashes. Cop-out. We totally see Blair Brown's boobs though, naturally.

Ken Russell, that notorious dreamweaver, incorporates a range of strange and wild techniques to take what could be a serious philosophical investigation of the foundations of human existence and turn it into WACKY TIMES. At first it's a lot of quick cuts, bright lights, bastardized religious iconography, and pretty colors, but by the final scenes it's all just a succession of "holy shit what the hell is happening what am I looking at am I going to die oh shit". You know how it is.

Sure, a good portion of Altered States is just William Hurt hanging out and getting high in the name of science, and the script isn't the strongest, but it's so well-acted and imaginative that I couldn't help but be taken by it. I'm not really sure what it was actually about under the surface, but I think I have a few re-watches ahead of me.

Oh, and it's got a monkey. Um. Sort of.


Pair This Movie With: Something trippy and mad-sciencey like The Fly or From Beyond would be fun.

PS I am 100% convinced that the end of A-Ha's "Take on Me" video (aka my favorite music video ever, literally) references/steals the final scene in Altered States. That's so unexpected and great.


  1. I saw this film many years ago and love it. I consider the film to be one of those underground cult classics that many people have never heard of before, but find it strangely intriguing when they inadvertently discover it.

  2. Also, you are correct about the connection to A-ha's Take On Me music video. It is an ode to this movie.

  3. Read the book. It isn't very long and can be done in one sitting. It makes the movie easier to understand.

    In addition to the A-Ha video, in the early days of MTV they used to play a clip of an MTV logo bashing itself against the walls of a hallway just like in this movie.

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  5. Altered States is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. As you aptly noted, the more it progresses, the lesser sense it seems to make. Yet, despite the absurd and bizarre nature of the storyline, there's something inherently captivating about it. That said, though I was intrigued, even involved, by its proceedings, this isn't one of those movies I'd want to revisit anytime soon.

  6. "Russell... take[s] what could be a serious philosophical investigation of the foundations of human existence and turn[s] it into WACKY TIMES." Now that is a great explanation of the madness that is ALTERED STATES!

  7. In the 1980 sci-fi 'Altered States,' is the great movie, I really want to see thousands more painful horror transformations soon, and love to see ninty more special bladders effects.

  8. They should do millions of more weird sci-fi films almost similar to this, do the same special transformation effects only add more air-bladders fx; and have them way they change into over fifty different weird monsters.