Retro Movie Nerd: ALTERED STATES (1980)

Mind-altering substances. Wacky experiments in the name of questionable science. What does one actually think is going to happen when you take the juices of magical Mexican roots and sit inside a sensory-deprivation tank for a few hours? For the purposes of this review, one such scientist thinks he can get in touch with his primal self. As a sidenote, back in 1980 I imagine this is a movie that a lot of people went to while “experimenting”, if you know what I mean.

Step inside the latest review from Retro Movie Nerd

Rated R
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: December 25, 1980

The easiest way to sum up Altered States is to say “Man takes mushrooms. Man steps into dark tank. Man freaks out”. However, that would be missing the point that Altered States is trying to make. That point being that no mater how high we are on the intelligence spectrum, we all need to eat, sleep, drink and have sex just as much as anyone else, but above all else, we also need love. The message of Altered States is clear, but the route director Ken Russell takes to relay that message is a combination of trippy and slightly campy.

William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, a weirdly detached psychologist, who is experimenting with sensory deprivation when we first meet him. While at a party, he meets Emily (Blair Brown), a woman who somehow finds him strangely attractive. Later that night, they have sex, which is interrupted by Eddie’s wandering thoughts of religious images. The two go on to get married, with Eddie seemingly not all in, but doing so to make Emily happy and to keep her in his life. Flash forward several years, and the two have children together (one of which is played by a young Drew Barrymore) and are on the verge of divorce. Eddie is obsessively interested in restarting his previous experiments with the sensory deprivation tank, but this time he goes to Mexico to acquire a special mushroom to aid in his research. Eddie participates in a tribal ceremony that uses the magical ‘shroom and has a rather lengthy vision. This vision is one of the more interesting scenes in the film, as Ken Russell and visual effects artist Bran Ferren create a trippy, psychedelic, allegorical sequence that aims high, like the effects in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While not reaching those heights, it is still an impressive visual sequence.

Ooohhhh….trippy. Let the erotic mushroom take you into space.

Back stateside, Eddie has brought with him a tincture of the substance and begins experimenting with it inside the deprivation tank. While disregarding the advice of his friends and colleagues, Eddie claims that his visions have externalized and he genetically regressed to an early form of man, almost ape-like in nature. Charles Haid plays friend/colleague Mason Parrish, who takes x-rays of Eddie immediately after one such experimental session, with the x-ray tech referring to Eddie as a “fucking gorilla”. Meanwhile, Eddie has moments where he physically observes his bodily structure attempting to change before his very eyes. The experiments are bound to take a serious turn, of course, until Eddie finds himself in serious danger of genetically regressing much too far. In examining the plot of Altered States, the dialogue is very intellectual and fast-paced; so much so that it’s almost as if we weren’t meant to catch up and understand. The idea is that the film involves highly intelligent people attempting to understand very deep concepts, but at the core, they are just like the rest of us with their basic human needs. The story takes quite a few risks in asking the audience to take the material as seriously as the characters do, although there are a few instances where scenes play much too campy, especially the final scene. This scene plays very silly and almost undermines everything that happened before and is probably the one misstep the film takes.

Remember, kids. Taking psychotropic drugs will make you feel funny. It’s best to balance that out with some Red Bull.

Director Ken Russell, of course, is known for his flamboyant and controversial style. His critics have accused him of being obsessed with sexuality and Catholicism, elements that appear in Altered States as well. Mostly, however, Altered States is a bit of a departure for Russell. The film is adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s novel of the same name and Russell does an admirable job in translating Chayefsky’s hallucinatory text into a visual fireworks display while, of course, throwing in his own religious and sexual imagery. Russell restrains himself, however, after the initial trippy sequence and tells a straight-forward story. Chayefsky’s own screenplay adaptation of his novel retains the intellectual dialogue, which could have been impenetrable if it wasn’t for the fact that neither Russell nor the cast take a moment to weigh the words; therefore, the audience is spared having to grasp the weight.

William Hurt makes his first major film appearance here, having only a theater background at this juncture. Playing Eddie Jessup, he is detached, almost emotionless (except when it comes to his work). There is fire in Hurt’s performance when Eddie allows his obsessions to consume him. Blair Brown, as Emily, provides a strong performance as a woman who loves her husband, but is constantly frustrated in her attempts to reach through him. The rest of the cast is filled with character actors such as Bob Balaban and Charles Haid, who play Eddie’s friends/colleagues. They provide depth to the cast, and some of the funnier scenes in the film occur when Balaban and Haid are trying to take over each other.

Altered States could possibly be one of the more divisive films we could review here at Retro Movie Nerd. The intellectual mumbo jumbo could take some viewers out of it; the visual effects on display along with some of the imagery may turn some people off; the ending could be so campy that it could negate the rest of the film. I’m of the belief that it somehow all gels together to form a film that is only slightly thought-provoking and entertaining enough to recommend. Ken Russell doesn’t get ahead of himself and the cast keep the story grounded. Of course, “man takes mushrooms and freaks out in deprivation tank” is taking the easy way out in summing up this complicated film.

RATING: *** – Interesting with a dash of camp.


Remember, for more reviews of films from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, check out Retro Movie Nerd’s own blog.