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Altered States

Toby Baldwin's Film Review Home

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7 out of 10

Amazing visuals and great ideas make this movie hold up well despite its subpar and/or offensive elements. If you like bizarre, head-trip films, this one will fascinate you. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Toby Baldwin's review of Altered States

The remarkable thing about this being a 1980 movie is that it relies heavily on special effects and visuals, but still looks good over 20 years later. It must have been revolutionary in its day. Not to mention wildly offensive to most.

Psychologist Eddie Jessup (young William Hurt), is conducting studies on sensory deprivation. Apparently spending several hours in an isolation tank makes him have hallucinations. Due to his bitterness against God since the death of his father, Eddie's visions tend toward the blasphemous, and this theme, having been pummeled to death in the years since, does not hold up well now. We see several twists on the crucifixion, an interesting scene with a Turin-like shroud, and a depiction of Hell that was actually the best I'd seen in a movie--even creepier than the one in What Dreams May Come; very nicely done by director Ken Russell, who has made a career of strange, morbid films.

Eventually Eddie goes with his faithful, mousy lab companion Arthur (Bob Balaban) to Mexico, where a tribe of Natives uses a peyote-like substance to achieve enlightenment. He ends up using the drug in tandem with the isolation tank to achieve maximum weirdness. And boy, does it work. The psychedelic sequences are certainly the highlight of this film. If not for the cheesy horror flick music playing on top of them, I think they would qualify as the best of cool-in-a-weird-way scenes I've witnessed. Eventually the hallucinations give way to Eddie somehow getting in touch with his inner primordial human, after which he starts having temporary transformations into a primate. Things get more odd, but not necessarily in a more enjoyable way.

Somewhere in there--and it is indeed handled like an afterthought--Eddie picks up a girlfriend named Emily (Blair Brown), who when we first meet her is doing her postdoc as an anthropologist at Harvard (the movie takes place in Boston, but doesn't take much advantage of its locale). She is shown naked a lot, with no discernible reason other than that the director could show her naked and wanted to; that seems to have been as important in Brown's casting as her talent, which seems about average. Eddie eventually marries her, and the proposal scene--which takes place against the truly creepy backdrop of a patient with schizophrenia being given drugs to induce hallucinations (!)--has got to be the least romantic pop-the-question scene in movie history. Hilarious stuff. Most of the interpersonal developments happen off-screen; the first time we see Emily after the proposal, she and Eddie have two children and their marriage is on the rocks.

It seems like the marriage is doomed until Emily returns from a sabbatical in Africa to find Arthur terribly worried about Eddie endangering himself with his experiments. These worries are more than corroborated by their doctor buddy Mason (played in excessive corn-pone by Charles Haid), who pokes fun at Eddie for being a quack and constantly tries to talk him out of his obsessive studies of altered states. He is also the doubting Thomas who tries to disprove that Eddie may have turned into a primate, and ends up getting the opposite result of what he wanted.

Somehow Ken Russell pulls all of this off without it seeming annoying. The music was the worst for me; violin-string shrieks and other hackneyed attempts at scariness pervade the corny score. The script is hilariously bad at times, with the characters woodenly spouting pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. The relationship is underdeveloped; at first glance that seems intentional, as if to show by comparison how Eddie's obsession has taken over his life, but then the climax attempts to all of the sudden have Eddie realize that he does love Emily, that she is the most important thing in his life, blah blah blah. That wouldn't work in this movie even if it weren't so badly rushed. But the movie looks great, from the very first scenes of Hurt in the isolation tank. Russell did an incredible job of setting an ethereal mood with the visuals. The LSD-like sequences are dynamite. Even the ape scenes look pretty good (although I had a roommate once who could do a better job of running and leaping like an ape).

All in all, this is a must-see for fans of strange cinema, and although most will find some elements of it corny and/or downright distasteful, I found it an inexplicably satisfying movie. Be warned, however; apart from the gratuitous nudity and plot gaps, there are also many sequences that go beyond creepy to pure evil. Ken Russell is certainly not known as a mainstream director, and this movie demonstrates why.

Year: 1980
Director: Ken Russell
Running Time: 102 minutes
Rating: R (and they ain't kidding - keep out of reach of children!)
Click here for complete details at IMDB.com.

Review copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin; originally written September 10, 2001
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