Altered States (1980)

Directed by Ken Russell

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Altered States will remind you of other 80’s movies like The Fly and An American Werewolf in London.  It’s one of those stories that builds to a particularly gruesome, practical effects-laden transformation which marks the protagonist’s irreversible shift from an everyman into something monstrous.

William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist obsessed with finding a higher plane of consciousness.  We meet him in a large water tank, meant to deprive you of your senses.  He looks alien to us because soon he will continue to alienate himself from us, personified by his love interest, Emily (Blair Brown).  Well, he’s her love interest.  Jessup enjoys her company but never gives it much thought.  She is just someone to whom he can bounce ideas off of about his scientific obsessions.

Eddie and Emily get together quickly, shown through something of a demonic ritual of a one night stand, followed by a marriage proposal and a time jump.  When we next meet them, a couple of kids later, they are getting divorced.  Emily remains deeply in love with Eddie, but he is still as enraptured as ever by his scientific pursuits.

At some point those pursuits become less scientific and more, well still experimental but certainly unhinged.  Eddie ceases work with other test subjects and instead tests himself.  He will combine the sensory deprivation with a drug found in a cave in Mexico.

When he comes across this elixir of sorts, he experiences a drug trip in which he slaughters a dog (or was it a wolf) and wakes up with no memory of it.  Eddie returns home and conducts a series of dangerous experiments on himself, all in the name of seeking out life’s greatest truth.

His mind continues to go elsewhere, and soon he manifests the worlds of his dreams.  First it is the blood around his mouth from some sort of ritual sacrifice.  The other scientists assume he must have had a seizure and bit his tongue.  Then he turns into a caveman and runs rabid through the city before returning to his tank and waking up with no such memory.

As this is going on, Emily offers insight into both Eddie’s condition and her own.  As obsessed as he is with the ‘truth,’ so too is she with him.  It bothers her so, to love something so much that doesn’t truly love you back.  Her plight is similar to Eddie’s own, but she seeks her version of the truth in the form of another person, to experience life while Eddie wants to understand it.  At the end of the day they want the same thing.

Emily also knows something’s up.  She had a dream about Eddie’s transformation, and she’s the first to suggest what he envisioned was reality.  She will try to stop him from continuing his quest, but of course he continues, and of course he transforms once again into a caveman.

Altered States is trippy and extreme, in a great way.  Because of my own experience with other 80’s body transformation movies like the ones listed above, much of this felt conventional.  A scientist becomes obsessed with something and risks everything in the name of transcending to another level of being.  He takes it too far, and his hubris leads to a disturbing conclusion with permanent changes.  In other words he flies too close to the son, seeking to know something that he possibly has no right to know while others are content to experience life as it is.

So these movies encourage us to just live life, not to try and understand or deconstruct it.  Altered States goes above and beyond because it more textually considers such hubris.

In the end, following quite the spectacle of a drug trip that brings Emily into the fold, he acknowledges that what he’s searching for isn’t out there.  His ultimate resolution will be to seek in the flesh what he was looking for in the mind.  It’s a much more carnal approach to salvation, like you see in this year’s First Reformed.

Characters look for meaning, struggle to find it and then find the salvation they didn’t realize they were after through the supposed search for truth within the people around them.

I should also say that this really is quite the trip.  There are a number of inspired, sometimes disturbing drug sequences with imagery it might take much longer to break down.  Altered States is a familiar story construction loaded with abstract, experimental sequences that are quite beautiful if only in their own convictions.  Movie drug trips tend to present some kind of abstract reality with an unwavering confidence that more realistic depictions of life lack.

Up Next: True Grit (1969), Out of the Past (1947), Pavilion (2012)

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