Monday, September 15, 2014

Altered States

Edward Jessup, after several years of attempting to unlock the secrets of alternate states of consciousness and evolution via sensory deprivation, finds himself married with children. It's unfathomable to him. A scientist on the brink of discovering the origin of species, repeatedly suspending himself in a claustrophobic suspension tank to replicate visions and discover another link. Yet somehow he allowed himself to fall into the same trap as all those automatons out there who only think about what they wear and which restaurant to patronize.

If you've seen 1980's ALTERED STATES, you might find it odd that I have chosen what seems like an afterthought in the screenplay with which to open this review. Not so strange, though, as the entire climax, in all its special effects laden primal screaming, points back to human connection.

Jessup (William Hurt, in his feature film debut), is your prototypical obsessed genius, forsaking anything that interrupts his hypothesis. This would often include the bright grad student he married (Blair Brown). He spends years in and out of the tank, waiting to find the Original Thought. To regress into a state of primordial matter if necessary. Eventually, the gateway to devolution is via psychoactive mushrooms, first discovered on a visit to Mexico. He has his first herbal fueled trip there. Director Ken Russell, long experienced with disturbing imagery, provides us with Jessep's outlandish hallucinations. Including goats with multiple eyes and crucifixions. Cinematographer extraordinaire Jordan Cronenweth realizes these visions with his usual imagination and precision. A better DP for this project would be hard to recommend.

Back home, Jessep begins using the hallucinogen to supplement his experiments. His colleagues fear for his sanity as each session leaves Jessup more shaken. Dr. Parrish (Charles Haid) thinks he's crazy, having none of the scientist's theories. Parrish explains away the hallucinations as mini strokes.  Jessep begins undergoing not only psychological but also physical metamorphoses. His devolution has some hair raising results.

Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, which he based on his novel, contains a plethora of scientific dialogue to process.  Discussions of the limbic system and the like.  The more learned in the neurological sciences you are, the more likely you will appreciate ALTERED STATES, a movie as cerebral as it got in 1980. Or, you may find the entire enterprise a hodgepodge of mumbo jumbo and over the top effects and just enjoy the spectacle.  Chayefsky felt the actors were over the top, screaming their carefully written lines when they should've been uttered with less intensity. The writer and director, to put it mildly, did not see eye to eye, leading Chayefsky to use the pseudonym "Sidney Aaron".

I found the movie to be a consistently fascinating bit of science fiction, with much to appreciate. Some of the science I recognized, but I did not take its storyline or themes too seriously, a wise approach. As with so many other "trip" films, perhaps the use of intoxicants will yield greater enjoyment. Will cause you to see into other dimensions, to find that there are many universes under any one of your fingernails. As a sober viewer, I was swept along by the dazzling (for the time) visual effects and eccentricity of director Russell, earlier responsible for pageants like LISZTOMANIA and THE DEVILS.

At the end, though, Jessep goes to what seems like Hell and back to discover what was right in front of him all along. Maybe love isn't a genetic flaw after all, doc?

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