Friday, September 9, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At the Movies #21 - Altered States (dir. Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell is a madman. I’ve seen almost every film he’s made and that is the conclusion I’ve drawn. Altered States is no exception and it is his most conventional film. Based on a Paddy Chayevsky novel the real kernel of the film goes back to a short story by H. P. Lovecraft called “Back There.” In it, a man discovers a way to access the genetic history inherent in all our brains and become, essentially, a caveman. In Altered States Harvard Professor Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his first film role) conducts experiments with graduate students that combine strong hallucinogenic drugs with sessions in an isolation tank. The results start to get weird and, being a man of science in 1967, Professor Jessup decides he needs to try it for himself. He does so and the results are startling. Eddie is a big question kind of guy, and his experiences floating in total sensory deprivation lead to incredible hallucinations involving his religious upbringing, his feelings towards his wife (played with doe-eyed beauty by Blair Brown - whatever happened to her?), and his desire to understand and be part of a more primitive state of being. He finds out about a tribe of Indians in Mexico who use a mushroom to induce common visions of ancestral creation. Jessup visits them and has a powerful trip that leaves him naked on a hillside with a dead lizard next to him. He decides he must combine this mushroom with the isolation tank. And this is all in the first 20 minutes of the movie!
Ken Russell attacks the subject with such vigor and visual flair that one hardly questions what is happening. It is only after Jessup returns to his experiments and enhances them with the mushroom extract, which he somehow talked the Indians out of, that things really start to get weird. His colleagues at Harvard are starting to think he is a flake and his wife is ready to take the kids and leave. His sessions find him physically regressing and actually becoming a primitive man. Although the film has been moving at a fast clip up to this point, it is now that the special effects really take over and the film goes into hyperdrive. Jessup ultimately takes the experiment as far as it can go, physically mutating into a dangerous ape like creature. To learn how he gets out of this state will require you seeing the movie. It is very worth the journey because Russell is such a fearless and personal director. Tackling hallucinations on film has historically proven to be a dicey business. Many directors less talented than Russell have failed miserably. While some of his techniques are dated, there is a colorful brilliance to these sequences that justify the price of admission. The movie keeps to a dark palette of colors during the rest of the action, so the hallucination scenes nearly explode off the screen. Filled with flying sparks, religio-sexual imagery, and cells breaking down into DNA it is all great fun, and Russell’s own sense of authority in the fields of both asking the big questions and tripping balls are obvious in every frame.

Walking the line between serious science fiction and action-filled crowd pleasing is a perilous task. It is so easy to undermine the important thematic elements of a film by making the action too bread and circus-y. Altered States takes it as far as one can go in both directions without splitting in two. Ken Russell’s film is both intellectually rewarding and filled with enough pulse-pounding to keep even the most primitive human engaged.

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