Film Score: John Corigliano Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid
Altered States was released in 1980, it is very much steeped in a mid-seventies ethos. One only has two look at two Blair Brown films to see the monumental difference. Everything about this film feels as if it was produced in 1973, from the special effects and lighting to the film stock and the direction. Yet her very next film, Continental Divide with John Belushi, feels as if it could have been made in 1990. But perhaps that is the point. The film begins in 1967, and deals with the kind of exploration of consciousness that began with people like Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda. In the film William Hurt plays a psychologist studying schizophrenia, and at the same time he is doing studies on his own with a sensory depravation tank to study altered states of consciousness on volunteer students and eventually himself. Bob Balaban plays his research assistant, and Blair Brown is an anthropology doctoral student who falls in bed and in love with him. Hurt’s interest in his studies center on religion and religious symbolism in human consciousness, and some of his hallucinations are about his dead father and his rejection of religion. Before she goes off for a summer of fieldwork in Africa Brown pressures him to marry her as they will both be teaching at Harvard in the coming fall. Hurt, who is strange by all accounts, agrees.
Flash forward seven years and the couple has two kids and are about to divorce. His latest theory is that the atoms that make up the human brain are as old as the planet and therefore are the repository of millions of years of memory, and that somehow religious experience was born of those memories. He heads to Mexico to see if he can find a way into those pre-historical memories to hopefully find a purpose to life that religion can’t answer and never could have. Thaao Penghlis, who makes one of his few film appearances from before he became completely subsumed by daytime television, is his guide. Once there he takes a native drug and hallucinates again, and though disappointed, takes it back with him to Boston. Balaban worries that the drug is building up in his system, in his brain, and tries to get their mutual friend, psychiatrist Charles Haid, to help him stop his experiments. But they continue, and the crux of the film turns on Hurt’s belief that he is actually reverting physically to an earlier state of human existence when he is in the tank, and then actually does. That’s by far the most interesting part of the film, as it then changes from a psychotropic hallucination picture to a pseudo-werewolf film. The special effects, by makeup artist Rick Baker, in that part of the film are fantastic, far better than the hallucination sequences in the rest of it.
Surprisingly, the weakest part of the film is the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, who won several Oscars for his screenwriting. Ultimately, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense and seems more self-indulgent than entertaining. Apparently director Ken Russell sort of hijacked the production and kept the writer off the set, but it’s difficult to believe that even had Chayefsky achieved what he wanted to with the picture that it would have been any better. Sci-fi fans have embraced it over the years for it’s 2001-like visual sequences, but again, those seem really just and excuse for trying out visual effects rather than anything that has to do with narrative. The film was nominated for a couple of Oscars, for sound and the score but didn’t win. A few familiar character actors appear in bit parts, John Larrouquette as an x-ray tech, and George Gaynes as a radiologist, and Drew Barrymore as one of Hurt and Brown’s young daughters in her film debut. In the end the philosophical nature of the story simply doesn’t translate to the screen, while the more impressive physical regression isn’t explored in any kind of satisfying detail, leaving the viewer with little to really take away from the experience. As a result, Altered States is little more than a cinematic curiosity.