Ken Russell goes mainstream Hollywood, with pleasingly demented results. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s increasingly looks like a never-to-be-repeated golden era for science fiction, when invention and originality were par for the course. It’s difficult to imagine something so based on experimentation, and so experimental, being made today.
Russell was coming off several (unsuccessful) idiosyncratic biopics and was reportedly far down the list of choices for the film. Paddy Chayefsky had adapted his novel, based on the sensory deprivation work of scientist John C Lilly. Lilly’s experiments involved subjects spending periods of time in isolation tanks dosed up on psychoactive drugs. Critically, Chayefsky was on a high, having recently won an Oscar for Network, and reportedly hated what Russell did with his screenplay. Russell in turn claimed the writer was impossible to please. There’s no doubting the quality of the dialogue, which pays no concessions to the inattentive viewer and never feels the need to simplify or patronise (nor over-explain what can be surmised).
There’s little doubt that if you wanted a straight telling of a story, Russell’s not the guy to go to. And the hallucinatory scenes in the film are as amped up as you’d expect, full of (Christian) religious imagery and OTT back projection. The effect is sometimes just whacky and clichéd (the hell scenes lifted from Dante’s Inferno), at others weird and disturbing (Blair Brown behaving in the manner of the Komodo dragon William Hurt was fixated on moments before, a seven-eyed goat man suspended on a cross).
Most impacting is the unsettling soundtrack, and ironically for someone better known for bludgeoning subtlety out of the screen, Russell exerts the strongest effect on the audience in the atmosphere he builds up before the (literally in one scene) fireworks begin; Hurt suspended in the tank, describing what he sees, and the incredulous reactions of his colleagues.
This was William Hurt’s big screen debut, and his natural tendency towards being a mass of neuroses percolates into a gripping central performance of a man with a grand obsession and tunnel vision to match. But the supporting players are superb too; Blair Brown’s understanding but pushed-away wife, the ever-cast-as-a sympathetic-boffin charm of Bob Balaban and a scene-stealing Charles Haid as the disbelieving and reluctant faculty supervisor.
Mason Parrish: I'm gonna show these to someone who can read them right, 'cause you're reading them wrong, that's all there is to it. Because no one is gonna tell me you de-differentiated your goddamn genetic structure for four goddamn hours and then reconstitued! I'm a professor of endocrinology at the Harvard Medical School. I'm an attending physician at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital! I'm a contributing editor to the American Journal of Endocrinology and a I am a fellow and vice-president of the Eastern Association of Endocrinologists and president of the Journal Club! And I'm not going to listen to any more of your kabbalistic, quantum, friggin' dumb limbo mumbo jumbo! I'm gonna show these to a radiologist!
I hadn’t really taken in the ellipses of time in the opening sequences before. The film appears to begin in 1967, and really the party with everyone sharing joints to the sound of The Doors should have got that message across. Then there’s a leap of seven years and Hurt and Brown are married with kids, about to split up. The triptastic Mexico sequence follows before the main meat of the tale. We probably end up close to the time the film was made when all is said and done.
Thematically Altered States isn’t exactly subtle; here we have an individual so obsessed with finding the true self, the god within, that he can’t see the one meaningful aspect of his life (which inevitably involves saying those three words). That this doesn’t come across as trite is at least in part down to the performances, but also because the stakes involved never allow enough time for mawkishness (one can only dread what a Spielberg would have done with it). The moral seems slightly incongruous for the characterised infant terrible Russell, as it appears to encourage a position of limitation and restraint, of recognising that it is only through engagement with others and society as a whole that one can discover peace or comfort. The pursuit of knowledge for its own ends will result in destruction and mental disintegration. The central character forsakes his quest for (science-fuelled) spiritual enlightenment and retreats to a position of here-and-now humanism.
If Dick Smith’s physical effects look variable to todays eye, they have a tangibility that retains an impact. Hurt holding up a prosthetic-enhanced arm that is bulging and straining manages to be both fake-looking and alarming. But the later stages of his transformation, in particular the optically-enhanced corridor scenes at the climax still look incredible.
Corridor shots are something of a motif throughout; Hurt first appears to Brown silhouetted in angelic light as he arrives at Balaban’s house, and later a similar but more subdued shot is used when she sees him following his regressed rampage (it must be noted that the caveman make-up is fairly unremarkable, but part of the problem may be that regressing to the state of primitive man isn’t that fascinating an idea in itself).
The use of lighting effects also deserves a mention. In particular, the lightshow where Hurt is lost in the flotation tank and Brown has to rescue him recalls the striking white lighting that punched through doorways and windows in Spielberg’s Close Encounters (and later in Poltergeist).
There’s no doubt Altered States is replete with flaws, but they don’t prevent it from taking its place as a science fiction great. It’s such a peculiar and distinct film, a combination of two disparate personalities taking on already out-there material. It was made at a time when studios were much more open to the genre in the hope they could have as big a hit as the one that other studio scored last month; despite the troubled production that relative freedom of expression shines through.
Here's the 1980 trailer: