It’s the classic tale. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy experiments with sensory deprivation tanks and ancient Mexican hallucinogens and discovers girl is always popping up in his subconscious. That is the classic tale, right?
Out now on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video, Altered States is the story of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, in his first film role), a scientist obsessed with his research on states of consciousness, and Emily, a beautiful, young anthropologist with whom Jessup creates a dysfunctional yet passionate partnership. When Jessup begins to resent his growing family for stunting his professional research, he and Emily separate and he takes a trip to Mexico to take part in an ancient tribal ritual, complete with a powerful and mysterious hallucinogenic potion. He brings the potion back home where he drinks it during his sensory deprivation tank sessions, and soon begins to believe not only is his mind reaching altered states of consciousness – his physical body may be, too. But will anyone believe him?
Director Ken Russell is conscious of every single decision he made directing this movie. Every cut, every camera angle, every light source is a deliberate choice. Each shot is just gorgeous. This is a dark movie, yes—lots of basements and boiler rooms—but the colors are rich and real and deeply saturated. Jessup’s surreal hallucinations with their garish colors contrast nicely with the surprisingly grounded main narrative. The score is a perfectly eerie orchestra, all dissonant strings and heavy bass drum and tinkling xylophone. The dialogue feels almost like recited prose at times, which makes sense; screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own novel for the film. The only time this movie feels dated is when the filmmakers opt for some cutting edge (in 1980) CG effects toward the end of the film. But the practical effects and makeup seem so real and impressive up to that point, it’s hard not to forgive this one misstep.
There is a lot going on in this film, and it seems designed to overwhelm the viewer. I admit, after my first watch I didn’t think I’d enjoyed it, but it haunted me so incessantly, I had to watch it a second time. Following the second viewing, I decided I actually liked it quite a lot. At its core is a very sweet love story, about how we often go searching for something that is right in front of us the whole time. Even after the two have separated, Emily shows up in all Jessup’s hallucinations, even appearing once in a pose so suggestive of the Sphinx, it seems obvious she is a riddle he wants to solve. The prose-like dialogue often enhances this angle, giving the feeling of romantic literature set against a science fiction backdrop.
The picture and sound quality on this Blu-ray are excellent. The stunning transfer highlights the striking lighting design and the rich colors, and really makes this film feel as though it were made last month and not 32 years ago. This release is pretty bare-bones where special features are concerned, offering only the theatrical trailer, but the quality of the transfer makes up for lack of extras on this catalogue title. In very early film roles for both, watch for a pre-E.T. – The Extraterrestrial Drew Barrymore as the Jessups’ younger daughter and John Larroquette as the young X-ray technician.
If the goal of this film was to get under the viewer’s skin and stay there long after the closing credits, I’d say it was a successful trip. Personally, I’m looking forward to another hit.