When Directors Make Big Ideas Little

by Arthur B

Altered States establishes a really interesting concept and then turns it into a cheap B-movie premise in the last half.
I decided to watch Altered States because I'd heard about the influence it had on Fringe, which J.J. Abrams and company don't make much of an effort to hide - in particular, the isolation tank which plays a major role in the first season of Fringe is pretty much identical to one of the tanks used in Altered States. Written by Paddy Chayefsky as an adaptation of his novel of the same name, which was inspired by John C. Lilly's experiments in the 1960s into sensory deprivation in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs, it was directed by Ken Russell - who isn't known for working much with SF, but since he directed Tommy trippy imagery isn't exactly new ground for him, so you'd have thought that a film about a man who sits in a tank and has hallucinations would be a perfect vehicle for him. The results, however, are kind of mixed.

Anyway, the plot: after conducting sensory deprivation experiments on student volunteers in 1967, Dr Edward Jessup (William Hurt) finds their reports of euphoric, hallucinatory experiences so fascinating he chooses to try it out for himself, with his colleague Arthur Rosenburg (Bob Balaban) standing by to watch for any any problems and to take care of the EEG readings. Although Jessup and Arthur consider their work to be more academically rigorous than the mystical explorations of similar territory that are taking place in the drug culture at the time, they're not completely independent of the cool part of the 60s; Arthur throws hip parties where albums by the Doors are played at loud volume and blunts are passed around happily, and at one of these Jessup meets Emily (Blair Brown), who's finishing off a PhD in anthropology. The two get talking about their work, and find each other fascinating enough to have sex with. Whilst they are getting down to it, Jessup ends up staring at the orange glow of an electric heater, and ends up completely entranced by it, sparking off visions of crucifixions in his mind - our first indication that he might be a little screwy, and his tank experiments are making him screwier.

As the years pass, Jessup and Emily get married and have children, and both end up lecturing at Harvard. After a while Arthur and his wife Sylvia (Dori Brenner) end up moving to Boston and catch up with Jessup and Emily; it turns out Jessup is divorcing Emily for reasons which essentially boil down to him wanting to "find himself". Jessup convinces Arthur that there is still potential in their long-abandoned sensory deprivation experiments, and soon enough they agree to restart the project. After Jessup participates in an Ayahuasca ceremony in Mexico which sparks off a powerful hallucinatory experience, he begins taking a tincture of Ayahuasca before entering the tank - exacerbating his hallucinations greatly, and eventually resulting in physical changes to match his mental ones as he reaches back further and further to the primordial state of being he is searching for.

Visually, this film is stunning. Supposedly, Jessup's had occasional hallucinations since a young age - making him especially susceptible to hallucinations whilst in the tank - and that gives Russell a chance to go totally crazy with the imagery in the dream sequences. By "totally crazy", we're talking seven-eyed goats being sacrificed, desert temples, people turning into dust and blowing away, dead fathers, the Shroud of Turin, sparkly magic space mushrooms - and really, that's kind of the point of the exercise, cramming in as much crazy images as Russell possibly can. As eye candy, the film is irreproachable.

However, it seems to want to be more than eye candy. Chayefsky's script is full of erudite, academic-sounding conversations, but it becomes pretty clear early on that Jessup uses big words to hide this little core of mystical selfishness at the heart of him. He's convinced that divinity can be found within, and that he can only find his internal godhead through isolation. His excuses for divorcing Emily are all muddled up with this quest for ultimate meaning, along with vague talk about how he isn't afraid of the pain of being alone, and most of his academic ideas end up dressing his basically solipsistic impulses in fine-sounding language which doesn't quite hide the fact that he's basically a hippy with tenure. There's a scene early on where he gets drunk and starts mumbling about how memories are energy and all the atoms that make up our brains are 6 billion years old so we have 6 billion years of memories we could have access to if we could only tap into them, which is such ridiculous bullshit it made me want to throw stuff at the screen.

In that sense you could probably take the film as a counterpoint to the empty 1970s spirituality of, say, Exorcist II: The Heretic, or Radix, or populist New Agey authors like Carlos Castaneda, who claimed to bring ancient Latin American lore to the masses but really ended up playing on what audience wanted to hear at the time. There's an interesting dynamic where Jessup's research is drawing him more and more into himself, whilst his relationship with Emily - both in his real interactions with her and in her regular appearances in his hallucinations - keeps trying to coax him out to engage with her, their children and the rest of the world, and you can interpret the story as a cautionary tale against solipsism. Hidden away in the film is a bold defence of clutter - a suggestion that the crap we surround ourselves with and the complexity of our lives compared with, say, our ape cousins aren't inherently bad barriers between us and spiritual progress, but are necessary to defining ourselves and our world, and that if you strip all of that away there's no special enlightenment to be found underneath - only the brute drives and urges of our animal heritage.

But even though it starts out dealing with some fancy ideas, Altered States eventually boils down into a horror story, as Jessup's hallucination-inspired mutations begin running out of control. It's hard to defend the overlong sequence where Jessup turns into a monkey-man and runs around the city bothering animals, and everything that happens after that resembles an especially acid-soaked B-movie more than it does the serious consideration of the subject matter which the earlier part of the film seems to promise. And after the climactic experiment, the film winds down with 10 minutes of all the characters getting all emotional at each other in overwrought discussions which go around and around in circles before Russell treats us to one last absolutely insane trip. Chayefsky himself was so dissatisfied with how the film came out he asked to have the script credited to his pseudonym Sidney Aaron, rather than himself. It's still great if you like watching trippy dream sequences (which I'm down with) or seeing William Hurt naked (I'm indifferent to that, but if you like the idea he spends a lot of time nude even if you don't count the monkey bit), but if you want it to actually stick to the point and properly deal with the meatier issues it raises you're going to be disappointed.

More Castaneda-themed horror can be found here - though this one's a true story.

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