Altered States

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Warner, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, pan&scan, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, French, double side-single layer, 31 chapters, theatrical trailers, production notes, rated R, 102 min., $19.98, street date 12/29/98.

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Original Score-John Corigliano, Best Sound, 1981.

Directed by Ken Russell. Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Miguel Godreau.

Research scientist Eddie Jessup (Hurt) believes other states of consciousness are as real as everyday reality. Using sensory deprivation, then adding powerful, hallucinogenic drugs, he explores these altered states... and endures experiences that make madness seem a blessing. Academy Award winner William Hurt as Jessup (his film debut) heads a solid cast featuring Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid. Working from Paddy Cheyefsky's novel, director Ken Russell guides us with a sorcerer's skill through Eddie's magical and horrific journey as Altered States gyrates with dazzling visual bravado and bracing emotional impact.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B-/B-/D+)

Altered States ended up being half of a pretty good movie. Surprisingly, that half wasn't the half I thought it would be.

I first saw this film during its theatrical run in 1980, and at the time it seemed to a be quite exciting and fairly scary tale about a guy (William Hurt) who uses some funkadelic drugs and a sensory deprivation tank to experiment on himself. Eventually, these tests actually mess with his genetic structure; he reverts to essentially a caveman state.

Ah, but this is no bourgeoisie Fred Flintstone caveman. No, Hurt becomes a fairly nasty little monkey man whose every thought revolves around survival. As such, he just runs around, kills and eats wild animals, and bops anyone who threatens him. (I suppose getting laid was also a concern of his, but the money man bars in Boston close so early that he couldn't get there in time.)

At the time, I thought there was way too much expository nonsense that took place before Hurt made the evolutionary backslide and started putting the hurt on some zoo gazelles. The film is more than half over before we get to see the scary part, and my little then-13-year-old brain didn't like that. It DID, however, enjoy the bits where Monkey Hurt terrorized the community.

Well, my brain's still pretty little, but the extra 18 years of experience seem to have altered ME to some degree, because upon further review, I now see Altered States in virtually the opposite light. At this point, I ONLY liked the expository parts where Hurt starts to explore the altered states of consciousness to which the title refers. Oh, much of the first half of the film is over the top - director Ken Russell loves his psychedelic tripping scenes, which may accurately represent a hallucinatory experience for all I know (I only get high on life, man!) but they look pretty ridiculous - but it includes a few actual ideas about the usual hippie stuff like God and existence. Obviously, these thoughts aren't investigated in depth - it's a movie, after all - but they are presented provocatively enough that my interest was piqued.

During the second half of the movie, however, Altered States turns into a pretty ordinary monster movie. Monkey Man really only gets one night on the town, but this sequence occupies a fairly substantial portion of film and it in no way transcends the material we've seen done better in other more straightforward horror movies. I kind of felt like we had all this build up for THAT?

I suppose the filmmakers would argue that a little Monkey Man was all we needed, because he wasn't the focus of the film. That would be correct, but the true theme of Altered States doesn't even revolve around its apparent Big Issue of The Nature Of Existence. Actually, I felt that the story really told the tale of an emotionally distant man - does Hurt ever play any characters who AREN'T emotionally distant? - who finds through his search for meaning that love is all you need!

Much is made through the film about how he never actually tells his wife that he loves her; we are led to believe that during their 13 or so years together, he has never expressed his love for her. Shockingly, they are pursuing a divorce, but at HIS request! Apparently, he has come to view normal human relationships as simply so much unnecessary baggage so he wants to free himself of wife and kids to pursue his existential quest.

Despite the important role this theme plays in the plot, Russell spends little time exploring it. We never really learn very well why the wife (Blair Brown) has stuck with him for all these years. Oh, some lip service is paid to the fact that Hurt's brilliant and all that, but I really have a hard time believing that Brown would put up with all his nonsense over the years; she's also supposed to be a rather intelligent person. Anyway, stick it out she does, and at the end of the film, after both of them have gone through a number of freakadelic experiences due to his experimentation, she gets rewarded with a climactic "I love you." Hurt discovers that he's had it all wrong; love and relationships are the real "truth" inherent in the human experience, not all the hallucinogenic mumbo-jumbo he'd pursued. Predictable, and pretty weak.

As with the partially good film itself, the acting in Altered States features a decidedly mixed bag. In his first film, Hurt does a pretty good job of portraying what would become a typical sort of character for him. I've always found Hurt to be a very interesting actor; with his somewhat odd WASPy good looks and his detached expressions, he offers a unique kind of screen presence. Hurt later refined his act in better performances elsewhere, but Altered States gives us a good idea about his talents.

The rest of the cast includes some fine actors, but all their roles are essentially reactionary; everyone just runs around and tells Hurt how much peril he's risking. All the key supporting cast - Brown, Bob Balaban as Hurt's scientific sidekick, and Charles Haid as a doctor buddy - spend much of the film doing this, and all but Balaban do so in a rather shrill manner. Much shouting and histrionics ensue, especially on the part of the incredibly emotive Haid. As with much of the film, I found it to be way over the top and unrealistic; these scenes appeared to exist simply to add some drama to the movie.

One interesting cast note: check out wee Drew Barrymore in her film debut as one of Hurt's daughters! You better look carefully; she gets little camera time, and I didn't even know it was her until I watched the credits.

As with the film itself, Warner Bros. DVD release of Altered States also is a pretty mixed bag. The film's image generally looks pretty good, though never great. It maintains a nice level of sharpness and clarity and colors usually look pretty accurate. However, occasional indoor scenes seem murky, and the "psychedelic" bits often overwhelm the picture with the imagery. Overall, it's a decent and acceptable picture that never looks great but it usually looks pretty good.

Altered States boasts one of Warner's beloved soundtracks that have been "remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1" and it's actually one of their more effective transformations. Oh, you won't confuse it for Armageddon, but considering the movie's age, it creates a pretty nice sound environment. Surrounds are used through most of the film for ambiance and music as well as more aggressive effects during the "mind-blowing" scenes. Dialogue sounds clear and understandable, although somewhat unnaturally harsh and tinny. Overall, the soundtrack offered a pleasant surprise.

Less exciting are the supplemental materials included on the Altered States DVD. There's little of interest here. We get a few rudimentary text pages of production notes, the film's theatrical trailer and two TV ads, and the standard cast and crew bios. The DVD also contains trailers for four other Warner films. Interestingly, at least some of these trailers are for films whose own DVDs didn't include the spots; for example, trailers for both Blade Runner and Outbreak appear here, but they were not found on their respective DVD releases. Better late than never, I suppose.

In the end, I found Altered States to be a sometime interesting, occasionally provocative, but frequently ludicrous film that offers a mixed bag of charms and howlers. Warner Brothers has issued it in a DVD release that is generally good but unspectacular across the board. This isn't a film I can wholeheartedly endorse, but since it runs for only $19.98 MSRP, it's cheap enough that you may want to give it a try.

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