Ken Russell, the sometimes genius who directed the Oscar winning Women In Love, The Devils and Tommy made his first major Hollywood film in 1980. Taken from a novel by Paddy Chayefsky, the writer behind Network, Altered States promised to be a mind blowing piece of science fiction cinema with a hefty budget to match. Russell, the eternal maverick, seemed like a bonkers, fantastic but potentially dangerous choice for Warner Brothers to take a gamble on. This new blu-ray release from HMV allows us to see again if the gamble paid off.
In the late 1960s, respected Harvard professor Eddie Jessop is experimenting with sensory isolation chambers to try and unlock hidden states of consciousness. He’s also embarking on a relationship with a respected anthropologist, Emily, and the two marry. But when he combines his experiments with a powerful hallucinatory drug, his body, as well as his mind, start to change.
Truly great science fiction usually poses more questions than it ever answers, often about the big questions - what does it mean to be human? why are we here? where did we come from? Think of 2001, of Blade Runner, and of Altered States for, make no mistake about it, Altered States is great science fiction.
At its heart, this Jekyll and Hyde story is about obsession. Jessop will stop at nothing to get closer to the answers to life’s big questions, convinced that he can regress his mind through the genetic memories we all share right back to the first moment in time. Talking like real scientists, the pseudo intellectual dialogue could be alienating and annoying but the performances across the board are superb, keeping us on track, convincing us that these people know what they’re talking about even if we don’t. As played by William Hurt, brilliant in his first film role, Jessop is a fascinating character and, despite everything, you fully see why Emily, a great turn from Blair Brown, is as obsessed with him as he is with his quest.
At the time the effects caused quite a stir, and they hold up well today, Jessop’s physical transformations becoming more and more abstract. The hallucinatory experiences are brilliantly handled as are the regressions through time and memory. A sequence where Jessop regresses into cosmic energy inside the isolation tank taking in all that’s around him, only to redeemed by his wife reaching into the void to grab him back is tense, mind boggling, beautiful and moving.
In other hands, this could have come across as so much overblown hokey nonsense but Russell is brilliant enough to throw all of his excess in the right places and draw us in via a love story. And what a love story - the film’s final line of dialogue being key to what Altered States is really about.
Gambling on Russell paid off for WB who had a hit with the film, but it paid off for us too, as Altered States remains one of his best films and a truly original science fiction masterpiece.
ALTERED STATES / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: KEN RUSSELL / SCREENPLAY: PADDY CHAYEFSKY / STARRING: WILLIAM HURT, BLAIR BROWN, BOB BALABAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW