Judge Clark Douglas is in the process of de-evolving into a tax attorney.
The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control…and the subject is himself.
"I'm not gonna listen to any more of your Kabbalistic, quantum, friggin' dumb limbo mumbo jumbo!"
Facts of the Case
Eddie Jessup (William Hurt, A History of Violence) was once an immensely promising scientist, but in recent years he's failed to live up to his potential. He's been coasting on his reputation for quite some time, and his relationship with his wife Emily (Blair Brown, Fringe) has crumbled to the point that they've finally decided to separate. Suddenly, Eddie makes a break-through: he spends some time in an isolation chamber and employs a hallucinatory drug that may or may not have caused him to temporarily regress genetically. In other words, he began the process of de-evolving. Eager to learn more, Eddie plunges headfirst into a series of dangerous experiments. It's clear that the man is on the verge of answering some big questions, but at what cost?
There's a scene late in Ken Russell's Altered States in which The Life Form Formerly Known as Eddie Jessup flips recklessly between a horrifyingly primal state and a more ordinary modern human state. He achieves this effect simply by violently flinging himself against a wall as if he's mashing some kind of genetic switch. It's an apt visual metaphor for the film itself, which makes improbable things work simply through sheer force of will. Russell takes a fundamentally silly concept, hurls lightning bolts at it, and transforms it into something unexpectedly exhilarating. There have been numerous occasions in which Russell's predilection for unchecked excess have been a liability, but Altered States proves a perfect outlet for the director's manic energy. This sublime marriage of director and material produces an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Of course, the creator of the original story didn't feel that way. Paddy Chayefsky famously disowned the film, angered by the manner in which Russell had treated his thoughtful tale. There's a great deal of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo uttered throughout the film, but Russell's masterstroke was to have the scientists in the film excitedly shout this information at each other rather than working it into more measured conversations. Most of this is almost verbatim from Chayefsky's writing, but the tone has shifted dramatically. Many science-fiction films invite us to carefully consider their ideas. This one recognizes how fundamentally ridiculous its ideas are and instead wants to sweep us up in their chaotic wondrousness. The film careens along at such a frantic pace that we don't have time to think about the questionable science at the story's core. It swallows us up in its thunderstorm of horror, science, romance, agony and ecstasy. The viewing experience goes something like this:
Movie: "We have trillions of dormant genes lurking within us, and if we figure out how to tap into them we could potentially undo millions of years of human evolution in an instant!"
Viewer: "Come on, that's ridic…"
Movie: "Everyone thought Eddie Jessup was ridiculous too, but now he's transforming into some ape-like being! His primal state has begun to take over! Look at those horrific monkey-feet!"
Viewer: "But that…"
Movie: "Strobe lights! Nuclear war! The Crucifixion! Nudity! Afternoon tea! DNA! Frankenstein! Reptiles! The Book of Revelation! Ten-eyed goats!"
Viewer: "I…I, uh…"
Movie: "THE ONLY THING THAT CAN STOP THIS INCREDIBLY COMPLICATED PROCESS IS RAW EMOTION AND PHYSICAL FORCE! MORE STROBE LIGHTS!"
Viewer: "FLING YOURSELF AGAINST THE WALL, EDDIE! HARDER!"
It's easy to grow exhausted watching some of Russell's films, but Altered States does a good job of trimming fat and remaining involving for its entire duration. I suppose there is a different film to be made of Chayefsky's novel, one that takes the ideas at its core a good deal more seriously and emphasizes thoughtful conversation over visual excess. However, I have a suspicion that such a version of the story might feel a bit like "Genesis," that involving but ultimately chuckle-inducing de-evolution themed episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Russell's approach works tremendously well, and he actually does demonstrate some self-control and nuance when the film requires it.
Altered States was the acting debut of the great William Hurt, who makes a terrific impression in his first lead role. Hurt is excellent as the intellectual, detached Eddie Jessup, selling some difficult moments with his near-religious conviction. Hurt is particularly good during the scenes in which he demonstrates a perceptive-yet-oblivious disconnect with the feelings of those around him: "Emily's quite content to go on with this life. She insists that she's in love with me—whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I'm not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don't strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my #$%@&*! mind." The movie might be nonsensical when it comes to scientific concepts, but it's quite good when dealing with human beings attempt to cope with their emotions and relationships (which is what the whole thing is actually all about, anyway—it could be argued that in Russell's version of the story, all of the sci-fi material is simply metaphorical).
Hurt is backed by a strong supporting cast, with Blair Brown in particular doing excellent work as his affectionate yet wounded wife. Brown nails the blend of skepticism and empathy the role requires, and her work goes a long way towards making us care about the film's central relationship (particularly since Hurt is required to be so aloof for much of the film's running time). Elsewhere, Bob Balaban (Gosford Park) and Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) are slyly hilarious as the scientists constantly supporting/defying/bickering with Eddie.
Altered States (Blu-ray) doesn't look as spectacular as I would like, but still receives a pretty respectable 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film is intentionally rather dark and grimy-looking, so thankfully black levels are satisfactorily deep throughout. The film's natural grain structure has been left intact, so the image looks quite warm despite its slightly flat nature. Detail is exceptional, though the only liability is that some of the practical effects employed in the film look slightly cheesier in hi-def. There's a good deal of softness, but much of that is built into the film. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quite aggressive for a film of this age, with wild sound design and a riveting John Corigliano score joining force to raise an intellectually-charged ruckus. Dialogue doesn't fare quite as well—it seems a shade muffled at times—but the levels are good and nothing is incomprehensible. The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer.
Altered States is one of the great science-fiction films of the 1980s and arguably Ken Russell's finest work. Exhilarating and surprisingly moving, the film delivers an sensational audiovisual experience which is highly recommended for adventurous viewers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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