- Movie Rating -

Altered States (1980)

| December 25, 1980

Altered States is in interesting experiment, not so much in terms of the science that is on the screen, but in the area of the writing.  Here is what happens when a celebrated writer not known for science fiction, in this case the great Paddy Chayefsky, takes a shot at a genre that seems outside his wheelhouse.

Chayefsky is best known for his social satires like Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971) and his best-known work Network (1976).  Afterwards he began to toy with different ideas, in particular man’s search for his true self and in 1978 he offered up the novel “Altered States,” a heavily researched story loosely based on the experiments of John C. Lilly who, using a sensory deprivation tank which allowed him to unhook his mind from the tera firma of normal consciousness and explore the furthest reaches of the human mind.

Now here’s the movie, and it’s kind of a miracle – a celebrated writer working outside of his wheelhouse creating an intelligent science fiction piece that wasn’t battered and destroyed by Hollywood moneymen.  He didn’t see it that way, unfortunately, and thought that director Ken Russell found the wrong tone for the material.  With that he took his name off the project.

Personally, I don’t really see the problem.  This a very effective science fiction thriller, using logic and tact in a genre that normally goes for dumbed down characters with half-track ideas.  The story follows Psychology Professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) who spends time in the sensory-deprivation tank exploring the outer limits of his consciousness.

He wants to go further, and on a trip to South America, he obtains a power hallucinogen that he hopes will expand his perceptions even further.  Mixing the drug with the sensory-deprivation tank has strange and nearly catastrophic results.  His body begins climbing down the evolutionary ladder and he begins to retain a state of primitive man.

Of course, all of this is done under the guise of a horror thriller but it is quite effective.  The movie front-loads a lot of scientific jargon and theoretical ho-ha that I’m not sure is accurate, but sounds impressive the uninitiated – I believed that William Hurt was a scientist who believed in his experiments so that was enough for me.  The best thing about this movie is that Russell allows the story to breathe.  He isn’t in a hurry to get to the third-act visual extravaganza.  He earns that, and we appreciate it.  This isn’t a movie of hard science, it’s hard science fiction.  Don’t think about it too much and just have a good time.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized