Ken Russell’s “Altered States” begins with a close-up of a shirtless William Hurt, wires sticking out of his hair and his head seemingly encased in a fish tank.
It gets weirder.
As the cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth (who was a year away from filming “Blade Runner”) slowly pulls back, we realize Hurt is encased in what looks like a giant cigar inside a basement. We then see the always affable Bob Balaban as the lab worker keeping an eye on this experiment.
The worker’s narration helpfully fills us in:
“The tank itself was unusual, in that it was vertical and looked like an old boiler. Inside the tank, the subject wore a heavy glass bubble and you would have thought the whole contraption uncomfortable, to say the least. It was, however, effective. Of the 23 students tested, only two found the experience unpleasant. Some even called it exhilarating. A number of students hallucinated. Dr. Jessup found the encephalographic evidence especially interesting….and one Saturday afternoon, in April 1967, he decided to try the experience for himself.”
And with that, we’re off.
“Altered States” introduced the world to Hurt, who is a marvel in his film debut. The movie also gave license to Russell to enhance a well-funded studio film with the personal touches, brazen stylizations and taboo-bashing themes that earmarked his early works.
During production, the film became infamous for its battles between Russell and original screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (a recent Oscar-winner for “Network”). The scribe felt the filmmaker was compromising his work.
The end result was an admirable, nothing-quite-like-it oddity of ideas and state of the art schlock in 1980. Today, it feels like a radical work that managed to escape the mainstream movie asylum.
After the introductory weirdness and building intrigue, we cut to a party scene, set to “Light My Fire” by The Doors. There’s a stunning shot of Hurt’s Jessup entering a doorway with the light behind him positively otherworldly, as though he were exiting the mother ship.
Considering how Ray Manzarek’s keyboarding is building at this point, the blend of mind-expanding rock and imagery creates a trippy synergy for the mythic moment in which Jessup meets the love of his life.
Emily (a stunning Blair Brown) is a fellow student at Cornell University and clearly Jessup’s type. He correctly notes, “Anthropology seems to attract good-looking women.”
Seconds later, she comes on to him with questions like, “You think madness is simply another state of consciousness?” It’s a question that applies more to the film itself -- indeed, madness is the state of being this world exists in.
Anything is possible in “Altered States.”
Here is a sci-fi monster movie, driven by characters who witnessed the dissolving of the Flower Power movement and the post-Watergate fallout. Like many during this time who were searching for a limb to grab onto while the Earth shook beneath them, Jessup and Emily are still searching for the euphoria of the Free Love period in the aftermath of Vietnam and the unease it left behind.
Taking place right before the Yuppie culture and the Me Decade kicked in, Jessup and Emily are like the last American hippies: young, optimistic, intelligent and willing to expand the realism of consciousness for science and because, like, its groovy, man!
As Jessup proudly declares, “I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get?”
FAST FACT: “Altered States” earned $19.1 million during its 1980 theatrical release.
So, a few scenes later, Jessup travels to a faraway country and takes some magic mushrooms provided by the Hinchi Indians. Then, just when it seemed it couldn’t be possible, the movie gets even crazier.
It’s Russell, so of course “Altered States” is excessive and weird, but there is a grand abandonment of narrative order and genre stateliness, a willingness to plunge the audience deeply into the unknown. How far does Russell take this? The first hallucination sequence has the Shroud of Turin perishing in flames.
A blend of coffee house chatter on existentialism and a monster movie with no intention of restraining itself. “Altered States” is completely, gloriously nuts, a psychedelic sci-fi fantasy presented with absolute mastery of image and style. Scene for scene offers frames that are striking in their compositions, staging and beauty.
FAST FACT: A random encounter in an elevator connected Hurt to Chayefsky and, later, the chance to star in “Altered States.”
When Jessup finally undergoes a radical metamorphosis, you think the movie might be putting us on. Russell takes this as far as it could go: the creature on the loose sequence is stunning for its make-up effects, shocking in its visceral impact and, like everything else here, filmed and staged with the utmost skill. The dialog and imagery are, at times, so bonkers, you laugh at the audacity and wonder whether everyone on the set had a difficult time keeping a straight face.
The obvious thing to say is that they don’t make movies like this anymore, but the truth is, they do. In fact, the same studio still puts out gutsy, unconventional mainstream films that aren’t afraid to challenge its audience.
Last year alone, Warner Bros. released the controversial, brazenly off-putting and grown-up blockbuster “Joker,” the ambitious sequel to “The Shining,” Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” and Edward Norton’s ambitious, admirable hit and miss “Motherless Brooklyn.”
In an age where seemingly everything coming out of Hollywood is a sequel, remake, prequel or set up for another pre-packaged franchise, Warner Bros. still takes chances on material that isn’t a sure thing, decidedly adult minded and not inexpensive (note Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” on the docket).
It’s especially impressive to consider that Warner Bros. was bold enough to release “Altered States” and “The Shining” during the same year (whereas Kubrick’s masterpiece was a summer film, the WB somehow thought Russell’s gonzo masterwork was suitable for Christmas!).
It’s not unusual to see Russell pushing envelopes and indulging in provocateur behavior, a proverbial cinematic prankster who can’t help but jab audiences in the ribs while rubbing our faces in outrageous imagery. Indeed, this is a film from the director of “The Devils” and “Tommy.”
Russell’s supporting role as an eclectic, outspoken agent in “The Russia House” is an amusing indication of the man himself: eloquent but seemingly a bit much.
Hurt’s performance matches the intensity of the film itself, which inches towards the tortured sci-fi love story of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” but settles on the phantasmagorical nonsense and existential reach of Roger Corman’s “The Trip.” At least, the quality of the film is somewhere dead center between those two, which puts it in good company.
“Altered States” is about the search for cosmic truths while pondering the implications of religion, acknowledging the extraordinary in the possibilities of science and stating, once and for all, that you should never, ever drink a magic potion given to you by a medicine man in a cave.