Ken Russell’s psychedelic transformation film Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Driven and brilliant, Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) has no problem endlessly orating on why he’s so passionate about discovering “the original self” through experimental deprivation tests, a masochistic process that eventually becomes more self-destructive, horrific, and hallucinatory as the film progresses. But the second Eddie’s attractive and intelligent wife, Emily (Blair Brown), brings up anything related to love, social expectations, and familial duty, he turns into a twitchy and nebbish mess. So it goes that fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in Altered States, drugs that allow Eddie to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” There’s no mental headspace for anyone else when you’re this obsessed with solitary expression.
Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. With the help of two other scientists (Bob Balaban and Charles Haid), Eddie submerges his body inside small compartments filled with water—first a copper cylinder, then an eerily black trapezoid. Essentially memory tombs, both structures act as way stations for Eddie’s kaleidoscope of shape-shifting dreams and nightmares, which mesh together during gripping montages of color and light. Through superimpositions and jump cuts, Russell gives these batshit-crazy sequences an unpredictable essence, making it seem as if the film itself could spiral out of control at any moment.
The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Interestingly, one of the great pleasures of Altered States comes later when the Cro-Magnon Eddie grunts in front of a zoo gift shop while looking at a row of stuffed animals, contemplating his own physical evolution from a purely instinctual perspective.
It’s entirely fitting that Altered States takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an incendiary historical time period in which Eddie becomes a representation of academic alienation, a self-made man retreating from multiple forms of external angst. Russell and scriptwriter Paddy Chayefsky don’t reference the Vietnam War or Watergate directly, and in a way this makes Eddie’s disavowal of all other ideas (political, social, familial) even more entrancing. Class division also becomes a driving force in Altered States, with Eddie referencing the stifling qualities of the bourgeoisie academic life to subvert his own responsibilities as a husband and father.
But the most interesting dimension of Altered States has to be the way Russell sexualizes Eddie’s relationship with godly figures, most notably symbols of Jesus, crucifixion, and his father. The first time Eddie and Emily have sex, Russell frames them both in separate medium shots, dripping sweat and drenched in red light, a “mystical experience” as one of them puts it after the fact. Later, during their courtship, Emily even rouses Eddie about the way he makes love, saying the experience was like being “harpooned by a monk.” This motif eventually culminates in the strangely angelic final sequence where the pair’s bodies produce contrasting bursts of energy that seemingly create a simultaneous orgasm, destroying the beast inside Eddie’s soul.” He finally got it off with God,” Emily says of her husband, but it’s hard to believe that Eddie’s taste for the primitive has been fully quenched, despite his long awaited “I love you” in the closing moments.
Warner Home Video has given Altered States a crisp 1080p transfer, with the visual upgrade most noticeable during the crazy and colorful dream sequences that define Eddie Jessup’s hallucinatory descent. Water takes on a wonderful coral blue, while the streaming lava flows flood the screen in hypnotic orange bursts. Certain interior scenes are hindered by lack of clarity, especially in the more shadowy segments. Parts of the zoo sequence are incredibly dark to the point of obscurity. In terms of sound, the DTS MA 5.1 provides a solid study in balancing when it’s needed most (the Peyote sequence is especially well represented). But while this is an obvious improvement over the standard-definition disc, there’s nothing entirely striking about the DTS sound quality.
Only a theatrical trailer.
Ken Russell’s kinetic head trip about the dangers of scientific self-indulgence comes to high definition in a forgettable package.