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Altered States Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 June 2004

Altered States

Warner Home Video
starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid
release year: 1980
film rating: Two and a half stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

There’s something kind of endearing about ‘Altered States,’ even though it looks even more overheated and loopy now than it did in its original 1980 theatrical release. Writer Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the novel the film is based on, had his name taken off the screenplay (officially credited to Sidney Aaron) after clashing with director Ken Russell.

Even without reading Chayefsky’s book and script drafts, it’s not hard to give him the benefit of the doubt--Russell’s fever-dream narrative style doesn’t exactly support the intellectual concepts struggling to surface through the story’s Jekyll-and-Hyde trappings. Still, many of the special effects, both makeup and optical, hold up remarkably well. There’s also a kick to be had in seeing the talented cast gamely tackle enormous mouthfuls of technological, scientific and metaphysical hyper-speech.

William Hurt, in his film debut, plays Harvard research scientist Edward Jessup. Eddie is becoming increasingly fascinated with the notion that a combination of isolation tank use and certain drugs can put modern man in touch with his primitive roots. To the distress of his wife (Blair Brown) and the consternation of his colleagues, Eddie sets out to prove his theories. He succeeds, with results no one (except maybe the audience) expects.

The main problem with the good doctor is, that like most obsessed movie scientists (a) he is so intent on the process of discovery that he’s unable to articulate to anybody’s satisfaction exactly what use this hard-won knowledge is likely to be and (b) he hasn’t got the sense to know when to stop. One of the problems with ‘Altered States’ itself is that it mistakes flash for substance. There’s a lot of discussion of the cosmic ramifications of it all, but apart from providing some cool visuals, there’s nothing in the scenario that couldn’t happen if the hero simply got into a bad batch of mind-altering steroids.

However, Russell keeps his joint jumping, scenically and aurally. Chapter 1 provides a nice segue from the mingled sounds of water and respiration to the colder, mechanical click of monitoring devices. Chapter 4 brings in a clear, playful portion of the Doors’ "Light My Fire" for background soundtrack. By Chapter 5, the two leads are engaged in red-lit, frenzied sex, which pave the way for Eddie’s trippy religious visions that begin in Chapter 6, accompanied by some deliberately screechy musical scoring. Chapter 11 contains what is arguably the most subtle of the play-with-your-head images in ‘Altered States,’ a band of yellow light against dark blue turns out to be a cave mouth as three men enter it. Chapters 17 and 29 contain the big metamorphosis sequences that created a huge stir on the film’s release; the DVD presents them vividly and cleanly, so that they still impress.

‘Altered States’ is, at its core, a movie about an academician whose mind is blown by the equivalent of a major acid trip. The movie never becomes anywhere near as profound as it seems to hope, but the characters and the imagery are all so intense (albeit self-seriously) that it has a genuine sense of momentum. ‘Altered States’ won’t change your view of the universe or of human potential, but it’s fun on a popcorn level.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround Stereo
aspect ratio(s):
Enhanced for Widescreen TVs (exact aspect ratio unavailable); Full Screen Aspect Ratio: 1:3:3
special features: Five Theatrical Trailers; Two TV Trailers; Production Notes; Chapter Search; Widescreen and Full-Screen Formats; French Language Audio Track; English Closed Captioning; French Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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