William Hurt as Edward.
May 29, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
1980's Altered States is the product of two auteurs from opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. The first is the linguistically dexterous writer Paddy Chayefsky - fresh from his Oscar win for Network - adapting his own book for the screen. The other is Ken Russell, British rabble-rouser and professional freaky-deaky. Chayefsky’s verbose script for Network was notable for its brilliant, biting, freakishly prescient commentary on American culture. He and his words remains the star of that movie, despite a cast that includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight, not to mention a director in Sidney Lumet. His words, however, must have seemed positively quaint to Russell, whose dynamite stylistic flourishes approximate the experience of taking mescaline with the Mad Hatter. Needless to say, there was discord on the set.
And yet, Altered States proves a marriage of mannered language with visual lunacy can indeed be a successful one. Featuring William Hurt in his first film role, it tells of an intensely arrogant psychology professor who discovers the truth of human existence by reverting back to primordial ooze. Dr. Edward Jessup achieves this by experimenting with sensory deprivation tanks, with a little help from some Mexican hallucinogens recently acquired from a tribe of indigenous peoples. They know how to party.
While in the tank and technically asleep, he witnesses a phantasmagoria like no other; travelling back to the beginning of time, eventually waking up covered in the blood of the beasts his primal, unconscious self feasted on. An MRI scan reveals his skeleton has actually regressed to that of a more primitive man. His wife, Emily (the immensely compelling Blair Brown), is, obviously, concerned, but Edward is on the brink of a major discovery. The answers to the universe and man’s origins are in his hands; he need only keep subjecting himself to these treatments if he wants to see it for himself. Question is, how far back can he go? And what will he find at the beginning?
The technobabble comes thick and fast, delivered ably by Hurt and the actors playing his colleagues, Charles Haid and Bob Balaban (looking and sounding exactly as he does in 2013). Though they often speak over one another – something Chayefsky couldn’t have been a fan of – it hilariously undercuts what are, ultimately, scientific conundrums that couldn’t possibly be grasped by the layperson. It’s a technique used to great effect in Shane Carruth’s time-travel flick Primer; the screenwriter gets to prove they know what they’re going on about, and the director conveys it in a manner that doesn’t make the audience want to hurl themselves out of the nearest window (in the case of Primer, Carruth was both). Russell instead lets his horrifying, wordless, head-trip sequences do much of the talking, taking us on a nightmarish quest through human history up until our elemental beginnings.
In the mind-bending conclusion, Altered States suggests life is fleeting and the answers to it unsatisfying, so just spend your remaining days loving the one you're with. It feels like a detour from Chayefsky’s usually pessimistic perspective of the world. So, is the final sequence a joke? Did Russell misinterpret his work? Or was Chayefsky, in his final years, struck with a bolt of enlightenment, suddenly believing humans could connect on a soulful level with one another? At this point, the auteur theory breaks down.
Altered States may indeed be the invention of two hard-headed, talented men with distinct visions of their own, but whatever demon spawn they’ve birthed must stand by itself and inspire readings independent of whatever its parents intended. Altered States is both cynical and hopeful; cynical by claiming there's nothing out there beyond the big bang, and hopeful by suggesting that a life can still be rich and full of meaning even without a larger, cosmic power at play. Chayefsky had his name taken off the completed feature. He shouldn't have. It's one to be proud of.
Altered States is available on Quickflix.