Robin’s Underrated Gems: Altered States (1980)

I’ve spent time on The Back Row gushing about legendary screenwriter/playwright Paddy Chayefsky, the man who gave us such classics as Marty and Network and is the only writer to ever win three Academy Awards for “Best Original Screenplay”. I even wrote a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column about his underappreciated satire, The Hospital. However, now I think it’s time to devote a column to the film that he wound up disowning. In 1978, Chayefsky published the only novel of his career, Altered States, a wild science fiction story involving isolation tanks, psychoactive drugs and a man’s search for his primal self. The novel was immediately optioned into a movie and Chayefsky was hired to adapt his own story into a screenplay. However, a troubled production and disagreements with director Ken Russell eventually lead to Chayefsky taking his name off the movie and using a pseudonym. As a result, the opening titles contain the bizarre credit, “Screenplay by Sidney Aaron Based on the Novel by Paddy Chayefsky” even though both men are one and the same! This would be the final project of Chayefsky’s career before his dying of cancer one year later. I have not read the original novelization of Altered States, so I have no idea if Chayefsky has good reason to be upset with this adaptation. However, while it’s difficult to properly evaluate Altered States as a film, there’s no denying that it’s one hell of a fun head trip.

Altered States is inspired by the work of scientist John C. Tilly, who invented the isolation tank, a dark soundproof device where humans could float in water for hours at a time in order to study the effects of sensory deprivation. Lilly would eventually attempt experiments to determine the effects of taking psychedelic drugs like LSD inside an isolation tank and the hallucinatory images this would create in one’s mind. As Altered States opens, a young university professor named Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is seen inside an isolation tank, experimenting with sensory deprivation. The opening act establishes Jessup as an extremely intelligent, but very flaky and eccentric individual who has trouble relating with people, but somehow manages to develop a romance with a graduate student named Emily (Blair Brown). They eventually marry and have children, but several years later, Jessup has obviously grown very restless about the idea of having to settle down into a normal everyday life and is just itching to make a groundbreaking scientific discovery. He decides to embark on an expedition to Mexico and meets up with an indigenous tribe who perform ceremonies that involves the ingesting of a drug made up of sacred hallucinatory mushrooms. Jessup decides to participate in the ceremony and take the drug, and to no one’s surprise, he ends up having one hell of a freaky trip!

While most people would probably be traumatized by such an experience, Jessup thinks he might be on his way to one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in the history of mankind, so he decides to take a sample of the drug back to the States with him. With the help of his scientific colleagues, Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) and Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), Jessup starts conducting experiments where he ingests the drug before experiencing sensory deprivation in the isolation tank. As you can imagine, some REALLY bizarre shit starts to happen! Jessup begins believing that his experiments have actually started to make him regress genetically and literally experience biological devolution, and when they examine his X-rays, it leads to one of my favourite lines of dialogue ever.

If I told you that Jessup LITERALLY does morph into a fuckin’ gorilla, would you be surprised? The best advice I can give to any viewer of Altered States is to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Trying to write a summary of the film’s plot was something of a chore because it’s often difficult to understand a lot of the pseudo-scientific jargon the characters spout off and I’m not even sure I could accurately describe what the movie is really supposed to be about. I think the purpose of Jessup’s experiments is to discover absolute truth and cause him to journey back billions of years to the moment of creation, but don’t quote me on that. I have no idea if Paddy Chayefsky’s original novel actually took this story seriously, but Ken Russell seems to have his tongue planted firmly in cheek. Apparently, one of the reasons Chayefsky was dissatisfied with the film is because of Russell’s decision to have the actors recite Chayefsky’s pseudo-scientific dialogue in a very loud, frenzied, over-the-top fashion that often comes across as farcical. Personally, I think that’s part of the fun as delivering all this dialogue in a straightforward fashion might have made Altered States a very dry and tedious experience. This was William Hurt’s film debut and you could tell he was destined for stardom since he uses his off-the-wall delivery to make an entertaining character out of a potentially unplayable role. (It’s also worth noting that five-year old Drew Barrymore also makes her film debut here as one of Jessup’s children.) Of course, it’s the not the quality of the acting or the writing that make Altered States stand out, but the visuals and utterly bizarre absurdities that are presented onscreen. When Jessup goes into the isolation tank and suddenly morphs into an ape man, some people consider it the film’s “jump the shark” moment, but by that point, I was prepared to enjoy whatever the film threw at me.

When Altered States originally came out in theaters, it was released in a short-lived surround sound format called Megasound, which totally immersed the audience in the experience. Many people who saw the film during its original theatrical release have called it one of the most mind-blowing cinematic experiences of all time. I have to concede that Altered States probably loses a bit of its impact when viewed on the small screen, and watching it with some sort of surround sound system is definitely recommended.  Anyway, whatever format or state of mind you watch the film in, the hallucinatory sequences presented here still make for an impressive visual extravaganza, and even though I’ve never been a big fan of Ken Russell, his directorial style perfectly suits this movie.  Altered States seems like the type of novel that might have read well on the page, but would have been a major challenge to convey onscreen, but Russell was probably the ideal choice to make it happen. Of course, Altered States is definitely not for everyone and even the most scientific intellectual is advised not to take it too seriously. Those who do will probably being shaking their head at the film’s corny ending, which implies that you can defeat primordial forces with the power or love and simply thrusting your body against the wall a couple of times. That said, the movie is still a lot of fun and while I’ve never attempted it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if the use of mind-altering substances greatly enhances the experience of watching Altered States. However, it is possible that the combination of both forces may cause your head to explode. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

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