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Altered States (1980)
What does it mean to be human? The question turns out to be far more interesting than the answer in Altered States, written by Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and directed by Ken Russell (Tommy). On a technical level, Altered States is a well-made "body horror" film, replete with some of Ken Russell's finest psychedelic sequences, but ultimately the movie fails to deliver satisfying answers to its own tantalizing questions and a lapse into Hollywood-drenched heteronormativity in the final act reduces an intellectually engrossing setup into a mundane resolution.
Altered States tells the story of Eddie Jessup (William Hurt), a brilliant and introverted Harvard scientist, who, one afternoon in 1967, becomes the subject of his own research involving psychedelic drugs and isolation chambers. Conducting a series of increasingly dangerous experiments, Jessup seeks the "true self", which he believes is scientifically measurable and potentially located in the Limbic system of the brain. Along the way, a beautiful physical anthropologist named Emily (Blair Brown) falls in love with Eddie, marries him and becomes the mother of his children, but it is never clear whether or not Eddie is capable of loving her back. As his experiments bring him progressively closer to discovering his true self-first by way of a series of trippy religious and scientific visions, then by way of a disgusting and horrifying physical transformation into a "proto-human" and beyond-he learns that the true self is in fact a terrifying prospect: in a word, the void. Poised on the precipice of nothingness, Eddie Jessup must choose, once and for all, to exist in the real world or to give himself over to an enlightened non-existence born of his close encounters with oblivion.
In terms of the craft of screenwriting, Jessup's character arc makes sense and is actually quite elegant. He begins the film a man of science, an eccentric and self-centered genius seemingly incapable of normal human interaction. He's charming at first-so charming, in fact, that at the end of a long-winded monologue about schizophrenia and the religious experience, he off-handedly tells Emily, "Listen, I'd like to go home with you tonight," and in the very next scene they're shagging on her couch.
From the beginning, though, Jessup is socially inept. He interrupts their love-making to tell her about religious visions he used to have as a boy. When Emily proposes marriage, he changes the subject back to his research with psychedelic drugs and schizophrenia. When he divorces her later, he mocks her easy acceptance of the "ridiculous ritual" of marriage, saying, "She loves me... whatever that is." This is clearly a man who sees through the façade of society, who courageously seeks the true self-an isolated, idealized specter that exists beyond the banality of the material world-whatever the cost.
His quest to discover the true self, however, leads to the ironic disintegration of his "self", first in the sense of the self he created by taking part in the "ridiculous rituals" of society (marriage, career, fatherhood) and then in the sense of his physical self, quite literally the atoms that comprise his bodily existence. The true self, it turns out, is no self at all, a terrifying prospect to even the bravest psychedelic voyager.
Ken Russell's brilliantly-crafted physical and metaphysical transformation scenes underscore the terror inherent in Jessup's quest. In Mexico, under the influence of untested psychedelic mushrooms, Jessup is accosted by countless sex-tinged religious visions (Russell's specialties): serpents, high tea in the Garden of Eden, many-eyed rams, crucifixions, lizard-beasts, fireworks, gigantic fungi. Later, the visions become more science-based as Jessup witnesses the origins of man and the beginning of matter itself. During these scenes, Russell makes repeated use of time-lapse animation to show the birth of an atom, a star, consciousness, maybe even the universe itself. The visuals and special effects are astonishing (worth the price of admission alone, even thirty years later), but their implication is staggering: in the search for his true self, Jessup almost loses himself -- first his mind, then his physical form, then physicality itself.
If one is willing to suspend disbelief and give oneself over to the stakes of the film, one will be genuinely terrified by its metaphysical implications. The true self, the film would have us believe, cannot coexist with the self as it exists in real life. As such, the true self is only attainable in death-be it literal or figurative. Eddie Jessup's physical transformation as he regresses first into the proto-human form, then beyond, provides some of the most harrowing images ever to grace the silver screen: bubbling flesh, animal hair ripping through skin, bones painfully restructuring, and finally, the atoms of Eddie's being collapsing and realigning themselves into a host of ghastly forms.
Despite the strengths of the existentialist science fiction/horror narrative, Altered States is (at its core) a rather disappointing love story whose ultimate point is that "love conquers all". More specifically, it is the story of Eddie Jessup learning how to love and coming to implicitly agree with Emily's assertion that we love each other in order to convince ourselves that we really exist. In the end, the "ridiculous rituals" of society turn out to be the only thing on which we can truly rely. Worse yet, the film would lead us to believe that the closer one comes to discovering the true self, the more one loses oneself, and the only way to retain the self is to preserve the self's connection to the societal apparatuses that create, define, reproduce and bolster the image and conception of that self. Hence, Jessup is only able to anchor himself to "reality" when he can utter the three most clichéd words in the English language: "I love you."
As soon as Eddie defines himself as "the one who loves Emily", he is miraculously freed from the existential torment of the unknown, of the devolution (or evolution?) into pure matter wherein "Eddie Jessup" ceases to exist. Chayefsky and Russell underline the importance of this crucial message when the final shot is not of our protagonist Eddie Jessup, but of his wife, Emily, with a satisfied "he-finally-said-it" smile on her face.
For those of us who, like Eddie Jessup, believe that there must be some attainable and scientifically quantifiable answer to these questions -- even if the price is life, limb and/or sanity -- the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. We are led to believe that the journey to discover the true self and the answers to life's most perplexing questions is so lonely and terrifying that it's preferable to leave those questions unanswered and instead to continue to define the self socially, not spiritually: that is, in terms of the social institutions and "ridiculous rituals" that characterize us. It's a pedestrian and inadequate resolution to one of the most thought-provoking setups in the history of science fiction, and the ending ultimately degrades the introspective and eye-opening voyage into "inner-space" that comprises the bulk of the film.
That being said, I highly recommend that everyone make an effort to see Altered States. If you've already seen it, read the book (which is also excellent) and then see the film again. It perfectly exemplifies the sci-fi subgenre of body horror, using its sometimes shocking images to underscore the stakes of the narrative: violent death (or perhaps something worse) awaits the man foolish (or daring) enough to probe life's greatest mysteries in search of "truth". In this sense, Altered States is first and foremost a horror movie despite its sometimes lengthy forays into science fiction, melodrama, romance and satire.
At times profound, at times awe-inspiring, and at times genuinely touching, Altered States does not fail to stimulate the mind while it stimulates the heart, and for that feat alone, the film deserves its status as a "classic". All serious students and admirers of classic horror -- indeed, all human beings who have ever looked deep within themselves for the answers to life's most enigmatic questions -- should see this film.