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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.


I love this movie.  I got it

I love this movie.  I got it when a local video store closed back in Spirit Lake.  I was just grabbing at the scifi section and dug the cover.  What a shocker.  It was one of those movies that I was constantly showing to friends.  This was, another, great review.  I will try and track down the book.

I was lucky enough to catch

I was lucky enough to catch this in a theatre back in 1981 in Ultra Sound.  Basically the sound was LOUD (especially during the hallucinations) and crystal clear.  A few times it sounded like the theatre was going to come crashing down on us:)  I saw it twice that way and it blew me away.  But I thought the truly terrible ending hurt the film a lot.  After that big buildup all we find out is that love conquers all????  SHEESH!  Also I saw it in Boston and we got a big laugh when Hurt regresses into an ape and enters a zoo in Cambridge.  There IS no zoo in Cambridge:)  Still the acting was good and the direction was incredible.  Ending aside this was a great film. 

I've loved this movie for a

I've loved this movie for a long time, and I've also been disappointed with the ending. I found a copy of the book this week, devoured it, all the while struck by how faithful to the book the movie is. In terms of developing towards the ending I once found so disappointing the book is even more serious about the importance of love in staving off the horror of existence. The fundamental thing that has changed in my perception, and why the ending makes sense to me now (and I feel that it could not end any other way) is that I am in love. 

Contrary to the protestations of the review above, this is not a socially constructed experience. It is a soulful connection, more real and significant to me than any other I have experienced. I've chased the white rabbit down a lot of weird holes looking for the truth, but I didn't start learning anything of any real importance until I fell in love.

Unfortunately, like any altered state, it is impossible to communicate it to someone who has not experienced it themselves. To them it is purely abstract and therefor subject to the kind of relativistic post-modern argument exhibited above. I know I didn't get love songs until now, I didn't understand half of what happened in books and movies - probably why I liked horror and sci-fi so much.

I encourage everyone to see Altered States and another extraordinary movie penned by Chayevsky, Network. But most of all I hope you all go on a real trip and get naked in front of another person. Metaphorically. Metaphysically. You feel me?

OK--I've BEEN in love so

OK--I've BEEN in love so yeah--I understand what you're saying.  I guess if I see it again WHEN I'm in love I might accept the ending more.

I do find it interesting that the movie was faithfull to the book.  In his autobiography Ken Russell (the director) said he met with Chayevsky in person to discuss the movie.  They were totally at odds about how to shoot it and got into a big argument about it.  Chayevsky refused to visit the set but kept talking to William Hurt and Blair Brown off the set telling them how to play the characters (totally undermining anything Russell had to say).  It's a wonder the film turned out as well as it did.

BTW--"Network" is a masterpiece.  It predicted reality TV decades before it happened! 


Bradly,I really enjoyed


I really enjoyed reading your review. It is well-written and I was agreeing with just about everything you wrote until the very end when you decry the "love conquers all" message at the conclusion of the film.

I'm not sure how you could have created a better ending, other than having Jessup "disappear" entirely into the unvierse, leaving Emily distraught. It would have made for a positively ghoulish ending and would have been a major downer.

And then you trivialize and MOCK what is surely one of the most beautiful messages ever articulated about the reason for human existence which has to do with loving one another. If it's cliche then I'd like to know from you what OTHER lesson you could derive from Jessup's harrowing experience that is meaningful for the human race?   The fact is, you don't have one!  And you haven't developed your own screenplay which delves into the meaning of human existence. So please, don't mock this ending to the picture. And don't trivialize it. The fact is, if the human race doesn't love each other and doesn't practice love for each other, then there will be no human race left!

The "void" which Jessup experiences is so all encompassing that it offers NOTHING which as we have discovered IS actually SOMETHING but it's not nearly inspiring as is the concept of LOVE. Something from nothing is a concept delved into by the great physicist, Lawrence Krauss.  And it would make for a powerful reworking of the film IF there was a way to capture the power and majesty of this physical concept. 

But at the time this screenplay was written, physics hadn't yet confirmed that there is indeed SOMETHING out of NOTHING. So if you keep things in context, Paddy's screenplay does a superb job of capturing the level of knowledge that humanity had AT THE TIME. 

Understand?  So, in conclusion, if this film were to be remade, not only would you have to have superb actors like the ones in this film, but you'd have to have a superbly written screenplay on the level of a Paddy Cheyefsky screenplay that delves into the meaning of human significance and a new ending that SHOWCASES the latest breakthroughs in physics and incorporates the thinking that we now know we live in a FLAT universe and that the galaxies continue to move away from each other, leaving us "lonelier and lonelier and lonelier"