An unorthodox professor uses a sensory-deprivation tank to
experiment with human consciousness and genetic memories.
Altered States (1980)
Directed by Ken Russell
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban,
Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis
Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky
Oscar Nominations - Best Sound, Best Original Score
There's very little I could say here to prepare you for this movie. I'm having trouble putting my thoughts into words because there's just so much to unpack. It's equal parts a great movie and a terrible movie. A horror film and a drama. An art film and a genre film. I suppose that's appropriate, as the film does explore the depths of alternate human consciousness and what dark secrets we retain in the corridors of our minds where we dared not tread. It sort of makes you wonder. Is is possible that genetic memory really does exist? If so, what would we have to do to ourselves to tap into that power? Altered States explores these themes, and then immediately lost me when William Hurt turned into a rabid caveman.
Dr. Eddie Jessup (Hurt) is on the verge of a breakthrough. By using a sensory-deprivation tank, he explores the possibilities of altered states of consciousness, but he can only go so far. When he encounters an isolated tribe in Mexico that uses a bizarre concoction in rituals, he takes the potion back with him and uses it in his experiments. Somehow, the combo of potion and tank causes him to physically revert to an ape-like caveman creature. I really could've done without that. Up until that point, the film is more ethereal and conceptual about human consciousness and genetic memory. But then Jessup morphs into creatures, and all the metaphorical beauty goes right out of the window.
Altered States was the late William Hurt's first movie, and already you can see the skill and dedication of a lifelong thespian at work. Despite his personal flaws, he was an immensely talented actor and he elevates this bizarre film to an impressive degree. I'm sure there are people out there who adore this film, and that's fine. For me, I think it could've gone to a far darker place and really embraced its more horror-tilting themes.