Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Revisit: Altered States

A Warner Brothers film 1980

Directed by Ken Russell

Written by Paddy Chayefsky

A Harvard scientist conducts experiments on himself with a hallucinatory drug and an isolation chamber that may be causing him to regress genetically.

William Hurt makes his film debut in this 1980 sci-fi/horror thriller that poises itself as an intellectual dissertation on consciousness and slowly descends into absurdity by its last act. Directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, the film meshes video art style with practical makeup and special effects. The film is sort of a cross between Cronenberg's The Fly and something like A Beautiful Mind. At the start it appears to be a drama revolving around post-radical 70's academic elites, but slowly it regresses (quite literally) as Hurt devolves into an ape like creature, and then some.

Russell is often criticized as being overly obsessed with sexuality and the church, and Altered States is no exception. Hurt's scientist is obsessed with restoring his faith and externalizing his past lives, and his hallucinations are often riddled with religious and allegorical imagery, from depictions of hell to himself on the cross. As he genetically retrogrades, the idea of man's progression from nothing becomes literal, and downright bizarre. Russell's direction treats these events so matter-of-factly that it's hard to take serious; the whole thing almost feels facetious, just short of camp. But the film's strangeness is its greatest asset; each twist and turn leads down an unexpected path until the ultimate WTF? climax is revealed.

Of course the films final message is that humanity is the ultimate truth - outside existence is merely a vast, impersonal nothingness. The film really strains to bring this idea to the forefront, and a lot of questions/absurdisms linger at the end. But if you're into so-heady-its-campy sci-fi or simply bizarre films, this one won't disappoint.

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