Altered Statesrecommended viewing

Excellent thoughtful/ludicrous 70s sci-fi
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
Ken Russell
Starring: 
William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban
The Setup: 
Guy combining hallucinogenic drugs and sensory deprivation experiments finds himself regressing to simpler life forms
Discussion: 

There is a special genre I like to call “thoughtful / ludicrous sci-fi,” a genre that would include Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and The Butterfly Effect. These movies tend to have one or two interesting ideas of the “Woah, dude!” variety, and often become ludicrous as they try to execute and develop those ideas. They provide both tepid concepts to ponder and ripe cheese deposits, and that is a potent mix that yields rich rewards! And this is an excellent example of that genre.

Another delightful sub-sub-genre is films that attempt to cinematically portray hallucinogenic drug experiences! These rarely fail! And again, this film, soars off with the gold!

Many reviewers on the IMDB complained about the pacing, but that's what I love about 70s movies, is that audiences at the time could handle the story unfolding slowly and atmospherically, taking time to set up a real tone and develop tension and character without everything having to be jumping out and/or exploding all the time.

The plot concerns a young student experimenting with states of mind in sensory deprivation chambers. Once he gets some serious hallucinogenics from some Aboriginies, he uses the two “methods” together, but comes to find that not only is he regressing in mind, but physically as well. And that is some freaked-out shit.

William Hurt really gives a remarkable performance, especially considering this is his first movie role. I always think it's a particular challenge to act in sci-fi and horror, to act as though one is actually experiencing completely fantastic situations, and I admire actors that can pull it off. One instance of this in the film is his monologue as he's transforming the first time, having to pretend he's actually seeing a caveman, and then becoming one himself. As a viewer, you believe that he believes it. He also does a good job of seeming as weird and asocial as his character is supposed to be. And what a refresher to see a character that is supposed to be intellectual and strange, as opposed to current characters who must always be likeable, smart but sassy, and above all, sexy!

My analysis of the subtext of this movie [awww, remember when movies had subtexts? I mean, conscious ones?] is that it is a parable of narcissism. Hurt is a complete narcissist, only interested in himself and his own experiences, and furthermore he thinks his experiences are so fascinating that the rest of the world should be interested in them as well. Look at the scenes where he is convincing Bob Balaban to run the experiment for him, how he keeps saying "we're really on to something," and you want Balaban to justly say "Look buddy, this is happening to YOU, not me, and why should I take such an interest in furthering YOU as a human being?" I think the expression this finds in the world of the movie is that Hurt regresses so far into his own psyche that he actually physically regresses. Toward the end he realizes that he will devolve into nothingness if he is unable to let someone else in, and thus the "solution" is to realize he needs his wife and to learn to love and value someone else. See, it’s a touching story about real human emotions that still manages to include rampaging cavemen.

I thought Blair Brown was bad. Her character was very one-note, as in all she ever mentions or thinks about is love, and some of Hurt's reactions to her are totally brutal. You couldn't have these scenes or characters today, since every single woman now has to be a spunky, empowered self-starter who doesn't need a man. Even as simplistically as she was written, she can't do much with it. After the scene where Hurt turns to her suddenly and wants to sleep with her, and she's SO wooden when supposedly she's experiencing deep lust, and you wonder: is her character just completely rigid and closed off? Or is the actress just terribly uncomfortable with this scene? I grew to think it was the latter.

Like much of sci-fi and horror, the premise and development is really the main thing, and thus the first half is better than the second, when we have to start trending toward a climax. That's why I think it's not a fair criticism to say, as many have, that the ending is lame, because I think it's the initial exploration and build-up of ideas that is the main feature.

Random thoughts:

> The opening credits are superior! You gotta love the 70s. Things were so ambitious then!

> Also 70s-related is that filmmakers respect the audience's intelligence--even for pulp like this.

> The graduate students in science in this movie talk and act like graduate students in science. These characters could not exist in today’s film product, for how would the 14-24 demographic relate to them?

> The goat-thing that gets slaughtered in one of the visions is a really amusingly fake puppet, which is entirely enjoyable.

> I admired the careful flow of moods, tones, and rhythms of the visions.

> DVD renters with surround sound will really appreciate the sound design of this whole movie.

> The ending of this film obviously inspired A-Ha’s still-cool video for “Take On Me.”

Should you watch it: 

Yes, yes, a thousand times, YES!