Unquestionably one of the trippiest movies ever released by a Hollywood studio, the sci-fi/horror saga Altered States was an odd swan song for Paddy Chayefsky. Following a celebrated career during which his melodramas and social satires earned the writer three Oscars—for Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971), and Network (1976)—Chayefsky penned his first and only novel, Altered States (1978). Suggested by the experiments of “psychonaut” John C. Lilly, who used hallucinogens and sensory-deprivation tanks to explore the furthest recesses of the human mind, Altered States was a far cry from Chayefky’s usual fare.
Nonetheless, Chayefsky wrote the screen adaptation of his own book and prepared to make the movie with director Arthur Penn. Disagreements pushed Penn off the project, and his replacement was Ken Russell, a British maverick known for boundary-pushing imagery and puerile fascinations. Chayefsky didn’t click with Russell, either, but this time it was the writer who left the project, replacing his name on the script with a pseudonym. Watching Altered States, it’s possible to see why Chayefsky distanced himself from the movie—which is forever on the verge of self-parody—and yet it’s also possible to see what made the underlying material so fascinating in the first place. The protagonist of Altered States tries to scientifically identify the fundamental nature of the human species.
Psychology professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) spends time in sensory-deprivation tanks, treating his visits like exploratory journeys into the outer realms of consciousness. Even as he clumsily attempts to build a “normal” life with a beautiful colleague named Emily (Blair Brown), Edward remains obsessed with his research. That’s why he follows a lead and visits South America, consuming a powerful drug that elicits mind-expanding hallucinations. Returning to the U.S., Edward combines the drug and the sensory-deprivation tank, with shocking results.
By about halfway through its running time, Altered States becomes an out-and-out fantasy film, complete with elaborate special effects. Seeing as how the picture is loaded with hyper-articulate dialogue and persuasive scientific jargon, the introduction of paranormal phenomena makes for a heady shift. Accordingly, many critics and viewers have dismissed Altered States as a lark with a great pedigree, even though it arguably belongs on the same continuum of existential sci-fi as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972). Chayefsky’s style is evident, pseudonym be damned, because no one else writes lines like this one: “She prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves—but I’m not afraid of that solitary pain.”
Similarly, only Russell could manufacture the out-there imagery of Edward’s hallucinations: bloody bibles, mutant animals, spewing volcanoes, naked bodies transforming into sand sculptures that blow away when attacked by vicious winds. Composer John Corigliano, contributing his first-ever music score, energizes Russell’s crazy images with an extraordinary score defined by avant-garde flourishes, insinuating rhythms, and an almost primal energy. Vivid performances elevate the film, as well. Making his movie debut, theater-trained William Hurt channels his über-WASP persona into the spectacularly alive portrayal of a seeker chasing the one thing he finds hardest to grasp—true human connection. Blair Brown matches him in terms of intelligence and passion, while also adding a layer of sensuality, and costars Bob Balaban and Charles Haid lend comic relief playing, respectively, the believer and the skeptic in Edward’s social circle.
Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of Altered States is that whenever he’s not overseeing whackadoodle hallucination scenes, Russell provides crackerjack storytelling clarity. He handles dramatic scenes with restraint and taste, manufacturing fast but disciplined pacing. One can only imagine what shape Altered States would have taken if Chayefsky and Russell had been simpatico.
Altered States: GROOVY