Altered States

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Altered States

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by Howard Gottfried
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
(as Sidney Aaron)
Starring William Hurt
Blair Brown
Bob Balaban
Charles Haid
Thaao Penghlis
Miguel Godreau
Dori Brenner
Peter Brandon
Charles White-Eagle
Drew Barrymore
Megan Jeffers
Music by John Corigliano
Cinematography Jordan S. Cronenweth
Editing by Eric Jenkins
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release date(s) December 25, 1980
Running time 102 minutes
Country USA
Language English
Budget $15 million[1]

Altered States is a 1980 science fiction film adaptation of a novel by the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It was the only novel that Chayefsky ever wrote, as well as his final film. Both the novel and the film are based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like ketamine and LSD.

The film was directed by Ken Russell and starred William Hurt in his screen debut. It also starred Blair Brown (as Emily Jessup), Charles Haid and Bob Balaban. It additionally featured the film debut of Drew Barrymore. The film score was composed by classical composer John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting) and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received an Oscar nomination for Sound, losing to The Empire Strikes Back.


[edit] Plot

Edward Jessup (Hurt) is a university professor of abnormal psychology who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states."[2] Jessup begins experimenting with sensory-deprivation using a flotation tank, and he travels to Mexico to participate in a fictionalized amanita muscaria ceremony where he experiences bizarre, intense, paradigm-shifting imagery. The professor then returns to the U.S. with a mushroom tincture and begins taking it orally before each session in the flotation tank where he undergoes a series of increasingly drastic psychological and physical transformations.

Doctor Edward Jessup's mind experiments lead him down a path of actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned Primitive Man. In a subsequent experiment he is regressed into a mostly amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. It is only the physical intervention of his wife Emily which brings him back from this latter, shocking transformation in which he seems poised on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.

The experiments go even further out of control in that Professor Jessup experiences episodes of involuntary spontaneous temporary partial de-evolution. This occurs outside of the isolation tank and without the intake of additional doses of the hallucinogenic tincture. His early reaction is more one of fascination than concern, but as his priorities gradually change via Emily's unwavering determination to keep from losing him to some unfathomable state of non-being, he finally begins to act like someone who values his humanity more than the vast, impersonal nothingness that underlies all of existence.

[edit] Cast

[edit] Release

Selected premiere engagements of Altered States were presented in Megasound, a high-impact surround sound system similar to Sensurround.[citation needed]

[edit] Pre-production

The film's original director was Arthur Penn, who resigned[1] after a dispute with Chayefsky.[citation needed] Special effects expert John Dykstra also resigned. The film was originally set up at Columbia Pictures, who would later drop the film, before Warner Bros. picked the film up. Chayefsky later withdrew his name from the project; film critic Janet Maslin, in her review of the film, thought it "easy to guess why":[3]

It's easy to guess why he and Mr. Russell didn't see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.

Film critic Richard Corliss attributed Chayefsky's disavowal of the film to distress over "the intensity of the performances and the headlong pace at which the actors read his dialogue."[2]

[edit] Reception

Janet Maslin of The New York Times called the film a "methodically paced fireworks display, exploding into delirious special-effects sequences at regular intervals, and maintaining an eerie calm the rest of the time. If it is not wholly visionary at every juncture, it is at least dependably—even exhilaratingly—bizarre. Its strangeness, which borders cheerfully on the ridiculous, is its most enjoyable feature."[3] She also called it "in fine shape as long as it revels in its own craziness, making no claims on the viewer's reason. But when it asks you to believe that what you're watching may really be happening, and to wonder what it means, it is asking far too much. By the time it begins straining for an ending both happy and hysterical, it has lost all of its mystery, and most of its magic."[3]

Richard Corliss began his review of the film in dramatic fashion:[2]

This one has everything: sex, violence, comedy, thrills, tenderness. It's an anthology and apotheosis of American pop movies: Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Nutty Professor, 2001, Alien, Love Story. It opens at fever pitch and then starts soaring—into genetic fantasy, into a precognitive dream of delirium and delight. Madness is its subject and substance, style and spirit. The film changes tone, even form, with its hero's every new mood and mutation. It expands and contracts with his mind until both almost crack. It keeps threatening to go bonkers, then makes good on its threat, and still remains as lucid as an aerialist on a high wire. It moves with the loping energy of a crafty psychopath, or of film makers gripped with the potential of blowing the moviegoer's mind out through his eyes and ears. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Altered States.

Corliss calls the film a "dazzling piece of science fiction"; he recognizes the film's dialogue as clearly Chayefsky's, with characters that are "endlessly reflective and articulate, spitting out litanies of adjectives, geysers of abstract nouns, chemical chains of relative clauses", dialogue that's a "welcome antidote to all those recent...movies in which brutal characters speak only words of one syllable and four letters."[2] But the film is ultimately Russell's, who inherited a "cast of unknowns" chosen by its original director and "gets an erotic, neurotic charge from the talking-heads scenes that recall Penn at his best."[2]

John C. Lilly liked the film, and noted the following in an Omni magazine interview published in January 1983:

The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife grabs him and brings him back to human form is straight out of my Dyadic Cyclone (1976)...As for the scientist's regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr. Craig Enright, who started me on K (ketamine) while taking a trip with me here by the isolation tank, suddenly "became" a chimp, jumping up and down and hollering for twenty-five minutes. Watching him, I was frightened. I asked him later, "Where the hell were you?" He said, "I became a pre-hominid, and I was in a tree. A leopard was trying to get me. So I was trying to scare him away." The manuscript of The Scientist (1978) was in the hands of Bantam, the publishers. The head of Bantam called and said, "Paddy Chayefsky would like to read your manuscript. Will you give him your permission? I said, "Only if he calls me and asks permission." He didn't call. But he probably read the manuscript.

[edit] Influences

Some of the events portrayed in this film seem to be based on the studies of the French surrealist and author Antonin Artaud[citation needed]; the protagonist visits a tribe of isolated Mexican tribal people and participates in their sacred ritual involving local hallucinogens for the purpose of investigating the common religious experience. Much of the setting of this part of the film also appears to be based on Artaud's description of the natural, although seemingly man-made landscape of the people; in the movie, this was represented by huge stone mushrooms.[citation needed]

[edit] In popular culture

[edit] Film

  • James Cameron imitated the film's "sliding" opening title effect in his debut movie, The Terminator, released four years after Altered States.
  • The poster art for the comedy film Super Troopers parodies that of Altered States, with the tagline "Altered State Police."

[edit] Television

  • The NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live parodied the movie in a segment, "Altered Walter", in which Walter Cronkite, played by Bill Murray, gets stoned and hallucinates inside the tank.
  • The ABC comedy show Fridays had a segment which parodied the movie entitled "Altered Statesman", in which the Ronald Reagan character transforms into Richard Nixon after mistakenly ingesting peyote buttons in a jar placed next to jar of Jelly Beans.
  • The plot shares many similarities with an episode of Outer Limits called "Expanding Human".
  • The climactic scene of the film was the basis of an early MTV commercial in which the M undergoes Jessup's agonizing transformation, beating itself against the walls.
  • Just as Jessup sees Emily disintegrate during a vision in Mexico, in The Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Our Homer)" Homer experiences a hallucination in which Marge dissolves into sand.
  • On the ABC series Lost, in the Season 3 episode "Further Instructions" Locke asks Charlie to stand guard over the sweat hut. Charlie agrees that he has to make sure Locke doesn't devolve into a monkey while on his homemade acid trip.
  • On the Fox series House M.D. in Season 4: House's Head, House references this film when he is asked why sensory deprivation will help him solve a case.
  • On the Fox series Fringe for the pilot episode, Agent Olivia Dunham takes LSD and climbs into the tank to connect to her comatose co-worker. Additionally, Blair Brown plays one of the series' regular characters.

[edit] South Park

  • The climactic scene is referenced in the season 10 episode of South Park "Tsst", where Eric Cartman is wrestling with his will to be a bad child or good child.
  • In the South Park episode "Helen Keller! The Musical", Eric Cartman is made deaf and blind to gain insight into Helen's mind as a way to write lyrics. The sequence of images he sees and the music played is reminiscent of the isolation tank sequences from the movie.
  • Kyle has an existential meltdown similar to Jessup's in the South Park episode "The Tooth Fairy Tats 2000".

[edit] Music

  • The first hallucination scene from the film is used as a cover of the Godflesh album Streetcleaner.
  • The climactic scene of the film is the inspiration for the climax of a-ha's music video for their 1985 pop hit "Take on Me".[4]
  • The video for single "Worlock" by Skinny Puppy features over a dozen snippets of the film in both 'X' and 'R' rated versions. The Too Dark Park backing video for Dogshit uses footage from the film.
  • Neurosis used several of the hallucination scenes for their live visuals during the mid 1990's/Through Silver In Blood era.
  • The basement flotation tank appears in The Beloved's video for the single "Hello", which also features the title effects from the film and a brief homage to the blue skies of the film's hallucination sequences.
  • The song "Exhausted Love" by hip-hop duo Eyedea & Abilities features several soundclips from the movie.
  • Ambient/experimental band House of Low Culture not only named their second full length album, "Edward's Lament", after the films main character but also based the album around some of the same themes in the movie.
  • Several sound clips from the movie including "our altered states are as real as our waking ones", were sampled by DJ Shadow on his album "Preemptive Strike"
  • Industrial metal band Ministry uses the female schizophrenia patient's line "I feel like my heart has been touched by Christ" in their song "Psalm 69".

[edit] References

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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