"Altered States" starts as an ubertrip - based
on the studies of John Lilly, who, in the '60's, holed up in
a senses deprivation tank to find the elusive key to his subconscious.
While time spent in one of those tanks floating in an epsom
salt/H20 solution will certainly fuck with your mind - throw
in a little Carlos Castaneda, shamanism, peyote and, well...
blast-off. Which is exactly what Eddie Jessup (William Hurt)
does in "Altered States".
Jessup's a prof at a small university and is
on his way to a full tenure at Harvard. He's hyper-intellectual
and only a select few can enter his electric cerebral world.
He's arrogant and self-absorbed. His mind is an overloaded stimulated
acid fit - and his life is a dichotomy of disillusionment toward
humanity and a driving need to know why humans are what they
We don't see Jessup's first trip, we see him
floating in a tank as the credits roll. His body convulses uncontrollably
but we never go inside his mind. Once out of the tank, Jessup
tells his research partner, Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban),
about the intensity of his visions. At
first, Russell wisely keeps us out of Jessup's head, teasing
us with information, through dialogue, about what he has experienced.
But the characters speak in academic tongues and their words
tend to distance audiences. It is Jessup's next excursion into
the tank when Russell takes us directly into the professor's
mind where the movies really lives.
It seems Jessup's chosen route toward discovering
the evolutionary process of human life is by going inside his
own skull - by tripping on his own ego not only through deprivation
of his senses, but through ingesting a potent peyote cocktail
in conjunction with the tank. Jessup's cocktail is derived by
Mexican Indians through a bizarre shamanistic rite of passage.
A ritual not unlike the Yaqui passage celebrated by writer/anthropologist
Jessup's hallucinations provide dramatic arcs
in the film's progression - plot points and lysergically drenched
reflections of the obsessions of a man possessed by reaching
something that has, up to this point, been merely theory - that
is, personal theories of evolution. Personal yet, according
to Jessup, universal.
The 'goal' of Eddie Jessup isn't to save the
material world (though his ideas are in favor of a better functioning
humanity) - in fact, the material world disgusts him.
He isn't trying to achieve anything tangible. He's just trying
to reach this abstraction of soul. Why the film was troublesome
in 1980, is because it took place inside a man's mind rather
than amongst the physical world of things.
Jessup's collegues, Rosenberg and Mason Parrish
(Charles Haid) are reluctant passengers riding on a careening
train that is Eddie's cracking psyche - yet they know the professor
is on to something. So does Jessup's wife, Emily (Blair Brown),
yet she is terrified for her husband's sanity and wonders aloud
if he is, indeed, a madman.
Ultimately, the studio wanted a film more palatable
to large audiences and, about 3/4's into it, Jessup's perspective
is totally lost. The p.o.v. shifts outside of Jessup's body,
resulting in an easy, literal reading of the professor's metamorphisis,
not into his subconscious primordial soup, but into a 'monster'
flick. The movie, therefore, becomes a carrier for creature-type
special effects not unlike "An American Werewolf in London".
And this diversion into sci-fi pap is probably why Chayevsky
Granted, the f/x are impressive and Russell handles
the concluding suspense masterfully. But "Altered States" is
an idea movie and relegating it to the physical world
made the ride disappointing in the end. Jessup's statement after
fruitless searching and plummeting over the evolutionary abyss
- that 'the answer is that there is no answer' - is undermined
by his final acceptance of Emily's love. Romantic, yes. Sweepingly
so. But, after all he'd been through physically and psychologically,
after all the risks he took with mind, body and spirit - the
final conclusion is, well, just a little goofy.