Altered States [Blu-ray] (1980)

Actors: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid
Director: Ken Russell
Format: NTSC, Widescreen
Language: English
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: July 10, 2012
Run Time: 102 minutes




Albert Einstein once said that “if you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”

Research scientist Eddie Jessup is someone who has taken Einstein’s dictum to heart, but he hasn’t exactly set himself a particularly easy goal in life, which is to find the “Ultimate Truth” (capital letters).

You see, Eddie is one of those people who claims to have “seen” God while taking drugs and doesn’t really get it when you point out to them that, well, they were high on LSD at the time. Eddie is also the sort of guy who listens to The Doors and says things such as “what dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.” (You got that?)

The movie is Altered States (out on Blu-ray this week for the first time) and Eddie is played by a 30-year-old William Hurt in his film debut. His wife is played by Blair Brown who would go on to play Nina Sharp in the J.J. Abrams TV series, Fringe.

The flick was directed by Ken Russell, the maverick British film director who sadly passed away earlier this year and is based on screenwriter Paddy (Network) Chayefsky’s only novel. The novel in turn was largely inspired by some experiments from the 1960s which involved isolation tanks and psychedelic drugs, natch.

Altered States also boasts an outstanding score by John Corigliano, the New York-based classical music composer who did the music for The Red Violin. Speaking of which, thematically Russell’s film has a lot in common with the director’s underappreciated 1974 Mahler movie about the Austrian composer in that both films are about “great” men who neglect their wives and family in pursuit of, well, God (capital letter) one supposes. At one point Jessup’s wife complains that he “doesn't love me. He never loved me. I was never real to him. Nothing in the human experience is real to him.” Much the same can be said of the way Mahler is portrayed in Russell’s earlier movie.

By the time the movie hit theaters on Christmas Day (!) in 1980 the whole ‘Sixties Timothy Leary / acid thing was pretty much old hat and it all looks even more out of date today in the 2010s. Watching Altered States today one can only marvel at how a movie like this would never get made now and how it comes as no surprise that Russell couldn’t find any financing for his projects later on in his career. The film industry is much more cautious today. Altered States is one of those movies Hollywood won’t be remaking any time soon and, if they did, they’d strip it of whatever made it controversial or interesting in the first place.

WORTH IT? Altered States is probably one of flamboyant director Ken Russell’s most mainstream and accessible movies. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of those “either you get it or you don’t” affairs because it is. It is a movie you just can’t recommend to just anyone. If you have a taste for offbeat and weird ‘Seventies cinema, then this is for you. If you know who the heck Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg were, then check out Altered States. If you who John C. Lilly was, then what the heck are you waiting for? Acidheads will have a trip.

THE DISC: There are no special features except for a trailer, which is sad since this is a movie that practically screams for at least an audio commentary by Brit critic – and Russell fan – Mark Kermode.

The brilliant image and sound quality (almost) makes up for this. The special effects may look dated today, but the image is so sharp and detailed during the trippy 2001-like sequences that it shaves several years off the movie’s 32 years of age.

RECOMMENDATION: Sheer Ken Russell weirdness in the first half and a climax that seems like something out of a Steven Spielberg blockbuster make Altered States an uneven viewing experience. (Incidentally Chayefsky so disliked the film’s ending that he asked to have his name removed and that the screenplay be credited to his pseudonym, Sidney Aaron.)

However, even if you believe the movie’s intellectual content to be a bunch of hippie crap as Cartman put it in South Park, then you still have to admire the movie for its sheer ballsiness especially in today’s era of cookie cutter Hollywood flicks. Fans of unconventional fare such as Melancholia and Tree of Life should check it out even though sensitive viewers may find some of the movie’s religious imagery disturbing.



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