Altered States (1980)

Article #1656 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-26-2005
Posting Date: 2-23-2006
Directed by Ken Russell
Featuring William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban

A scientist experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and isolation chambers, and ends up tapping into primal forces that cause him to alter his body’s physical make-up.

Paddy Chayefsky disowned his screenplay (based on his own novel) for this movie, and it is credited under the pseudonym of Sidney Aaraon. I haven’t read his novel, so I don’t know what his objections were to this adaptation, but given that the most common complaint I’ve heard about this movie is how the ending seems like a cop-out after the ambition and intelligence of the rest of the movie, I’m guessing it has something to do with that. Still, I find the ambition and the intelligence go a long ways towards making this movie a fascinating experience, and Ken Russell’s surreal visuals only add to the fascination; this movie has some of the trippiest sequences this side of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the movie strongly touches upon all of the fantastic genres; it alternates between fantasy, science fiction and horror with an amazing ease. For me, the ending is a bit of a problem, but the image that makes for the final scene in the movie is powerful enough that it goes a long ways towards selling the concept to me. For me, the worst problems consist of some fairly clumsy dialogue; it’s rather difficult not to laugh when people are having yelling matches with each other over scientific concepts, and the movie suffers a bad case of what Roger Ebert calls “Mamet Damnit”, that phenomenon by which some movies can have the characters cuss up a blue streak and you can accept it as part of the atmosphere, whereas in other movies, each cuss word grates on your ear. Sadly, this movie has the latter experience. Still, movies that aspire to this level of intelligence are rare enough that I find this one a welcome addition to my collection.


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