40 Years Ago: ‘Altered States’ Serves as a Portal to the ’80s
In December 1980, Altered States attempted to use the powers of the previous two decades to make a sci-fi masterpiece, but ended up making a lovable bizarrerie that heralded the onset of the '80s.
The film was the brainchild of renowned screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (The Hospital, Network), who purportedly wanted to rewrite the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story as a Hollywood vehicle to sell to producer Dino De Laurentiis. Chayefsky worked up a treatment for the screenplay, but was encouraged by a producer to turn it into a novel instead (never an auspicious sign for a writer of his ability.) He did, and the book version of Altered States was published in 1978.
This helped move Chayefsky's screenplay into production, and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves) was brought on to direct. Penn cast unknown stage actor William Hurt to star, and then almost immediately quit the production because Chayefsky was so difficult to work with.
The replacement director was Ken Russell, a Brit mostly known for his gonzo visual style and films about famous classical music composers. Chayefsky and Russell feuded as well; in classical Hollywood fashion, everyone involved claims that everyone else was dedicated to ruining the glories of the picture. But this time it was Russell who got the upper hand. Chayefsky quit in a huff and demand that his screenplay be credited to Sidney Aaron, a pseudonym.
The film went on to be reasonably successful at the box office and has had a lingering presence in the film world, largely because of the strengths of these two main contributors: Chayefsky's script turns on a great conceit, and Russell's direction is full of pyrotechnical visual wonders.
Watch the Trailer for 'Altered States'
Hurt plays Eddie Jessup, a scientist obsessed with human consciousness. The film's first sequences are set in 1967, when Jessup begins experimenting with taking hallucinogens and floating around in sensory deprivation tanks as a way to explore the foundations of the human mind, which he's convinced carries evolutionarily-based memories going back millions of years.
Although little comes of this initial trials, seven years later Eddie, now married to an anthropologist named Emily (Blair Brown) and with a pair of daughters, hears about a tribe of Indians in Mexico who induce spiritual states with a potent brew involving psychedelic mushrooms. He joins them in their ritual, which is beautiful and weird -- Russell's visual ability being put to good use -- during which he possibly kills a large iguana in a state of celestial ecstasy.
Convinced that he's on the edge of a scientific breakthrough, and at risk of losing his marriage and family because of his obsession, Eddie brings some of the drug home and begins to take it while undergoing sensory deprivation. It's here that the film moves into the territory of the so-called cosmic horror of the early part of the 20th century, in which vast gibbering forces lie just on the other side of our thin veils of time and consciousness: in these experiments, Eddie begins to devolve, moving from being human back down the evolutionary chain toward the birth of the species. In other words, he turns temporarily into a prehistoric ape-man (played with wondrous grace by the dancer Miguel Godreau).
This is, unfortunately, not enough for Eddie, who is convinced he can push the experience further and delve into the origins of life itself. He takes a final dose of the drug and goes back into the tank. This time, the doors of perception are flung as wide open as they can be, and Eddie turns into some sort of...well, it's almost impossible to describe, but he has a kind of white tentacle coming out of his head and screams into the vast reaches of space while the sensory deprivation tank dissolves into a whirlpool of pure energy.
Watch a Hallucination Scene From 'Altered States'
After this kaleidoscope of body-horror wonders, the end of the film is something of a letdown. Eddie almost kills Emily when he touches her and turns her into a kind of orange force-being, but the two are saved from eternal dismay by Emily's love. They end up okay, and Eddie learns that although he has seen the horror of the emergence of life itself into the universe, what really matters is having a good woman by your side.
It is this milquetoast resolution that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many viewers, and it is indeed a regrettable turn. But it only dims, rather than extinguishes, the delight of the movie. Up until the final 10 minutes, Altered States is a feast of boundary pushing and fascinating sci-fi speculation.
Like so much of '60s culture, culminating with Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Altered States pursues the question of whether it's possible to reach the mystical origins of things – life, consciousness, the meaning of the universe – through a combination of science and the extreme experiencing of our own minds. In the classic tradition of horror films going back a lot further than the '60s, Chayefsky's screenplay does a great job of anchoring this quest in an almost-believable version of reality (there's lots of talk of the chemical properties of hallucinogens and of the question of inherited genetic memory) before pushing it into the land of terrifying possibility. Similarly, Russell's direction makes the film a treat to watch, giving it an acid-trip sensibility that almost perfectly matches its pseudo-scientific speculations.
At the same time, the movie has a distinct air of '70s cynicism and grit. The drug-addled dreams of the '60s are presented as not so much fanciful as actively dangerous. Eddie's quest threatens the existence of his family (one of his kids is played by Drew Barrymore, in an early appearance), has overtones of world-endangering power and, most importantly, doesn't seem to do him much good. He goes on his psychonaut's journey and in the end realizes that he doesn't really want what he has found. Instead – and here's where the film also manages to give a little peak into the decade that was dawning – he discovers that what's really important is love and family.
This is a turn that many filmmakers exploring similar territory – like David Cronenberg or David Lynch – might not have chosen. And perhaps it's a turn that neither Chayefsky nor Russell anticipated when they began working on the movie, because it doesn't reflect the usually darker tendencies of either artist. But it does serve as a telling portal to the '80s, when the freedom of the '60s and the cynicism of the '70s would give way and those warmer family values would increasingly take up more and more terrain in the Hollywood imagination.