Saturday, March 1, 2014

Altered States (1980)

Paddy Cheyefsky was beyond pissed at Ken Russell over what he did with his screenplay for Altered States. Russell, realizing that Chayefsky over heated mumbo jumbo was ultimately nonsense had all of the lines spoken either while other characters were speaking or when their mouths were full of food. Russell made the conversations real and believable instead of constructed and silly.

I mention this at the start since people’s reaction to this film very much depends on how and where you saw the film. Those who saw it in it’s initial big screen 70MM run I find are enthralled with the film and it’s hypnotic and quasi-mystic nonsense. Seeing it big you bought Chayefsky's nonsense. This is the way I saw the film and I was blown away by the film, so much so that I had my parents taking me back again and again to see it BIG. Friends who saw it on TV or home video or in the later run in the bargain theaters were less enthused about the film, if not openly hostile to it.

For my money the film is somewhere in between the awesome and the crap.

The film has Dr Jessup (William Hurt) doing an investigation into consciousness with the help of an isolation tank where he floats suspended in darkness in warm water. As he extends his studies with the help of a mix formulated by a native shaman Jessup’s work begins to show signs of breakthrough. Unfortunately it also begins to have weird physical side effects.

Despite what screenwriter Chayefsky thought the plot of the film is a dressed up horror movie, not too far away from the likes of the schlock classic The Neanderthal Man. Russell knew this when he took the assignment and he decided to sell it for all it’s worth with as much A list power as the studios would through his way. The result is a film that is a heady trip in heady matters.

The high point of the film. Especially in 70mm and Dolby stereo were the trip sequences which enveloped the audience and rumbled the seats. Cliché or not the sequence kicks serious ass….

The problem with the film is that stripped of the light show sequences the film is forced to stand on the screenplay and it’s weak. Yes it’s serviceable and it works because Hurt and Blair Brown as his wife sell this film.That said I still find it a wonderful head trip film and recommend it to everyone to at least try.

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