Thursday, July 19, 2012

Short Take: Altered States

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With Altered States (1980), celebrated screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky tried his hand at science fiction. The result was one of the most ludicrous movies to come out of Hollywood. William Hurt, in his film d├ębut, plays a Harvard psychology professor who becomes obsessed with forms of consciousness beyond the everyday. His experiments on himself begin with the hallucinatory states induced by sensory-deprivation tanks. They proceed into enhancing the deprivation-tank experience with a tribal potion from Mexico. At this point, the story enters mad-scientist monster-movie terrain, with the professor experiencing psychedelic visions, a metamorphosis into a Neanderthal, and an external manifestation of the primordial vortex. The professor's wife (Blair Brown), his best friend (Bob Balaban), and his department chair (Charles Haid) just enable him and fret. There's no sense of wonder accompanying what occurs. Chayefsky's point is that scientists need to end their overreaches into the realm of knowledge. They should accept that love is the only worthwhile thing. (That's right. These scientists witness the most incredible things occurring, and their conclusion is that what the world needs now is love, sweet love.) The director, Ken Russell, is known elsewhere for his extravagant visuals, but his work here in that regard is nothing special. The psychedelic visions, featuring special-effects work by Bran Ferren, are unimaginatively derivative. Russell's most impressive work is in the various ways he gets the actors to blast through Chayefsky's ridiculously over-written dialogue. The actors all sound like they've been drinking too much coffee, but the frenetic delivery actually suits the academic characters they're playing. The screenplay is credited to "Sidney Aaron"--Chayefsky quit the production after Russell replaced Arthur Penn--but a look at Chayefsky's original novel indicates the dialogue was entirely his. The fine musical score is by John Corigliano.

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