Altered States

Let’s be real, here: Ken Russell isn’t exactly known for being comprehensible. Take a look at Lair of the White Worm or Gothic, and tell me you don’t agree. He works in the bizarre, the fantastic; the outré, if you will. His films deal in symbolism and religious allegory and sexual expression, and often times challenge the notion of good taste. But comprehensible? No.

And why should Altered States be any different? Hovering uncomfortably above the intersection of science fiction, fantasy and horror, States, based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky, employs the “kitchen sink” theory, which says that every device, image, shot, angle, color, sound or texture must be gathered up, shaken vigorously, and thrown back at the screen with force. Unfortunately, in some cases it doesn’t matter if any of it makes sense. This film is a mess, moving from one concept to the next without care for continuity or context; that it’s mildly redeemed by a trio of good performances–by William Hurt, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid–isn’t saying much.

Hurt is Eddie Jessup, a Harvard scientist studying the effects of isolation chambers. He meets Emily, played by Blair Brown, whom he marries–more out a sense of obligation than love. Sex for Jessup is perfunctory, a mechanical act to which he attaches little to no emotion; love is merely a fantastical concept. He prefers isolation to human contact, and keeps those around him at arms-length. Soon enough, Jessup and Emily announce they are divorcing, which Jessup accepts with weary resignation.

And then he hears tell of a hallucinatory drug used by natives in the farthest reaches of Mexico. He sets out to investigate. Once accepted by the natives, he engages in a ceremony that promises some convoluted bullshit about finding the primordial man in all of us. A hallucination ensues: heaven, hell, a tea party, fire, lizards, sunbursts, a lunar eclipse, a sandstorm–one image after another, in a rapid-fire barrage that’s more headache than headtrip. Elated, Jessup returns to the states and begins to use the drug in conjunction with the isolation chamber.

*Heavy sigh* So! Jessup begins to regress, and one night emerges from the chamber as a primordial apeman. He rampages through the city in a scene so laughable, it has to be seen to be believed. The next morning, he has no memory of the incident. Brown, rushing to his side, thinks he’s going crazy. His colleagues (Balaban and Haid) insist that the experiments stop, but Jessup, having tasted possibilities thus far unknown to man, presses on.

All of this leads to a spectacular conclusion that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It has something to do with Jessup regressing so far that he ends up at the point of the Big Bang. Now a massive blob of matter, he struggles to save his bodily self (in a scene later used in Aha’s famous video for “Take On Me”), Brown somehow gets sucked into the vortex, and the screen explodes in light and color. Do they survive? I don’t care, and neither should you.

What am I supposed to make of all this? Is it experiment? An allegory? Is Russell toying with us? It’s fine to suggest that Jessup is so devoid of human emotion that he’s willing, ostensibly in the name of science, to go the extra distance and withdraw into himself to the point of no return. But the execution is beyond clumsy. It’s as if Russell was making things up as he went along, without concern that the audience might, in fact, shake its collective head and recoil at the absence of a coherent narrative. Just because you have a wild idea to jar and challenge a viewer, doesn’t mean you necessarily have the chops to pull it off.

A complete disaster.

1980; starring William Hurt, Blair Brown; directed by Ken Russell; 102 min; R; in English.