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USA 1980
Directed by
Ken Russell
102 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Altered States

Ken Russell’s first US film, a souped-up B grade, is a variant on the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of scientists who use themselves as guinea pigs in their dangerous dabblings with the unknown. In this case William Hurt plays Eddie Jessup who is relentlessly committed to identifying primordial human consciousness (or something like that). The leads him on a Carlos Casteneda-like journey to Mexico where he picks up some fancy mushrooms which he brings back to his Boston lab and uses on himself in a series of experiments that, of course, go wrong.

Although Russell’s florid stylization may have seemed appropriate to the subject matter he apparently either did not have the taste for the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre or could not break Paddy Chayefsky’s hold on the production, the film playing more as straightforward drama, albeit one which, when not indulging in some quite effective special effects, is pretty insipid.  Chayefsky’s screenplay from his own novel is terminally heavy-handed, the regular assertions, for instance that Eddie is “flaky”, “weird”, “mad” etc being damn wearing, particularly given that it's hard to find a more bland actor than Hurt (Blair Brown is no more convincing as Jessup’s anthropologist wife), and the dialogue regularly slides into long-winded, hardly credible utterances before wrapping up in a watery, feelgood ending that jettisons any attempt to make sense of the metaphysical questing that supposedly was the motive for the story.

What is captured well is the insufferable smugness of the scientific confraternity and their self-deluded conviction that they hold the keys to truth in their grasp but, needless to say, this is hardly a point of attraction for the viewer.  It was troubled production with Chayefsky keeping tight reins on his script, causing the original director, Arthur Penn, to quit the production (although Chayefsky too ended up walking out and disowning the film, using his alias and real given names, Sidney Aaron, in the credits as writer) it cost US$15m and after an initial flurry of interest, tanked, providing big screen debuts for Hurt and Drew Barrymore, who plays one of the Jessup children, whilst Brown went onto to a solid career in television. 




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