They say that life is a state of mind, but that depends on what state you’re talking about I suppose!
Written By: Paddy Chayefsky
Directed By: Ken Russell
I’m always up for a healthy exploration of the human mind. That’s what Altered States starts out as, but it slowly changes into a creature feature. To be fair, the creature feature that Altered States turns into is still well crafted. It’s not the type of creature feature that will knock your socks off, but it’s certainly of the serviceable variety. Still, the first half of the film that digs into the mind, and the search for truth within the mind, is kind of fascinating. I say kind of, because in some very important ways the script of Paddy Chayefsky lets down the higher aims of the film. But, as I have said in the past, I am prone to liking a film that explores the cacophony of madness of that is human mind.
Where Mr. Chayefsky’s script fails is in its melding of theme and character. The big theme that the film puts forth is that without humanity there is no science. It doesn’t matter what greatness science can bring to us if we lose sight of the humanity that is at the heart of most scientific exploration. The issue with Altered States is that the script loses sight of the humanity that it wants to extol. The relationship between William Hurt, Eddie, and Blair Brown, Emily has no meat to it because it does not feel real. The humanity that the film tries to establish in its final moments cannot gain traction because none of the interactions between human characters that preceded the ending felt truly human. Emily and Eddie meet, show very little chemistry, have sex, get married, have kids, get divorced, and then declare their true love for one another. During that time span they say maybe two paragraphs of dialogue to one another, and none of it comes across as human. They are meant to be the heart of the film, the anchor that allows the truth of humanity to take root. But, they aren’t, they are shallowly drawn, cold, and lacking in the humanity that is very necessary to a theme about the importance of humanity.
The science of Altered States is interesting, to say the least. I’m not sure how grounded in reality it is, it could be a big bucket of nonsense for all I know. However, the science in the film was handled in fine fashion. I really felt that the opening half of the film where science was being used to explore the mind and our state of consciousness was pretty great. That’s when Ken Russell had my attention the most, and that’s when I felt the horror of the film worked the best. What’s more horrific than losing your mind and alienating everyone you know as a result? I can’t think of many things more horrific than that, and when Altered States is delving into that realm it is at its very best.
I’d heard a lot of praise for Mr. Russell going into Altered States. He’s still a director I’d like to see more from, but Altered States was a rather large disappointment. The first half held my attention nicely, but the second half highlighted the biggest flaw in the film. I felt alienated from Altered States by the time it had finished, and not in the way that a great horror film can bring about the feeling of alienation. Altered States aims high, but falls well below the mark, and all due to a lack of humanity.
Great review. This is another film I want to like more than I do, but I just can’t. Ken Russell is wild though. Have you seen Lair of the White Wyrm or The Music Lovers? Good grief.
Nope, I haven’t seen either of those, this is the only Russell film I’ve seen so far.
Oh, ABSOLUTELY check out Russell’s other work. Even when it’s off the rails, it’s interesting. I like Altered States for what it is, although I do recall reading in some movie mags back in the day that some of the effects work was scaled back a bit and I think even the ending was somewhat er, altered to be “happy”. Personally, I think this film should have been a half hour or so longer just to develop the relationships more (and yup, add more trippy sequences)…
More depth would have definitely helped the film.
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