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Altered States Review – A Sci-Fi Lost Classic?

My Take on This Under-Appreciated Cult Science Fiction Film

William Hurt as scientist Edward Jessop

Altered States is a 1980 American science fiction horror film. This movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky. The film was directed by Ken Russell and was the film debut of William Hurt as scientist Edward Jessop.

For me, this film reminds me a lot of David Cronenberg's The Fly, as it has a lot of body horror and transformation scenes. The idea that it’s possible to tap into genetic memory from when we were cavemen is an interesting one. This is discovered by the scientists using isolation chambers and hallucinogenic mushrooms. I really like this film as it starts out as an experimental science film where the main character has a deep passion and drive to push the boundaries of known science through his experiments, but then turns into a hallucinogenic horror film opening up its huge ideas and diving in.

The director Ken Russell allegedly had his first trip on psychoactive drugs around the time of the making this film and it shows. One particular aspect of this film I enjoyed was how serious the subject matter was taken and because of this, when the more fantastical elements appear towards the second half of the film, I was on board.

An interesting theory conveyed in the movie is that every person has a genetic memory from the beginning of the Big Bang. The idea that every atom in our body is millions of years old. Physical matter not being able to be destroyed but instead only changing form. Edward Jessop taps into this memory, creating physical changes and allowing a freedom of existence that isn’t known in conventional society. He finds a simplicity of being at one with the body without the limitations of thought and feelings.

During the final stages of the film, Edward takes his experiments as far as he can and transforms into a being crossing all time and space. Here he realises the emptiness and loneliness that exists there and makes the choice to be with his wife and children instead. It’s a fascinating take on reality.

In my experience, the emptiness and loneliness of reality for me is a moment by moment realisation. When I relax with emptiness and loneliness, I realise it’s not something to be scared of or to avoid put a great power when allowed to be as it is.

I really enjoyed the scene where he regresses into a caveman and runs around the City fighting dogs and breaking into the zoo. I found the speed and freeness of movement of the person playing the caveman very believable. It made sense to me that if a caveman arrived from the past, this is how they would act in a modern urban setting. The prosthetic effects used when Edward turns into a slug like creature and when his body mutates for me still hold up. I also found the imagery shown through out the film very powerful like when he opens a door in his flat to find a lava landscape stretching out before him.

It’s hard to believe that this was William Hurt’s first film, as he seems so natural in the character and role. I’m sure he must have had experience but I found him a very believable leading man who holds the film together. Ken Russell is an Oscar-winning director and has a distinct visual style used with powerful themes. For me, a true auteur who seems to tell his story and vision without compromise.

In conclusion to my Altered States movie review, I would argue that this movie is a lost classic. I would suggest checking out a copy if you can find it and I would recommend it to any science fiction fan who is open to questioning reality and the nature of existence.

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