Stomping Around in the Dark: “Altered States”
I never would have guessed that the funniest mad-scientist flick I would watch this weekend wouldn’t be Bride of Re-Animator. No, that honor belongs to Altered States, a movie so hilariously awful that it has made me retroactively reconsider my love of writer Paddy Chayefsky’s previous effort, Network.
The first half hour (because this is not a seriously recommended movie, there will be spoilers) is devoted to scenes that are usually, RIGHTLY, glossed over with a few lines of exposition. Instead of a throwaway line like “Oh, they’re getting divorced,” we get to see how (cold, dickish…well, “William-Hurt-ish,” really) William Hurt and Blair Brown meet, get married and drift apart. Instead of “This psychotropic serum came from a Mexican mushroom ritual I sat in on,” we get to see Hurt travel to Mexico, meet with a guide, talk about what he may experience, then watch him take part in the ritual, then watch his hallucination at ludicrously extended length.
For my money, though, the best “Tell, don’t show, and then hell, let’s show!” moment comes when a post-coital Hurt launches into a long and bizarrely personal story (for a first date) about how his dad’s death from cancer caused his lapsed Catholicism – right before the next scene, where a sensory deprivation tank-induced hallucination drives all this home with bulldozer subtlety.
Then the plot actually starts.
And that’s when I knew it was, in all honestly, one of the most hilariously bad films I’ve seen in quite some time. If it weren’t so completely self-serious, I would assume that Altered States was actually aiming for the levels of mad-science comedy that the Re-Animator movies aspire to.
The plot, in essence, boils down to this: a scientist figures if he takes hallucinogens in a sensory deprivation tank, he’ll figure out whether we have some primal, intrinsic understanding of God within the most primitive sections of our own brains.
Okay. So far, so good. I’m on board – psychedelic sci-fi is the basis of a couple Warren Ellis books I quite like. BUT! What he could not have realized (and why on earth would he?) is that, apparently, if you take a Mexican mushroom concoction for extended periods, eventually you will physically regress into an actual caveman (who is not only NOT William Hurt in caveman makeup, but seems to be a ballet dancer doing an elegant interpretive-dance caveman pantomime).
And THEN, he regresses into something even weirder! Something that looks a lot like a man-sized fetus that shoots out Chernobyl levels of energy (for some reason – these must be some freaking amazing mushrooms)…and then he returns to normal.
What does this all mean? The audience asks, along with the movie’s characters. Except all these characters are scientists, and speak with cold clarity about everything they’re thinking or feeling – be it science-based, as when William Hurt explains his basic theory:
“Memory is energy! It doesn’t disappear – it’s still in there. There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I’m telling you it’s in the goddamned limbic system!”
DAMN YOU, LIMBIC SYSTEM! Or emotionally-based, as when Hurt explains why he’s getting divorced:
“She insists she’s in love with me – whatever that is. What she means is she prefers the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the pain we would otherwise inflict on ourselves. But I’m not afraid of that solitary pain. In fact, if I don’t strip myself of all this clatter and clutter and ridiculous ritual, I shall go out of my fucking mind.”
Absolutely NOTHING is left to subtext. The characters explain every thought and emotion. I kept getting reminded of 60’s Marvel comics, where every character says aloud what they’re thinking and doing even though it’s already clear from the art.
So if we WERE wondering what this all means? Basically, this is a long, tedious journey a dickhead scientist has to take to be able to say “I love you” to his wife and mother of his children (who conveniently disappear whenever the script has no need of them). But again – why be subtle? William Hurt explains it all:
“I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real. I don’t want to frighten you, Emily, but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.”
Now, if these were the movie’s last lines of dialogue – it would actually be a pretty cool denouement. But it’s not. First, Hurt reverts AGAIN, into the wiggly nuclear fetus, and when he touches Blair Brown, he turns her into some kind of molten lava woman, but through her love, he gets them both under control, and only THEN does he deliver the final line, “I love you.”
In case the previous monologue hadn’t been clear enough.
It’s rare you get to sit through a script that’s both incredibly high-minded and astonishingly stupid and logic-impaired. But Altered States stuck the landing in ways I had not prepared myself for, leaving me laughing for a good hour after the credits rolled.
How could Chayefsky write something this bad so soon after writing Network? Maybe Sidney Lumet (no slouch of a director) was able to pull a bit more life and subtlety out of Chayefsky’s script. Meanwhile, here’s a partial list of Altered States director Ken Russell’s credits:
The Who’s Tommy
Women and Men: Stories of Seduction
Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Premiere Collection
Tales of Erotica: The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsh
Revenge of the Elephant Man