Thursday, August 11, 2016

Extreme Experiments in Paleo, or Thoughts on Altered States

Remember the sensory deprivation tank from Fringe?  This is the movie they were referencing.  From director Ken Russell of The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975), Altered States (1980) is arguably one of his more staid and perhaps most conventional film.  With a screenplay by Paddy Cheyevsky, the Academy Award winning screenwriter for Marty (1955) and Network (1976), the movie was essentially an updated Jekyll and Hyde, a meandering blend of science and mysticism where scientists use psychotropic drugs and isolation tanks to expand consciousness.
William Hurt in his first film portrays Dr. Edward Jessup, maverick psychology professor searching for a universal, genetic memory shared by all of humanity across time.   Filmed at the birth of the 80’s but the movie is rooted in the 60’s radical drug culture, Dr. Jessup is inspired by Timothy Leary and his experiments with LSD at Harvard.
Ken Russell’s trademark surrealism and religious iconography used effectively in the hallucinatory dreamscapes Dr. Jessup experiences in the isolation tank.   With the right combination of Pre-Columbian shamanistic drugs he is able to take it to the point where he de-evolves into a caveman, a ridiculous premise that seems reasonable and even cool after the extended setup over the first half of the movie.
There’s an interesting directorial trick Ken Russell does, thanks to Paddy Cheyevsky’s screenplay, where he has the actors talk over each other.  Lines run together, creating a realistic tension as actors compete for the audience’s attention.  The viewing experience becomes more like a theatrical play rather than your typical movie, and adds to the film’s reputation as an intellectual or thinking person’s sci-fi horror movie, if there is such a thing.
With Blair Brown, who would also go on to appear in Fringe and Orange is the New Black, as Emily Jessup, Henry’s wife and anthropologist, and a tiny 5 year old Drew Barrymore in her big screen debut.  Also look out Arthur Rosenberg, Henry’s lab assistant, as played by Bob Balaban, who made his screen debut in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and would go on to appear in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), Gosford Park (2001) and Downton Abbey.

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