The mind is one of the most amazing things to really think about. It’s a complex, almost abstract, biological machine that is strong, yet can be destroyed very easily. Enter drugs. To some, they are a demented tool used by disturbed individuals for their own sadistic pleasure, yet others see drugs as a way of tapping into areas of our mind that we may not even know exists. Altered States is a strange and intelligent movie that explores drugs and their effects in a way that I’ve never seen done before.
Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a professor with a unique interest in abnormal psychology. At first, he’s interested in how schizophrenics react, through drug research and sensory depravation, to supposed altered states of consciousness. It doesn’t take long for Jessup, himself, to begin experimenting using the sensory depravation combined with a strange, mind bending mushroom brought back from Mexico. After months of doing this research, and using the drug multiple times, Jessup begins to notice something strange about himself. He appears to be devolving.
As far as narratives go, Altered States is not a very easy movie to 100% understand what exactly is going on. The story itself isn’t very twisted, but it is, arguably, pretty convoluted. A strange Mexican drug that, when mixed with sensory depravation, makes you devolve? I dare you to find something remotely like this. While it may be a little hard to buy into at first, it is intriguing, and you begin to really get lost in the story and all of its impressive visual effects. The effects, however, are a whole different story all together.
Released in 1980, I figured that the special effects would look really cool, but also pretty dated. I’m a fan of older special effects, like what is seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, but there are instances where these kind of special effects are distracting due to their aged look. Luckily, Altered States looks fantastic. They do look a little aged in their own way, but it sort of works great with the movie. If this was remade, and all of the effects were CGI, I feel like the “trip scenes” wouldn’t have impacted me as much as they did. Speaking of CGI, this was one of the first movies to really implement it, even though it was just for a quick scene towards the end of the movie. This particular effect looks pretty primitive, but it is a pretty important step for special effects in the film world.
I don’t feel like Altered States really gets the recognition it deserves. It was recognized back then as a great exercise in film making with two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Original Score. It lost Best Sound to The Empire Strikes Back, which I will admit, is pretty understandable. We are talking about one of the greatest sequels ever made. Still, I find it upsetting that it isn’t really remembered today. I hypothesize that if you were to try to bring Altered States back into pop culture, it wouldn’t be received very well because of how bizarre it is.
Altered States is a really good science fiction/horror film. It can’t really be compared to a film of the same genre like Alien or its sequel, but it is definitely a lot better than I expected, and a really good movie in general. It’s quite a bizarre narrative with some of the weirdest scenes you will ever see in the movies. Unfortunately, the story can be a bit difficult to really buy into and the ending is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a trip worth taking if you think your mind can handle it.