In 'Altered States,' the filmmakers announce the death of God and the abandonment of a religious answer to human existence in favor of a superficial and wildly-fantastical pursuit of the primordial self. Meaning, characters are in search for our evolutionary origins while the producers of this 1980 sci-fi body horror only provide cursory pseudo-philosophies of our being. Based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky ('Network'), who also wrote the screenplay, it makes for an intriguing response to the narcissism and interest in mysticism of 1970s "Me" generation. Unfortunately, those hoping for an ingeniously thought-provoking solution to one of our most instinctual curiosities ("Where do we come from?", "Why are we here?"), the story fails to satisfy on any significantly intellectual level, content instead with a gushy conclusion that leaves something to be desired.
Thankfully, it's not to the film's demise, as highly-controversial filmmaker Ken Russell manages to make his audience think and ponder the possibilities, however absurd or preposterous some of the science may appear on screen. Truth be told, there is little actual science applied throughout, except characters trumpeting their credentials in comically pompous fashion. They also use really big, science-like words as if we wouldn't notice that even they don't know what they're saying. In fact, haughty, self-important temperaments seem to be a prerequisite for being a professor according to the movie. They are the cause for much, if not all, of the drama and the clashing of seriously bruised egos. But leave it to Chayefsky to writing incredible dialogue that has conversations and arguments feeling realistic while also weirdly beautiful, almost poetic.
The initial clash which gets the ball rolling in this truly far-out tale of achieving a higher state of consciousness is between troubled scientist Eddie (William Hurt, making his film debut) and his anthropologist wife Emily (Blair Brown). Admittedly, their disagreements are more like typical marital issues than a conflict of bloated pride. For that, the arguments are between him and his colleagues, Arthur (Bob Balaban) and Mason (Charles Haid). Still, Eddie's obsessive quest for obtaining conscious awareness in the form of tangible matter impedes his ability to say "I love you" to his own wife, which is pretty weird yet makes for a unique character trait. His research, consisting of napping in sensory-deprivation tanks and swallowing liquid hallucinogens, preoccupies his every waking moment — and after a while, his sleeping hours as well.
But this is mostly on the surface, something to keep the narrative moving until we realize it's all being a clever ruse for placing a device that doesn't materialize until the final moments. At the heart of the plot hides a stimulating question about our origins lying dormant deep within the human brain, that portion which connects us to our evolutionary ancestors and beyond. Eddie's goal is to reawaken that section and bring it to a conscious understanding, but this is where is the story goes way off the deep end and lands somewhere between ludicrous spiritual claptrap and some esoteric insight about the tangible being the only "Truth." (Yes, the one with capital "T.") Personally, it's a simple case of evading the complexities of the plot for an easy copout solution that tidies things up quick and neat. The only other thing making this cult favorite worthwhile is Russell's visionary style into another state of consciousness.
The polemic British director of music biopics and adaptations takes his usual flair for the phantasmagoric and tries his hand at the sci-fi genre. This is the first and only time he had done so, which is actually a shame because he proved to be creative talent for the genre. Even if we're not taking the same psychedelic drugs as Eddie, Russell manages to make his audience feel as if they've joined the character on his mind-expanding trips through the unknown. Russell and his talented crew fill the screen with feverish imagery which basically denounces God yet seems to celebrate itself as a religious experience. 'Altered States' may not end on some hard-hitting insight into our existence, but it's an excellent watch nonetheless, made memorable by Russell's brilliant direction of the character's hallucinogenic state of mind.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'Altered States' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to main menu still with generic options and music in the background.
Aside from a few soft spots here and there, probably due to the age of the print, 'Altered States' appears to be in rather excellent condition. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is nicely detailed with plenty of distinct lines around faces, clothing and surrounding architecture. The picture is noticeably dark with lots of deep shadows, but it's accurate to the way Jordan Cronenweth photographed the movie and comes with a thin veil of grain throughout. Black levels are inky rich and luxurious while low-lit sequences maintain great clarity and visibility of background information. Contrast can feel a tad too hot in some areas, but it's consistent for the most part without producing any significant damage. The palette is not particularly bright, yet colors are accurate and cleanly rendered. Only thing worth grumbling about is some mild banding which can be somewhat distracting but is not the end-all ruin.
In its time, Ken Russell's sci-fi body horror was a bit of a pioneer in the movie soundtrack industry with a sound design that is essentially an early form of today's 5.1 surround system. On Blu-ray, the results are outstanding with a DTS-HD Master Audio track which takes great advantage of modern home theater equipment.
The front soundstage is consistently wide and expansive with excellent dialogue reproduction. Off-screen effects are fluid and discrete, generating a great sense of space as random background noise and commotion move between the channels. Dynamics are sharply rendered and surprisingly extensive in some areas with appreciable acoustical detail, especially when the music of John Corigliano comes into play. Rear activity for a 32-year-old soundtrack is amazing with several terrific moments during scenes of Edward's hallucinations. And they're all intentional to the original sound design with seamless panning which creates a trippy, enveloping soundfield that's as engaging as it is immersive. One of the best features of this early form of surround sound is the boosted low-frequency content, which provides a good deal of depth and clout to the music and the psychedelic action sequences, making this lossless mix an awesome listen.
The only available special features is the movie's original theatrical preview.
From highly-controversial filmmaker Ken Russell comes a bizarre, psychedelic journey to our primordial origins in this far-out story of a scientist and his hallucinogenic experiments inside sensory-deprivation tanks. Working from a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the 1980 cult sci-fi body horror stars William Hurt in his film debut and features Russell's usual brand of phantasmagoric imagery that puts viewers into their own mind-expanding state. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation, but skimps terribly on the supplemental material. Still, long-time fans will be more than happy with the purchase and others are urged to give it a chance. You just might like what you see.