Thursday, July 23, 2009

Altered States: Crazier Than Jacob's Ladder

Altered States,movie poster,william hurt

Remember how I said that Jacob's Ladder was a movie that was pretty crazy? Well, that was before I watched Altered States. Unfortunately, being infinitely crazier doesn't make it better. It just makes it certifiably insane.

Directed by Ken Russell and featuring the debut of both William Hurt and an itty bitty Drew Barrymore, Altered States is the story of a Harvard Medical doctor and scientist, Dr. Eddie Jessup, who studies schizophrenia and the idea that alternative and unusual mental states are just as real and valid as "normal" ones. He's also fairly disjointed, having suffered from religious visions as a child until he was sixteen, losing faith when his father died of cancer. He grows curious of sensory deprivation, hallucinatory drugs, and achieving altered states of consciousness. Things take a completely ridiculous turn, however, when his sojourns into peyote and sealed tanks physically devolves his genetic structure, resulting in what can only be described as "weird shit."

It can be classified as a psychological thriller/body-horror film in that the main character is a psychologist, and some pretty screwed up and horrible things end up happening to his body. It also features some of the most bizarre and complicated montage sequences I've seen, featuring genuinely freaky goats with a half-dozen eyes, creepy religious images, lava, fires, fields of yellow flowers, clouds, fish, eel, a lizard that turns into his wife, and then they both get covered in ash and erode into nothingness, etc. Some of them are so random that they're unrecognizable, and seem to be intended to give the audience itself hallucinations or seizures. I'm sure if I really wanted to, I could have gone through frame-by-frame, and tried to piece apart the images, the visual metaphor encased within. I may love movies way too much, but I do not love them that much.

Almost despite itself, the film and its characters are able to raise some interesting questions concerning the nature of human consciousness, before it departs from such actual scientific stuff and focuses more on Jessup turning into a tiny monkey man and rampaging around a zoo, eating a live goat. Seriously. (The best part of the scene is when monkey-Jessup throws a stone at a goat, striking it square in the face. We are fortunate enough to be treated to this image as an audience, though I wasn't able to capture it or find it to show you. Just imagine, if you will: A goat. Getting hit in the face with a rock.)

devolved,altered states,monkey man

The general idea seems to be that our current state, our current position in evolution, society, religion, etc., is mostly based on our "normal" perceptions of the universe around us. He also postulates that our atoms contain six billion years of memories, and the potential to harness that energy, those memories, those previous states is there in every atom of everything, and he seems to prove it in his own crazy-ass way. Once he begins using psychotropic drugs and immersing himself in a tank or a boiler with no stimuli from the outside world, his hallucinations become real, and enact a real biological and genetic change. It isn't as cool as it sounds, though. Eventually, he devolves into a strange melty-jello-man, with no real features, limbs, or identifiers, other than a vaguely human face and a screaming mouth. For some reason, this change also results in an extremely high output of energy, which nearly destroys the laboratory. The changes aren't pleasant for anyone: When he was a tiny monkey-thing, he almost beat a security guard to death, fought with some neighborhood dogs, snuck into a zoo, and ate a goat. His wife Emily (played by Blair Brown, you can see her currently on Fringe) seems to be the only one that can snap him out of these increasingly horrible modifications his body seems intent upon going through.

Bob Balaban is also in this movie, and I just really like his name. He plays another scientist, or researcher, or something, and his job is to keep an eye on things while Jessup is in the sensory deprivation chambers, and make notes on the EEG readings when something interesting happens. There's also another guy, Mason, a character whom I at first thought was some arbitrary hobo/drunk friend of theirs, but it later turns out that he's a professor of endocrinology (study of the endocrine system, hormones, etc.). He's the classic representation of modern science, where even though he has seen the results himself, refuses (in a very violent, aggressive, and especially unconvincingly vehement manner) that it's all poppycock, or hogwash, or craziness. Bob Balaban is more enthusiastic, but it may be mostly jealousy. Emily is fascinated as an anthropologist, as well as frightened as his wife, or ex-wife, or whatever she happens to be (Jessup is so crazy that he never apparently told her that he loved her, even though they were/are married and had two kids, one of whom was played by a tiny Drew Barrymore).

Anyway, the movie barely makes sense. By the end, he's almost devolved into nothingness, when he somehow transfers the regression to Emily, who then ends up looking like Magma from the New Mutants comic books. Then, he turns into a bunch of 1980s special effects, they both materialize (naked) on the hallway floor together, he tells her that he loves her, and BAM we've got ourselves an ending.

Unfortunately, the characters aren't developed enough for me, but the story is interesting and the idea behind it definitely had some potential to go someplace interesting. The montage sequences are fascinating purely on an aesthetic arrangement standpoint, featuring images and themes that are obviously meant to mean something, but unfortunately aren't given enough attention or screen time to be figured out or even cursorily scrutinized by the audience. It does, however, feature some disturbingly bizarre displays of true body horror, where his skin seems to be moving, roiling, changing, first on his arms and then on his chest, which is typically followed by some visual stimuli and hallucination. The body horror genre isn't seen too much these days, but it should always have some vaguely sweet spot in the hearts of all audiences. Audiences will always have bodies, and the threat of something terrible happening to the human body from within is infinitely more frightening than a giant shark, or a machete wielding weirdo, or lepruchauns, or gremlins, or anything like that. Your body is a machine, pumping blood and oxygen and other whatnots around, and it can fail at any time, or betray you in terrible, horrible ways. Think about that.

william hurt,blair brown,altered states

This movie isn't terrible by any means. It's decent for what it is, and what it's trying to do, and William Hurt is actually a very interesting (if underdeveloped) character. I kept expecting something more interesting to happen, but it never really did. The effects are what can be expected of 1980, but it does use some very interesting editing techniques to create some very disturbing and confusing montage sequences, which is also part of the point. It's worth a watch, at least. Maybe it would be better if you took some drugs, first. I give it three whacked-out-Indian-shamans out of five, or three stone-pelted goats out of five.

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