Altered States


This movie is based on the Paddy Chayefsky novel by the same name.  It is directed by Ken Russell and stars William Hurt as Dr. Eddie Jessup, his wife, also a Dr. played by Blair Brown, with Bob Balaban and Charles Haid his two friends who are also research scientists.  The film came out in 1980 and runs 103 minutes.


Dr. Eddie Jessup believes other states of consciousness are as real as everyday reality.  Using sensory deprivation, then adding powerful, hallucinogenic drugs, he explores these altered states using himself as the research subject.


The movie starts out showing him in an isolation water tank with co-worker Balaban monitoring his reactions in the control room.  It is 1967 and he is trying the experiment on himself after dozens of students have tried it with interesting results.  He is in the tank for five hours but it seems like only one hour to him and he has lots of mystical hallucinations that fascinate him.  He is in New York City at this point and meets Blair Brown.


They are about to both land positions at Harvard so she proposes and he reluctantly agrees.  He is not into love---sex, yeah, but not love.  He is brilliant and a bit crazy and his focus is on truth and science, not on people and love.


The movie then jumps ahead seven years and we find him married with two children and he is a very successful full professor at Harvard and his wife’s career there is also successful.  But he is not satisfied.  He is also not in love---never has been.  He is narcissistically absorbed in himself and his career.  However, he has left behind his earlier experiments with hallucinogens, it is now 1974 and they are no longer en vogue.  But, he is unhappy, he feels that he is just going through the exercises to be successful and life has little meaning for him.


He is separating from his wife and children at this point.  The wife and kids are going off to Africa on a research project and he has decided to go off to Mexico with a colleague to look into an ancient native culture that uses powerful hallucinogenic mushrooms.  The natives allow him to use the drugs they concoct and he has a very vivid hallucinogenic experience---but he doesn’t remember it (the audience sees it but he doesn’t remember what you see).  However, he takes some of the drug back to Harvard and begins experimenting with it on himself.  What happens intrigues him so that he decides to increase the power of the drugs by going into a sensory deprivation tank where he is in total darkness suspended in water. 


With his colleagues monitoring the effects, he has some very powerful reactions.  He goes back in time, which is what he desires, and sees the first humans, watches them, then becomes them so that he is hunting as one of them, eating flesh from their kill.  It is a very powerful experience.  When he is taken out of the tank by his friends, he cannot at first talk and is bloody around the mouth.


At his request, they take him immediately to have X-rays and it turns out that he still has, underneath his normal looking face, the facial skeleton of an ape, not a human.  The hallucinogenic experience was so powerful that he not only felt he was subhuman, he became subhuman! 


He wants to continue the experiments but his friends are reluctant.  The dangers are considerable and the possibility of injury is high and what unknown risks are out there are impossible to predict.


His wife returns from Africa.  He is angry that everyone will not let him proceed.  So, completely on his own, without any safeguards, he runs the experiment on himself again.  This time he actually becomes the subhuman, escapes from the isolation tank, attacks and injures two guards on duty, and escapes to the streets.  He eventually makes his way to the zoo where he kills and eats a sheep and wakes up in the morning as the nude Dr. Jessup at the zoo where he is arrested.


His wife and friend get him out of jail.  Jessup convinces her that they are on to something, so with the other two helping out, she agrees to let the experiments go forward.


This time instead of going back to the subhuman era thousands of years ago, he goes back in time to the very moment of creation, billions of years ago, the big bang, the moment when only energy exists.  The tank he is in exudes radiant light and everything begins to explode from all the powerful energy that he is tapping into.  With heroic effort, his wife through her love for him is able to pull him back from the terror of the empty void.  No one is killed, but it was a close call.


The final scene is one where he and his wife are at home.  He realizes that his search for truth has taken him to emptiness and that what really counts is love.  For the first time in his life he loves his wife, for the first time he loves a human being.  Just as he gets to that great realization, his body starts to go back in time.  His wife calls out to him that he can fight it.  He struggles with all his energy against the power of the hallucination that is drawing him back in time bodily and is successful.  In the arms of his wife he declares: “I love you, Emily.”  End of movie.


Mind you, to better understand the film you need to watch it because two of the strengths of the film are the fine acting and the fascinating visual effects during the hallucinations.

Also, to better understand the subject matter, you really need to read the novel.  Some of the best lines of the movie are philosophical statements that Jessup rattles off without giving you time to really understand and absorb them.


However, even given these limitations, I now ask you: What is this movie all about?


Some possible messages from the movie are:


  1. Irresponsible scientists are dangerous.  In fact, science itself can be dangerous.  Remember, Jessup physically attacked and almost killed people when he came out of the tank as a subhuman.  This reminds me of the time around 60 years ago in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the scientists set off the first nuclear explosion.  They did this despite the fact that they didn’t know what the result would be.  They knew that it could cause an endless chain reaction that could keep expanding until the whole world was destroyed---yet they continued the experiment.  Today we are involved in all kinds of experiments that could cause massive harm and yet scientists continue to play their dangerous games.  It is rather frightening.
  2. Watch out what you put into your mind and body.  What you imagine can become your reality.  Playing with drugs for the fun or excitement can have very unpredictable side effects.  This message is as relevant today as it was in 1980 when the film came out.  In the movie, when Jessup becomes the subhuman and roams the streets seeking food and kills the sheep, he remembers it all.  But, he remembers it as that subhuman.  For him it is a wonderful experience.  His life is uncomplicated and each moment of his life is focused on that particular moment.  He doesn’t experience chronic stress.  He fears, he fights, he flees, he kills, he eats.  No morality, no complicated thought processes.  He thoroughly enjoys this state of existence.  Yes, escapism can be joyful, but at what costs?  The movie clearly says that the costs are unpredictable and dangerous.  Can’t you find some other way of making your life more effective for you?
  3. Balance is the key to a mature existence.  Jessup is out of balance.  He is all into his left brain---thinking endlessly, unattached to humans.  After separating from his wife we see him in bed with one of his students.  She calls him Dr. Jessup---not Eddie.  We still see that the experiments have made no real dent in the way he relates with others.  The young student is only an object, never a human being that he needs to relate with empathically.
  4. Love is the meaning of life.  At the end of the movie, after looking in all the wrong places, he finally realizes that love, which has always been right there waiting for him to accept it, is the great truth he has been searching for all along.


What do you think about all of this?  Remember, this movie may not speak to you as you are not into your left brain like Jessup was---good for you.  But, if you can’t appreciate the messages of the film, you may be into your right brain too much and not enough into your left brain!  Think about that!