The time is the late nineteen-sixties and Dr Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is conducting experiments into human consciousness; to do this he finds it useful to utilise an isolation tank, where the subject is suspended in water and wired up to scientific equipment to monitor their brain activity. Jessup has used this technique on some of his students, but his favourite subject is himself, for to study the effects first hand gives him the most satisfaction. Today he has emerged from the tank, after hallucinating, partly about his deceased father, and his assistant Arthur Rosenberg (Bob Balaban) tells him how the experiment has gone - but it's not enough for Jessup, who just doesn't know when to stop...
There's something special about the science fiction and horror films made between the late seventies and early eighties, isn't there? A certain texture, a certain testing of the boundaries that makes this period one of the most rewarding for the genres, even when the films aren't quite as successful in their ambitions as they'd like to be. So it is with Altered States, the first of director Ken Russell's American films, which had a troubled history thanks to writer Paddy Chayefsky, who scripted based on his novel, being so dissatisfied with the way the production was going that he took his name off the credits, calling himself Sydney Aaron instead, those being his actual first names.
There are two points of view at odds with each other in the story, the position of Jessup that there must be an ultimate truth to existence and he can find it through his methods, and the position that life is essentially a state of doubt that only love can make meaningful. The latter opinion is taken by Emily (Blair Brown), a scientist Jessup meets at a party - there is an immediate attraction between them, and they go back to her apartment together. While having sex with Emily, Jessup begins to have flashbacks to his isolation tank episodes of a religious and even Satanic nature, seemingly against the pro-science tone of the piece.
Well, it wouldn't be a Ken Russell film without a crucifixion, would it? And the effects and makeup departments go to town on creating Jessup's hallucinations, which are initially of religious imagery as I say: a multi-eyed and multi-horned goat headed man on a cross, for example. This hints that the ultimate truth will be an attempt to get to know God, but such is the manner in which the story works that the heart of the matter is gradually reduced to a state of devolution. After divorcing Emily (did I mention they got married? It's hardly mentioned here either, though explains why they suddenly have kids running about) Jessup visits Mexico and takes a trip with the natives which sets him on a course to devolving down the species chain into an amoeba. Really.
But before he reaches that stage, the frankly selfish Jessup returns to his isolation tank for another delve into his consciousness, and perhaps a universal consciousness as well. The plot settles quickly into a pattern where our protagonist has a densely packed, highfalutin' conversation - how these characters like to talk - then goes for another dip in the unknowable. Most notably, this makes him regress into an ape-like form where he embarks on a minor rampage, beating up security guards and killing and devouring a sheep at the zoo which he claims is the most satisfying experience he has ever had. Although basically a traditional mad scientist tale decked out with delirious visuals, the film ends up taking the loyal Emily's side, which can't help but feel like a let down after all we've seen; the engaging cast keep us interested, but as entertainingly pretentious as Altered States is you wish for a more intellectual conclusion than "love conquers all", though it is preferable to the "primitivism conquers all" undercurrent that frequently surfaces. Loud music by John Corigliano.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.