I hope you've actually seen the film by now, but if you haven't, Altered States is the story of a professor and scientist named Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) whose quest to uncover the ultimate truth about the meaning of life fractals out of control when his attempts to transcend his own consciousness (by combining sensory deprivation techniques with unidentified psychotropic drugs) begins manifesting, against all logic, a physical response.
That's just the short form description. Russell's film deals with a number of different issues, but perhaps more prevalent than anything else are the body blows he deals to the nature of the modern scientist and his relationship to his loved ones and peers, himself, and the unknown (both religious and scientific).
Obviously there's a lot to talk about, but for the sake of word count, we'll stick with these three questions:
- What does Altered States have to say about the Modern Scientist?
- If Jessup is an atheist, why does he always dream of religion?
- Okay, seriously, what's up with the visuals?
What does Altered States have to say about the Modern Scientist?
What does a scientist who grew up in the counterculture decades of the '60s and '70s act like? Is he a lab coat wearing blackboard jockey who hob knobs at University functions with the most elite in his field? No, not even close. Jessup stays out late at night and smokes pot and gets drunk with friends, waxing philosophical about understanding the self's place in the order of the universe and how religion is just a crutch for the feeble. Instead of traveling the world to go to International conventions with his peers, he follows an anthropologist to an Indian tribe and partakes in a deeply religious (for them) ceremony that changes his perception of everything.
It's as though combining Jessup's free love roots with his scientific pursuits has yielded the next logical member of the Free Love movement. Not only does he attach little meaning to his sexually promiscuous activity, but he is incapable of love entirely. Sex to him is a bodily act to be dissected and understood for how it manipulates people (himself included) and nothing more. When his girlfriend proposes to him (another sign of how atypical of a man he is), he acquiesces to marriage out of an odd respect for tradition, though his failure at it only further seals his notion that marriage is yet another antiquated formality that serves no function but to impede his research.
And that is the embodiment of the Modern Scientist to Russell. An all-but-robotic machine that can't be bothered to take the humane approach to life if it's not determined to be the most optimal research path. It's all about furthering the self no matter the emotional cost it has on others, mirroring the sort of corporate minded externalities of the late '70s that sacrificed the goods of the community for the pursuit of the goal. It never paints Dr. Jessup as an intentionally malicious conspirator, mind you, but his selfish actions reflect the me-first harmful mindset of the times.
What's so amazing is that despite all he represents, he's a damned likable and fascinating character.
If Jessup is an atheist, why does he always dream of religion?
To me this is one of the more interesting aspects of Altered States. For a self-confessed atheist, Jessup sure spends an awful lot of time having religious-themed discussions and nightmares. Why is that? Are his drup-trip visions equivalent to the conversations with God religious people claim to have? A revelation that Jessup is secretly a believer?
No, I don't think so. In fact, I find them to be quite the opposite. They only go to show (in the film's eye) how much the Modern Scientist fears religious devotion. Not only do they often spend their sober thoughts devoted to combating religious notions, but when their grip on reality becomes tenuous, the thing they fear most is a religious resurgence jeopardizing their credibility.
And yet they are blind to the fact that their own obsessive behavior in the pursuit of scientific truth is ultimately little different from those with faith-based teachings.
Okay, seriously, what's up with the visuals?
Honestly, I'm not entirely sure I have the answers to this question. Part of me wants to say that all of the images have a precise meaning and that they weren't included because they were simply disturbing (a crucified Jesus Christ with an eight-eyed lamb's head?). The other part wants to say that about 95% of it is just nonsensical imagery meant to mirror Jessup's disorientation.
Whichever way it sways, there are a few particular images with specific intent. Some are more obvious than others (the fetal imagery, for one, as he is regressing), but my personal favorite is how by the end of the film his body takes on the aesthetic of television snow static right before his hallway transformation. What's great about this sequence (which has been imitated by the likes of A-ha's "Take on Me" video and South Park) is that it provides a scary explanation for why he is devolving even when no longer even attempting to transcend consciousness with drugs or isolation chambers.
He has literally become a de-tuned receiver and his entire being operates as such whether he wants it to or not. By attempting to make himself more open he has blown the hinges off entirely. It's a cool sequence trying to see him essentially put his perception blinders back on, but to me it's the most frightening idea in the movie: If he has become a de-tuned receiver, who/what is broadcasting?