Altered States (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I don't know the history of how the director and the material got matched up in this movie, but it sure was a perfect fit.

In all of his movies, Ken Russell demonstrates that the subconscious has its own reality, as powerful or more powerful than the reality of the conscious mind. In this particular script, a scientist uses drugs and sensory deprivation to dig deeper into his own subconscious. First he searches for collective memory, then memories of an earlier existence. As time goes on, the subconscious alters not only his conscious mind, but his body, and even the external world. The scientist turns himself into a earlier form of man, wanders around the zoo, eats a few antelopes, that kind of stuff.

In the scientific theory according to the film, the collective subconscious is the source of religious belief, superstition, sexual desire, carnivorous behavior, and heaven knows what not.

There may well be a lot of scientific truth to the theories, although the plot added details which could only be called highly speculative. Those who study the human mind have been able to use hypnosis to achieve some extraordinary things - to cure disease, to end madness, to regress people to their own childhoods, and even to take people into a state where they seem to be able to do the impossible. People are able to speak fluently in languages they have never studied, etc.

We've conquered outer space, but we are a long way from understanding our own inner space.


William Hurt shows his butt on several occasions, and his penis is visible in several frames.

Blair Brown is seen topless in a sex scene with Hurt, then topless again in a fantasy where his mind morphs her back and forth into a lizard, then nude from the rear as the film ends.

What premise could be better for Russell? He shows dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations in every movie. In this one it actually made some sense.

He shows religious imagery in everyone's mind in every movie, but in this case it flowed beautifully, since the scientists were researching the relationship between the unconscious and our religious concepts

The premise of the film was really excellent. The beginning of the film had you wondering what would happen as he sunk deeper and deeper into his own subconscious, and the scientists engaged in stimulating discussions. At some point about halfway through the film I thought it was a great movie.

But then the whole thing changed into a horror movie, and it went south. First he became the American Werewolf Not in Paris, and then the end of the movie was a straightforward SF thing. Hurt is undergoing a metamorphosis into some kind of very early pre-human form, perhaps moving toward pure energy or something when he decides to fight it off with his waking state.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • It's one of those early-two-sided DVD's with a 16:9 widescreen on one side, and a standard 4:3 on the other. In both cases, the transfer is too dark, and the colors too dim.

  • Really no features to speak of

So he pounds the wall a couple times, turns back into Bill Hurt, hugs Blair Brown, and it just drifts off. The End. No scientific insight. No overview, no wrap-up, no resolution. It just kind of hangs there. I think that's OK for a SF movie, but this should have been far more than that, promised to be, and it wasn't.

It turns out to be a C+ by our standards - a pleasure for S/F buffs, but not an easy watch for mainstream audiences.

It was not a colossal hit, but was fairly successful at the box office. It was #27 in 1980, with $25 million in domestic gross. To place that in context, the #27 film last year (2003) had a domestic gross of more than $100 million.


Altered States (1980) was directed by the flamboyant Ken Russell.

William Hurt, in his big screen debut, stars as a genius working at Harvard on altered states of consciousness from which he hopes to understand the death of his father. After some interesting work with sensory deprivation and study of schizophrenics with strong religious episodes, he hears of a ritual drug in South America, and rushes off to try it and bring back a sample. All of this while his wife (Blair Brown, herself a genius) and their daughter, Drew Barrymore in her film debut, are off to Africa to study apes.

Hurt finds the drug, and is able to regress to a certain point using it, but can't increase the dose as he is taking a near toxic amount, and decides to combine the deprivation chamber with the drug to see if he can go deeper into his genetic history. He is not only able to have visions of his ancient genetic predecessors, but also physically regresses. He is very odd, compulsive, driven, and a mess at social interaction, which makes him the love of Blair Brown's life, because she is somewhat that way herself, and would be bored to death with a more normal man.

The film is full of what was, for the time, spectacular special effects. Even though some of the techniques are now dated, it remains visually effective. Altered states of consciousness was a big thing in the 60's, especially with mind altering drugs. Various religious and scientific cults continued the interest for a decade or so, making this film a hot topic at the time it was released.

Hurt garnered a Golden Globe nomination for his effort. In point of fact, had this been a more Hollywood mainstream film, both Hurt and Brown could have been considered for Oscar nominations, because they absolutely nailed the characters. Critical response at IMDB is 100% positive. I share the enthusiasm. This is a fascinating and original film that could not possibly have been done better. The IMDB score is the only thing keeping me from a solid B, so B- is the correct score. This is a Sci Fi fan's heaven. It explores interesting new ideas in a believable context, and has hot nudity and sex.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 2.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+ (Scoop) to B- (Tuna).

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