Movies, Shameless self indulgence

The Grumpiest Monkey Trips Out on Altered States

This being the second in a series of movie reviews your humble Monkey is posting now that he has a little spare time to catch up on his netflix queue. There is no rhyme or reason to the series, just some stuff that he has always wanted to check out.

“Altered States” (1980)
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown, and a couple of bearded scientists

Altered States first piqued your Monkey’s interest for two reasons.

One, this 1980 film is based on a novel by the esteemed Paddy Chayefsky, the screenwriter behind such master works as the 1950’s film “Marty” (about a lovable sad sap who finally finds love) and the 1970’s classic “Network”.

Two, it involves hallucinatory drugs, isolation tanks, genetic regression, and other psychedelic issues that regular readers of this blog (of which there are none) will surely recognize as key interests.

Altered States tells the story of Edward Jessup, a brilliant, driven scientist (played by Hurt) who starts to experience strange sensations and hallucinations while experimenting with an isolation tank in his lab.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, an isolation tank is basically a large (sinister looking) black box that is filled with a small amount of heavily salted water. The subject shuts himself in the darkened tank and floats on the naturally buoyant salt water.

Floating in the dark, silent tank deprives the mind of physical sensations and thus the mind turns inward on itself. Many of those who have tried isolation tanks have reported hallucinations and strong psychedelic experiences. See your Monkey’s previous post on the isolation tank tripping done by Joe Rogan here.

Plus the film raises some interesting theoretical questions:

  • What if it is possible to see heaven and hell just by turning inward on ourselves?
  • What if there is some primitive brain that exists deep within our own brain that holds all the mysteries of millions of years of evolution?
  • What if it were possible to climb inside our nightmares simply by removing all other outside stimulus?

Heady questions, for sure. So given that Altered States seems to have been genetically engineered in a movie lab purely for your curious Monkey, does it work?

Umm. Not so much. It’s not really a bad viewing experience, but as a complete film that is supposed to tell a story it is pretty much a mess.

We’re not talking about nonsense in the context of far out ideas and trippy pre-cgi visuals, we’re talking about nonsense in the form bad editing, missing scenes and sloppy storytelling.

Does the movie take place in New York, Boston, or San Francisco? If it is Boston, how come it doesn’t look like Boston?

Also, how much time elapses between scenes?  A couple goes from agreeing to get married to having several kids to getting divorced to somehow being back together again, and none of us are sure why.

And how about these secondary characters? Who is the scientist that accompanies Jessup to South America? Who is the doctor who insists on yelling incomprehensibly in his thick Southern accent during the tests in the tank? Who is the woman that Jessup is sleeping with in the second half of the film?

Also, what exactly is Jessup the scientist up to in his lab? Other than knowing that he likes to track down and ingest weird native drugs and spend an unhealthy amount of time in an isolation tank, we’re not quite sure what Jessup wants to get out of all this mind surfing. Is it inner peace? Scientific glory? Something else?

If you’re looking for something that is mildly entertaining, happen to be nostalgic for the early 1980s science fiction, or just plain curious about the idea of isolation tanks, this movie might be worth exploring.

But for the curious film fan hoping that a science fiction tale that will challenge us and make us question our vision of reality or the ethics of scientific research, this one falls far short.

Oh well. Looks like your Monkey will pop back into his isolation tank and watch the movies in his mind’s eye until it’s time for another Netflix screening.

Here’s the trailer for Altered States. You’ll see what I mean. You just want it to be good. But alas:


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