It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Altered States” is one hell of a movie -- literally. It hurls its characters headlong back through billions of years to the moment of creation and finds nothing there except an anguished scream of "No!" as the life force protests its moment of birth. And then, through the power of the human ego to insist on its own will even in the face of the implacable indifference of the universe, it turns "No!" into "Yes!" and ends with the basic scene in all drama, the man and the woman falling into each other's arms.
But hold on just a second here: I'm beginning to sound like the movie's characters, a band of overwrought pseudo-intellectuals who talk like a cross between Werner Er-hard, Freud, and Tarzan. Some of the movie's best dialogue passages are deliberately staged with everybody talking at once: It doesn't matter what they're saying, only that they're incredibly serious about it. I can tell myself intellectually that this movie is a fiendishly constructed visual and verbal roller coaster, a movie deliberately intended to overwhelm its audiences with sensual excess. I know all that, and yet I was overwhelmed, I was caught up in its headlong energy.
Is that a worthy accomplishment for a movie? Yes, I suppose it is, if the movie earns it by working as hard as “Altered States” does. This is, at last, the movie that Ken Russell was born to direct the same Ken Russell whose wretched excesses in the past include “The Music Lovers,” “The Devils,” and “Lisztomania.” The formula is now clear. Take Russell's flair for visual pyrotechnics and apocalyptic sexuality, and channel it through just enough scientific mumbo jumbo to give it form. The result may be totally meaningless, but while you're watching it you are not concerned.
The movie is based on a Paddy Chayevsky novel, which was, in turn, inspired by the experiments of Dr. John Lilly, the man who placed his human subjects in total immersion tanks floating them in total darkness so that their minds, cut off from all external reality, could play along the frontiers of sanity. In “Altered States,” William Hurt plays a Harvard scientist named Jessup who takes such an experiment one step further, by ingesting a drug made from the sacred hallucinatory mushrooms of a primitive tribe. The strange thing about these mushrooms, Hurt observes in an easily missed line of dialogue in the movie, is that they give everyone who takes them the same hallucinatory vision. Perhaps it is our cellular memory of creation: There is chaos, and then a ball of light, and then the light turns into a crack, and the crack opens onto Nothing, and that is all there was and all there will be, except for life, which has its only existence in the mind.