Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: Altered States

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, March 31, 2001

As a rule, do you usually think about Christ and crucifixion under sexual stress?

Special features

Cast Information5
Production Notes2
Related Movies3

I did not see this movie when it came out in 1980, but I had definitely heard of it. As I recall, it had quite a reputation. I think that in some ways, “Altered States” was the last gasp of the sixties/seventies drug movies. It is a fascinating movie of extremely questionable science investigating the religion of self.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
DirectorKen Russell
WriterPaddy Chayefsky
Movie Rating6
Transfer Quality6
Overall Rating5
  • Enhanced Widescreen
  • Pan and Scan
Altered States (Altered States): Altered States scene (Altered States)

The storyline of “Altered States” is a bit of a unique form of seventies pop psychology, almost a forerunner of later forms of New Age philosophies. Eddie Jessup, played by William Hurt, is experimenting with altered states of consciousness, using sensory deprivation tanks, and, later, psychedelic drugs. He begins to tap into an early state of consciousness with incredible results. The entire plotline is heavily dated, but it is saved by the writing, which is not overly wordy, and the acting, which is uniformly good. This was William Hurt’s first movie; he had been in one television show before this. He, as well as Blair Brown (most recently in Hamlet 2000), put in solid performances.

I love the sex scene where they start talking about religious experiences, both psychologically, physiologically, and personally, still naked and sweating. This is not your average porn flick, but they both have nice bodies.

The visual imagery is amazing, and amazingly well done. It is not technically great any more, mostly blue screen techniques, probably. But the illusions make sense within the story and they aren’t bad. If you’re willing to immerse yourself into the story, they’re very good. They beat the hell out of the psychedelic imagery in “Hair” only a year earlier, for example, and while they aren’t as technically brilliant as the imagery in “The Cell”, they do make more sense.

Altered States (Trust Chief): Altered States scene (Trust Chief)

Would you trust this man with mind-altering drugs?

A major theme in the movie is the “search for great truths”. Not what those truths are, but do these truths in fact exist? Is the search even worthwhile, or is it just a waste of life? Jessup has a wonderful discussion with his research partner about the trade-offs between personal relationships and doing Real Things such as his own Great Research. His wife, he says, is content with simply living the standard tenure track life with him because she is “in love” with him. “What she means is that she prefers the senseless pain that we inflict on each other over the pain that we would otherwise inflict on ourselves.”

And the scene where all the brilliant people are drunk and discussing their research is priceless. “Ever since we dispensed with god we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life. That first self is real. And I’m going to find the fucker.”

Altered States (Snake): Altered States scene (Snake)

Needs more salt.

But you do have to get past the science to enjoy this movie.

The DVD has only a few extras. The production notes, or “behind the scenes”, are extremely lame. Just a few text pages about how there is two thirds of the brain that scientists are still unsure of. Cast and Crew information is better, giving a short description of the actors’, writer’s, and director’s careers. Standard stuff. And there are the television and movie trailers.

There are also trailers from four related movies: Blade Runner, Contact, Outbreak, and Outland. None of them are, in my opinion, good trailers, and only of them was a movie I liked (although I never saw Outland). There are also a number of recommendations by director and actors.

I tentatively recommend purchasing this, especially if you can find it for $10 or less as I did at Target. It is a good movie with great acting, and it reflects its era in an interesting manner.

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

DirectorKen Russell
WriterPaddy Chayefsky
ActorWilliam Hurt
Spoken languagesEnglish, French
SubtitlesEnglish, French
Special FeaturesCast Information, Production Notes, Related Movies, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed Altered States…

For more about drug, you might also be interested in Animal House, Dazed and Confused, Detroit Rock City, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Heavy Metal, and Yellow Submarine.

For more about William Hurt, you might also be interested in Dark City.