Altered States Blu-ray ReviewAugust 19, 2012
Altered States remains an absolute mind-chigger of a movie.
You won't necessarily be fully cognizant of your surroundings immediately after watching it. It's one you'll puzzle over for a few days before you can really boil down what it was saying and what it meant. And even then you only know for sure what it was saying to you and what it MEANT to you.
And in that respect, it's a brilliant piece of art. To call it a brilliant piece of filmmaking would be a bit - hell, a bit more than a bit - of a stretch, but it gets you thinking, and in the end that's what all art should do.
Altered States tells the story of Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt in his first film role), a behavioral scientist who believes that humanity shares a collective consciousness as well as memories dating back to the earliest forms of cognizant life. He tests this theory through the use of mind-altering hallucinogens as well as sensory-deprivation sessions and finds himself both physically and mentally moving back-and-forth throughout the evolutionary chain.
And with that, I can't summarize the plot much more succinctly, nor would I want to in the event that there are folks out there who haven't seen the film. Suffice it to say, the movie is much deeper than that, but to give much more than the gist removes the audience from the most fun aspect of the movie: Thinking about it.
Altered States is not by any stretch of the imagination a great science fiction film, nor is it among even the top 15 mind-teasers ever committed to celluloid. But the notion of a mainstream American movie that encourages its audience to think is too great to risk showing too many of its cards in a Blu-ray review.
The performances are great across the board, particularly from Hurt and Blair Brown, who plays his wife, Emily, who discovers that Eddie's work of delving into the human condition trumps his willingness to interact with it. The role doesn't call for much more than the ability to convey longing and pain, and yet she brings so much more to the table. There's an earnestness to her performance that is rich and palpable, and it makes me sad that she wasn't able to make more of a name for herself in Hollywood.
As for Hurt himself, he carries himself and the film very well, and despite the character's best efforts to deny it, Hurt injects a certain humanity to Eddie. There's an arc for this character that's well-defined by the script but brought to life by the actor, a true testament to a good performance.
The most powerful performance in the movie, though, comes from Charles Haid as Dr. Mason Parrish, a colleague of Eddie's who essentially serves as a point-of-view character for the audience. He is initially skeptical of Jessup's theories (as are we - after all, the notion of collective consciousness isn't exactly something that ranks up there with the belief in angels or, y'know, gravity, in the public's mind), but through his continual interaction with our characters, he expands his horizons, as do we.
And, indeed, the notion of expansion of the mind is key to screenwriter Paddy Cheyefsky's screenplay. Cheyefsky is the man behind the brilliant film Network, and despite his well-publicized disowning of the movie (director Ken Russell claims that he was the last in a long series of directors attached to the film, owing greatly to Cheyefsky's dissatisfaction with previous choices) he provides us with a script that challenges us to take a second look at our perception of ourselves and our species.
Russell himself does a fine job at the helm of this picture. With a film that teeters on the edge of post-modernism and asks metaphysical questions of its audience, it would be easy for a filmmaker to either jettison the minutiae and technicality that is essential to bring the intended story to life or to overplay it to the point that the audience is over-inundated with more questions than it can handle.
Rather, Russell, while never being patronizing or betraying the subtleties of the story, takes our hand and guides us through it. It's complex, but there's never a moment where a layman couldn't have a firm grasp on where they are. It's a relatable film about virtually unrelatable subject matter, and that in and of itself is a feat to be proud of.
Altered States isn't without its problems, though. Hurt is clearly going through the "first-film" blues, and while he carries the role well and serves as a great protagonist, it's clear that he isn't entirely comfortable in front of the camera quite yet.
And while a film centered around ideas that are practically unquantifiable requires a certain amount of hand-holding, as I praised earlier, Cheyefsky's script goes too far in some places - the exposition begins to run away with the movie in some scenes and starts to play like a late-in-its-run episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
As I've mentioned more than a few times, though, this film asks a lot of its audience and it's understandable that the studio and the filmmakers would want to make sure we understand as much of it as possible, even if that does mean we aren't forced to answer some questions for ourselves.
During the pitch phase of a movie, writers and directors are often forced to tell studios what movie their proposed film most resembles. "It's Office Space meets Barbarella." That kind of thing.
If I were to guess, the hook line for this film was probably something to the effect of, "It's 2001: A Space Odyssey for dummies."
But by no means is that description a pejorative one. I can't in my mind chastise a film for bringing answering too many of the deep questions that it poses. Indeed, so few films even bother to pose such questions that I hesitate to chastise it at all.
In the end, this is a flawed film with the best of intentions. And when you consider that most films have no intentions beyond getting you to sit still for 90 minutes, that has to count for something.
Warner Bros. brings Altered States to Blu-ray with a beautifully-rendered MPEG-4 AVC encode. It's not the most colorful film you'll find on the Blu-ray market. Indeed, director of photography Jordan Cronenweth deals with an incredibly dark palate. Many key scenes take place at night or in dark, dimly-lit areas where much of the set falls off into blackness.
The video presentation handles this wonderfully, keeping that hidden which needs to be hidden and only getting in our faces when the film requires it to. Again, this is a movie about subtlety and nuance. It doesn't lend well to the conventional hook of Blu-ray ("See more than you've ever seen before!" and the like), but it does what the format should do: It highlights what's there, thereby allowing an immersive experience.
The audio is also very well done, taking advantage of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Almost all of the big "event" moments are served well by the sound treatment here, and aside from scenes (and there are many) where multiple characters are shouting at each other simultaneously, dialogue is extremely crisp.
Beyond the Feature
The only bonus feature is the theatrical trailer, presented here in standard definition. The trailer runs a little over a minute.
Altered States is a really good film, but it's not a great one. Nor does it aspire to be.
It's clear that all parties involved in Altered States wanted nothing more than to pose some interesting questions and to get people thinking. And even though they tried too hard to help us answer questions better left for us to ponder ourselves, that must be appreciated.
Just because it answers all the questions it poses doesn't mean that we, the audience, can't pose some of our own.
And isn't that what art's supposed to be about in the first place?
- Jason Jarman
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