On its surface, the sci-fi/horror film Altered States from gonzo British filmmaker Ken Russell (personal fave The Lair of the White Worm), is merely a weirder take on the mad scientist tale. But it scares the shit out of me.
Genius scientist Edward Jessup (William Hurt) experiments with hallucinogenic drugs in sensory deprivation tanks, hoping to unlock another state of consciousness. After all, there are six million year old atoms stored in our brain, memories of antiquity, waiting to be unlocked. Millions of years of evolutionary memory, the blueprint to life, those goddamn answers we feel cheated out of — just out of reach. If only…
Icarus Jessup, of course, believes He can reach these truths like no man before him. Man being the operative word. William Hurt has made a career out of watering his arrogance and feeding his ego and Jessup becomes Hurt’s primal playground.
Unlike, say, Doctor Frankenstein, Jessup uses himself as the test subject. He’s not subjecting anyone else to his flights of fancy. But, in classic White Guy fashion, Jessup thinks this is heroic. Allow me to sketch in the situation further: he’s married to a woman that adores him (“Fringe” hero Blair Brown) and has an adorable child played by none other than Drew Barrymore in her first film role. Jessup forgets that his actions, everyone’s actions, affect other people. He’s not heroic, he’s selfish.
But by God, he must cross this frontier, he must achieve the Ultimate. Jessup pushes forward beyond reason — always reaching, always striving toward advancement, blindly, forcefully. Man always wants more because life as it is is never enough. Man must test boundaries, must break them.
Men seek alternate states because we’re unhappy with our current one. I know this from experience. I’ve been unhappy and dissatisfied with myself for much of my life — I have to be better. This has to mean something. There must be more to life than this, all the while ignoring the wonder of everyday life all around me at all times.
Jessup, of course, pays the price, learns the lesson: blind striving just leads us back to primitivity.
How many times must we learn that there is no final truth before we kill ourselves and the world? What makes Altered States so scary is that I recognize Jessup in me. Rather than listen, I want to problem solve. Even now, I have the desire to go into that tank, to push the limits of my consciousness and see what’s beyond.
Then I remember. Then I look beside me and see my partner working tirelessly at the dinner table to educate children. I see my dozing cat, at peace. The only answer that matters is love.