Based on a novel and a disowned script by the late Paddy Chayefsky, Russell’s noisily grandiose swipe at psychedelia embellishes what is no more than the cosily familiar story of the obsessive Scientist Who Goes Too Far and Unwittingly Unleashes, etc. Harvard clever-dick (played with almost unconvincing solemnity by Hurt) blows his sensory deprivation experiments (with a little help from his friends and hallucinogenic drugs), and starts to regress – spectacularly – until he looks in serious danger of being sucked down the cosmic lavatory pan into the big zilch.
By Roger Ebert / January 1, 1980
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.
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