Altered States in the (William) Hurt Locker

February 6, 2010

The problem of movies relying on visual effects is not only that it causes the movie to age rapidly, but that it becomes excessive, a crutch in place of story and acting. After all, productions don’t have infinite budgets. A dollar invested in the effects is a dollar not invested in the script. This is the problem with Avatar. The first ninety minutes are disorienting and immersive: we are being guided into Pandora in much the same way as Jake Sully. He becomes our Avatar for new experiences and new possibilities, for a new type of filmmaking.

And then the movie gets conventional and boring. Our eyes adjust to Pandora and we watch Sam Worthington strain to act under the motion capture suit before the plot devolves into a series of large, predictable, action sequences. Perhaps they’re filmed better than most, but that’s hardly the exciting, new world we were promised.

This is an even bigger problem in Altered States (1980). I’m now officially at risk of turning this into a William Hurt blog, but it’s worth mentioning his film debut. There are some truly unshakable parts in this movie, but the director, Ken Russel, overwhelms the story through his excessively psychedelic visuals.

The plot of the movie is both strong and weak: a scientist doing research on schizophrenics as a window on different understandings of consciousness becomes interested in sensory deprivation as a way of understanding the mystical experience. So far so good; there are some logical jumps here, but nothing too far out.

This part of the movie is grounded in the world of the scientists and the physical world is terrific. The set design is quietly terrifying: there’s nothing that’s too strange and out of place, but it’s discomfiting. The sensory deprivation chamber looks horrifying at the same time as it’s completely mundane. Everything is grimy. William Hurt, speaking to us from his chamber, does some great voice acting.

Then it gets ridiculous. He seeks out other forms of consciousness altering materials, participating in a Native American vision ritual only to be kicked out for becoming violent–but, it’s ok since they give him some of their potion and he’s able to take it back with him for more experimentation. Experimenting on himself, he ultimately devolves into an apeman (!) before [spoiler alert] a later experience takes him to the foundational moments of human consciousness. You can’t make this up.

The whole time, even during the strong beginning, Russel inserts psychedelic sequences into the movie that capture the mystical visions of William Hurt. These add nothing. Maybe they added something when they were cutting edge, but now they add nothing.  There’s nothing original about the imagery, it’s Christological material, filled with hellfire and Apelike savagery, and repetitive.

These overwhelm the movie in the second half. It becomes devoted to visualizing the pseudo-scientific ideas rather than the animated discussions of science. We leave the interesting physical world and descend completely into the cinematic moment.

Altered States really feels like it could have been a great play about the meanings of consciousness. And then someone threw in something about an ape and 2001 derivative visuals.

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