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Altered States (1980)

Do you remember seeing a film that is so bad that is indeed pretty good?

Altered States in one word, is weird. It has been a few days since I watched it, and I still haven’t decided if I liked it or not. I kind of enjoyed it but also felt like “what the hell is happening” at the same time. So, I don’t know.

The film is about a Harvard scientist who conducts experiments on himself that causes him to regress genetically. I know, it sounded fun to me too. But there are just some stuff that don’t add up.

Our mad scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup literally regresses to a primate-like being both physically and mentally. But not forever, it somewhat becomes a battle between the self and the primal man. During those episodes, he isn’t thinking as himself. His only concern becomes to survive the night. Eat, drink, sleep. “The most satisfying night of my life,” he says.

There is a longing to prelapsarian innocence. Prelapsarian refers to the era before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. While the scientist is stuck with the idea of one’s true self, his experiment doesn’t bring him to a point that satisfies his curiosity. Here is a quote from the novel the film was based on:

“I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? Everybody’s looking for his true self. We’re all trying to fulfil ourselves, understand ourselves, get a hold on ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we’ve dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but ourselves.”

Even though the altered states of consciousness and the experience of the primary self sound amazing, it didn’t speak to me in that way.

Everything aside, the depiction of women in this film is highly problematic. Jessup has two daughters whom we almost never see. He sleeps with one of his students and she couldn’t be more disconnected from what’s happening in the same room as her. The character of the wife is the most disturbing one.

She suffocates our hero, who married her because he basically didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Because poor him, he is incapable of love and affection. Still, this woman has magically fallen in love with him and cannot remove herself from him. She is caring, worrying, terrified. Whenever someting comes up, she asks what the “men” think. She isn’t grasping anything even though she is also a scientist. At one point, she is literally removed from the action when one of the men just grab her and put her out of the room. I am not okay with her being so weak and need men’s acclamation, protection, and love. Ugh.

There is one thing that I loved, though. The visual effects in the magic mushroom scenes! During this Toltec ritual, Jessup is tripping on mushrooms and he experiences some weird sexual, religious, existential stuff. The effects are my favorite parts of the film. To the modern viewer, they may seem like a child’s collage project. However, they are so well edited and so bizarre that I think the director couldn’t possibly end up with a better scene using CGIs. 

I feel like by the end of the film, the filmmaker was as confused as me, so wanted to end in a positive tone after showing off with some more of the special effects. It gets so weird by the end, I can’t find the words to explain. I don’t want to say what happens in the last scene and spoil it for you, but believe me when I say it just gets more confusing. Nobody knows what’s happening. But it is fun.

Now that I wrote some more on it, the film grew into me. I like that it is some weird shit. I would absolutely love it if you give it a go and comment your thoughts below!

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