"If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Christmas, 1980. I was 14, and my young brain was still reeling from the jarring one-two cinematic punch packed by The Shining and Friday the 13th earlier that same year. When I first saw the trailer for Altered States, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I hadn’t a clue about director Ken Russell or his previous work, nor had I read the original novel, penned by Paddy Chayefsky (Network).
At the time, I was a budding cinephile deeply obsessed with the work of visual effects artists like Carlo Rambaldi (Alien), Tom Savini (Friday the 13th) and Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and all I knew was that it looked like a film quite unlike anything I’d ever seen. What’s that weird helmet on that guy’s head, and why is he floating in that tank? What’s happening to his arm, and what kind of creature is he turning into?
The long and short of it was that it looked like a movie about a mad scientist that turns into some kind of a monster with some very cool special effects, and that was enough for me, as I have always been fascinated/horrified by grotesque, Kafkaesque depictions of human transformation.
Unlike Friday the 13th and The Shining, I really don’t remember the first time I saw Altered States on the big screen. I know I wasn’t exactly blown away by it, but it’s safe to say that most of the film went way over my head. It’s only been through repeated viewings in the years since that the film has taken on a much deeper significance for me.
"I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? We’re all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life." – Dr. Edward Jessup
Even though my Catholic faith was still largely intact at the time, William Hurt’s film debut as Edward Jessup struck a chord deep within me, as I was just beginning to question the religious ideas I’d been brought up to believe were absolute and immutable. And as that faith crumbled away in the years that followed, all that remained was chaos, and the deafening silence of the Abyss. Like Eddie Jessup, I was driven into a wasteland of my own making, and became obsessed with trying to make sense of a world without God.
And while I never took ayahuasca in an isolation tank while trying to tap into our evolutionary past, in a similar fashion, my ceaseless attempts to unravel the Gordian Knot of human existence have, at various times, resulted in a crippling bouts of isolation and existential peril every bit as real as Jessup’s.
For the longest time, I thought Altered States was just a uniquely warped take on the classic Promethean theme of the tortured scientist who bites off more than he can chew and suffers the grim consequences of his hubristic obsessions, but I’ve realized that the beating heart of the story is really about the redemptive power of love, and simple human connection.
And living in an age where wireless technology now allows each of us to walk around in virtual isolation tanks of our own design, obsessed with endless abstractions, estranged from one another and even ourselves, the message of love’s power to save us from our most destructive impulses is as timely as ever.
-Dave Paiz, Facilities Manager