Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Altered States


The script is by “Sidney Aaron,” from the only novel Paddy Chayefsky ever wrote. But it’s all really Paddy, whose real given name was Sidney Aaron Chayefsky. He quickly got into a dispute with madman director Ken Russell, feeling that Russell was having the actors speak his words too quickly. Maybe he was concerned that a lot of the words, having seldom been used in a motion picture, would fly right over the heads of the audience. The vocabulary used is in fact stunning, with terms from philosophy, science, medicine, and anywhere else Paddy could find them. I find it all exhilarating, and if I don’t know one, I can always refer to the dictionary. I think Paddy was wrong, and according to Russell, only minimal changes were made in the dialogue. I believe him. Many of the scenes could only have been written by Paddy Chayefsky.

The ideas explored are stunning, too. It was all inspired by the work of John Lilly in the ‘50s and 60’s. He studied dolphin intelligence, so I read his works in preparation for my first, unpublished (I’m glad to say) novel, which laid the foundations (badly) for my Eight World series, where aliens from a gas giant planet wipe out humanity on Earth because we were making life impossible for the only intelligent Terran life forms, dolphins and whales.

He also was deeply into psychedelic drugs, was friends with Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, as well as all the other psychic and philosophical pioneer experimenters of that era. He more or less invented the isolation tank, a box filled with a solution of epsom salt and water at body temperature, allowing the user to float effortlessly in total darkness, feeling, seeing, and hearing nothing. Different people reacted in different ways, but most reported a feeling of profound peace. They are still used today by some in therapy.

In this story William Hurt (in his first film role!) is a professor who partakes of a mysterious plant in Mexico, and uses it in the tank. What happens next is mind-blowing. He regresses genetically, ultimately becoming a hominid set loose in the terrifying streets of Boston, killing and eating a gazelle at the zoo. This is amazingly well done. Miguel Godreau, who played the ape man, is totally convincing loping around in the night. He soon finds he’s not really in control of this stuff. He begins to change when not in the tank …

The dream/trip sequences were pretty amazing for that time, and are still quite powerful and disturbing. Most of it was done in camera, using a variety of techniques, some of which can be seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the end there is a scene with a very early and primitive use of CGI.

But the whole thing comes to a very unsatisfactory end. The things that happen clearly indicate that there is a vast source of power that can be tapped by the human mind. During his last trip, the energies released virtually destroy the tank and the room that contains it. But Hurt seems only concerned with the basic question he seeks to answer, which can be summed up as “What’s it all about, William?” And the answer he gets is … nothing. It’s all meaningless. We live, we die, and it meant nothing

Now, I happen to believe that this is the likeliest explanation for our existence, and I find it to be as depressing as every other atheist does. And I don’t know what other ending could have worked, either. Angels, harps, Pearly Gates? Not for me. I am forced to the conclusion that maybe the question is too big for an entertainment, that maybe the story never should have asked it. But that’s not very satisfactory, either. It’s a conundrum. I can’t very well take Chayefsky and Russell to task for asking tough questions, it’s not really right, and maybe it’s cowardly of me … and yet I just did, didn’t I? Possibly it is because I, myself, once took a trip on some very bad acid, and I came to the same bleak conclusion. I have not touched a psychedelic since that day, almost fifty years ago. I don’t want to know.

Coincidentally, the excellent production design was by my friend, now deceased, Richard Macdonald. It was the second film in a row we watched that was designed by him. (See my review of The Romantic Englishwoman.) He was a genius, and worked on many, many other well-known films.