I’ve recently dived into doing ”best of’ lists, so as I’ve explained, I’ve decided to do my top 20 SF films. This is my personal list, so feel free to disagree with it and of course, you’ll be horribly wrong.
At #14, it’s Ken Russell’s utterly brilliantly mad, Altered States.
This was Russell’s first American film and any fears that he’d tone things down for a more mainstream audience goes out the window after around 15 minutes or so of the film when yes indeed, old Ken wheels out some fantastic images, but I get ahead of myself.
Altered States tells the story of a scientist Edward Jessup (William Hurt) researching mental illness who develops the theory that other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states, so he and two colleagues (played by Bob Babalan and Charles Haid) experiment with sensory deprivation tanks to develop Jessup’s other states. At the same time as this Jessup meets a brilliant young girl called Emily (Blair Brown), and shortly afterwards they marry.
The rest of the film involves Hurt and Brown’s characters shagging, or Hurt tripping, or devolving into more primitive life or becoming new life, and shagging, and there’s lots and lots of nudity, bizarre images, wonderful scenes of Hurt’s hallucinations not to mention long discussions about humanity, love, evolution, shagging and religion. It is almost the perfect Ken Russell film.
All joking aside, it is a perfect Ken Russell film, as well as being a wonderful example of the sort of intellectual science fiction cinema doesn’t get enough of in the 21st century. It does involve you having to pay attention for much of it’s running time, or you can just drop a few tabs of acid and watch some extraordinary hallucinations that Russell sticks on screen. However you watch it, Altered States is a remarkable film as at the heart of it is the relationship between Hurt and Brown’s characters which grounds the film as it dives headfirst into the fantastical and the philosophical. It’s a film that you take from it as you will.
This is also the film that heavily inspired A-Ha’s video for Take On Me, but you’ll have to watch the film to see what I mean…
Next time, watch the skies!