A strange sci-fi film directed by the late, great Ken Russell (as if he could direct any other kind of sci-fi film), 1980's Altered States is somewhat famous for being the feature film debut of William Hurt (and technically the feature film debut of a very young Drew Barrymore as well) but even when you take that interesting bit of trivia out of the equation it's a movie that, by the standards of any era, holds up quite well despite some obvious flaws here and there. Those familiar with Russell's output know that sometime his films are just as interesting for what they're not as for what they are and this one is a good example of that ringing true.
Hurt plays Professor Eddie Jessup, a Harvard scientist who is bound and determined to figure out the meaning of existence by taking hallucinogenic drugs and locking himself in a sensory deprivation chamber. When he finds out that other people who have taken the same drug he's been experimenting with and experiencing similar visions, he starts to think he may have hit on something and he decides to go further with his experiments in hopes that he can figure it all out. It doesn't take long before this starts to put stress on his relationship with his wife (Blair Brown) and his fellow academic types - and soon he goes too far with his trial and error testing and soon regresses into something far less human...
Oscar nominated for Best Score and Best Sound, Altered States is an interesting experience in melding a fairly simple sci-fi influenced story with some bizarre but effective surrealism. As Ken Russell is apt to do with much of his work, he prefers not the subtlety of many of his peers but the bombardment of sound and vision, hurtling one image after another at the audience in fairly rapid succession. Even when Jessup isn't on a mind altering substance the film still dabbles in the strange, case in point the scene where he heads to Mexico to meet with tribesman there, but it is the hallucinogenic scenes that will stick with you long after this one is over.
The effects, all done long before there was such a thing as CGI, hold up well given their age and the movie is quite stunning on a visual level, but there's more here than just a lot of odd albeit pretty pictures. Hurt proves himself in this, his first starring role, as quite a capable leading man and it's easy to see why his work here quickly earned him starring roles throughout the eighties and nineties. He's believable, he's likeable, and he's got an unusual intelligence to the part he plays here that makes him a good fit for the role. Blair Brown is also quite good and while we know very early on that her relationship with Hurt's Jessup isn't going to last, they do share good chemistry in their shared moments of passion.
As good and frequently great as Altered States is, however, it ends far too abruptly to qualify as a masterpiece. Russell's glorious stamp is all over the picture as it plays out but when it comes time to wrap things up, it all screeches to a halt where you might want it to glide. Otherwise, however, this is an impressive movie in pretty much every way you'd want a movie to impress - it's thematically unique, it's well acted, it's almost impeccably directed and it's a feast for the eyes, the ears and the mind.
Altered States looks very good on Blu-ray by way of Warner Brothers' AVC encoded 1080p high definition 1.78.1 widescreen transfer. Though the transfer might appear to be a little on the dark side, it's always looked that way (refer to your old DVD as a reference point if you so choose) and details doesn't really suffer for it. Shadows are right and deep but don't crush or muddy up objects in the forefront of the frame. Skin tones look lifelike and natural while color reproduction looks spot on. A lot is done with color in this film, as with most of Russell's films, and this transfer handles the flat and intentionally dull looking scenes just as well as it does the more vibrant and fantastic scenes. There are also a few scenes in the movie that are lit in such a way as to make them look intentionally hot, so keep that in mind when you see a few shots where the whites are fairly scorching in their intensity and remember that it's all part of the late director's aesthetic. Contrast levels look good here, there are no issues with compression artifacts nor is there any obvious edge enhancement on display. The image is appropriately grainy but never to detrimental levels and there's no evidence of any noise reduction here. Some in camera filters result in a few shots looking soft, but again, this is intentional - all in all, the picture quality on this disc is very strong.
Audio options are handled well by an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, though an alternate Spanish language option is provided in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional subtitles are offered up in English SDH, French and Spanish. While some might lament the absence of a lossless 2.0 option, the 5.1 mix is good, particularly when the low end is given a chance to spread through the mix with some impressive and strong bass. The score and the sound effects are both reproduced really well here, sometimes very distinctly and other times intertwined with one another to interesting effect. Dialogue stays clean and clear throughout and there are no issues with the levels or with any audible hiss or distortion. There are no problems to report here, the movie sounds very good.
Extras? Unfortunately we only get a standard definition trailer for the feature, some menus and chapter selection.
Altered States show Ken Russell near the top of his game, directing a truly interesting and memorable film and coaxing some great performances out of a fairly bold cast. Like most of Russell's films, it's not one for all tastes but those who welcome the director's penchant for mixing melodrama, surrealism and the bizarre will certainly appreciate his efforts here. It's a shame that Warner Brothers couldn't bother to come up with any extras for this release, but the transfer and the audio are both top notch and this release comes recommended for those reasons.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.