Altered States ★★★★½

Leave it to Ken Russell to make a film that explores the heavy concepts of man's search for meaning that is both pretentious and whimsical. It is also a given that he would imbue it with some of the trippiest imagery since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It may also be one of his most linear film's, since it holds on to the story not letting it suffer at the expense of his visual style.
Jessup, a Harvard professor, is consumed with the thought of getting into touch with his earliest state of being, the beginning of time. In his quest he takes heavy hallucinatory drugs and submerges himself in a a sensory deprivation tank. When he comes to realize that his experiments are leading to a physical manifestation of his primitive self, he is excited, much to the chagrin of his colleagues and wife.
The movie is full of scientific double talk that makes little sense, but the performances convey them with a sense of urgency and passion that it comes off as believable. The mind trips he takes are some of Russell's best, with fields of lava, windswept forms, and disturbing religious themes. Only Russell has the sense of craziness to make this part of the story in a natural sense that it becomes an amazing experience.Even the most ridiculous moments, such as an ape man running loose, carry enough sense within this world that we cn buy it.
All of this would have been for naught if the performances didn't hold up. Hurt, in his first film role, is a powerhouse as Jessup, daring to go to places that are unexpected and embarrassing. He puts so much of himself into the role that you buy him totally as the narcissistic professor who has no time for his family or his own safety in his search. It is a great performance and heralded him as one of the best and most interesting actors of the 80's.
He is ably assisted by Brown, lovely and bold, Balaban, playing himself, and Haid, trying to hold on to rationality in the face of what he's witnessing. Without these three to anchor the film's arguments and to give the film a sense of reality it would have seemed like an incoherent mess.
The surprising thing about this film is that in the end the film is a love story about a man coming to realize what is important in his life. It is a touching revelation after all of the spectacle of the story's main plot and it is one that satisfies. Highly recommended.