Altered States  

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Altered States is a 1980 science fiction film adaptation of a novel by the same name by playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. It was the only novel that Chayefsky ever wrote as well as his final film. Both the novel and the film are based on John C. Lilly's sensory deprivation research conducted in isolation tanks under the influence of psychoactive drugs like LSD.

The film was directed by Ken Russell and starred William Hurt in his screen debut. It also starred Blair Brown (as Emily Jessup), Charles Haid and Bob Balaban. It additionally featured the film debut of Drew Barrymore. The film score was composed by classical composer John Corigliano (with Christopher Keene conducting) and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received an Oscar nomination for Sound, losing to The Empire Strikes Back.


Edward Jessup, a Columbia University psychopathologist, is studying schizophrenia, and begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." He begins experimenting with sensory deprivation using a flotation tank, aided by two like-minded researchers, Arthur Rosenberg and Mason Parrish. At a faculty party, he meets fellow "whiz kid," and his future wife, Emily.

Seven years later, Edward and Emily have two daughters, are on the brink of divorce, and reunite with the couple who first introduced them. When Edward hears of the Hinchi tribe whose members experience shared hallucinatory states, he travels to Mexico to participate in their ceremony. During the climb up into the Hinchi hill country (a plateau covered in spectacular mushroom-shaped ventifacts) Edward is told by his guide, Eduardo Echeverria, that the Hinchi use in their ceremonies a potion containing the sacred mushroom Amanita muscaria and the shrub Sinicuiche (Heimia salicifolia), which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. The tribe calls Heimia salicifolia by a Hinchi name meaning "first/primordial flower" in recognition of the deep memory states which it can evoke. An indigenous elder ("the brujo") is seen with a root (presumably intended to be a Heimia root) in his hand, which he asks Edward to hold, before cutting it in order to add some drops of blood to the mixture he is preparing. Immediately after consuming the mixture, Edward experiences bizarre, intense hallucinations, including one of the petrifaction and subsequent erosion by blown sand of Emily and himself. The following morning, Edward leaves the Hinchi plateau under a cloud, having killed, while in his intoxicated state, a large specimen of the Hinchi's sacred monitor lizard (which a petroglyph shown in the dream sequence shows that they believe to have given them the sacred mushroom in the mythic past). He returns to the U.S. with a sample of the Hinchi potion for analysis by his colleagues and further self-experimentation, and continues taking it in order to take his exploration of altered states of consciousness to a new and higher level.

When toxic concentrations of the substance make increased dosage dangerous, Edward returns to sensory deprivation, believing it will enhance the effects of the substance at his current dose. Repairing a disused tank in a medical school, Edward uses it to experience a series of increasingly drastic visions, including one of early Hominidae. Monitored by his colleagues, Edward insists that his visions have "externalized". Emerging from the tank, his mouth bloody, frantically writing notes because he is unable to speak, Edward insists on being X-rayed before he "reconstitutes." A radiologist inspecting the X-rays says they belong to a gorilla.

In later experiments, Edward experiences actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned caveman, going on a rampage through some streets in town before returning to his natural form. Despite his colleagues' concern, Edward stubbornly continues. In the final experiment, Edward experiences a more profound regression, transforming into an amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. An energy wave released from the experiment stuns Edward's colleagues and destroys his tank. Emily arrives to find a swirling maelstrom where the tank had been. She searches into the vortex for Edward, finding him as he is on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.

His friends bring Edward home, hoping that the transformations will end. Watched over by Emily, Edward begins to uncontrollably regress again, the transformations no longer requiring the intake of "first flower" or sensory deprivation. Urging Edward to fight the change, Emily grabs his hand, immediately being enveloped by the primordial energy emanating from Edward. The sight of Emily apparently being consumed by the energy stirs the human consciousness in Edward's devolving form. He fights the transformation and returns to his human form. Edward embraces Emily, as she returns to normal.

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