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Cinema Review: Altered States

Michael Cox reviews Matchbox Cineclub's recent screening, part of this year's Glasgow Film Festival.

36 years after its release, Altered States has managed to both age well and be a preposterous memento from its era. The story is a bit scatterbrained—a scientist uses hallucinatory drugs in order to experiment with genetic mutation.

Or so it seems. In truth, the narrative is unclear. Dialogue is at times garbled, and plot leaps and discoveries are skated over many times in favour of images.

Director Ken Russell isn't after a clear plot line here; he is instead making excuses to play in a special effects toy box—and it is here that the film stands out, for the film’s drug-induced trips still hold remarkably well. Colours dance, images swirl and symbolic messages are milked for worth.

The film also benefits from impressive performances throughout, particularly with its two leads William Hurt and Blair Brown. Hurt made his cinematic debut here, and his stellar career is easy to see before him in his performance. What might have been a clichéd mad-scientist is given heart and depth with a splash of quirkiness. Brown is equally great, taking what could have been a shallow ‘concerned wife’ trope and gives her character edge and grit. And more impressively, they make for a couple easy to sympathise with.

For this screening by Matchbox Cineclub, the experience was made rather special. Preceding the screening were several short films, including an old US Air Force short on health and safety and an advert about the dangers of drug addiction: all adding both context to the film and a cheeky wink at the audacity of the film’s themes.

The main attraction of the screening is the use of Immers-O-Sound, which incorporates the use of low frequency within the sound design. What this achieves is an effect similar to what one would get in an amusement park with vibrating seats, which does add some fun ‘oomph’ to the special effect-heavy scene.

Altered States may not be a brilliant film, but it is still fun and worth a look. However, Matchbox Cineclub’s full presentation made the experience more than worthwhile. For those who insist on star ratings: the film itself is three stars but Matchbox Cineclub’s screening was a solid four.

Tags: events cinema

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