William Hurt made his film debut in this sci-fi/horror flick – unquestionably one of the trippiest movies ever released by a Hollywood studio – playing Dr Eddie Jessup, a college psychology professor who conducts experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and a sensory deprivation tank full of lukewarm water in order to tap into the existence of early man.
At first, he sees sex as a mystical experience, then imagines himself crucified on a cross, then emerges in a state of rapture.
Years later, in Boston, he’s married to a fellow student, Emily (Blair Brown) and is the father of two kids (one of them is Drew Barrymore in her movie debut).
Jessup is still crazy and, between teaching classes at Harvard Medical School, he’s still determined to follow in the footsteps of such early experimenters with drugs as Timothy Leary, Aldus Huxley, and “psychonaut” Dr John Lilly to see just how far a man can go in altered states of consciousness to bridge the gap between genetic chemistry and total madness.
Dr Jessup, sacrifices his marriage, his children, and almost his own sanity by eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, regressing in the water tank to a simian state, then to that of an anthropoid, and then to that of a caveman.
In the last transfer, he reverts to the womb and achieves an embryonic state that unravels the clues to evolution – and he almost loses his life in the process.
Based on the one and only novel by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by the usually uncontrollable Ken Russell, this is one of Russell’s best films – ambitious, frightening, visually exciting, and absorbing without overreaching or overstating. Rusell found the perfect formula for blending all the right elements of drama, fantasy, science fiction, melodrama, and horror in a single film.
A few years later, the music video for Take On Me by A-ha ripped off the final scene of this film.
Charles White Eagle