A response to the 1980 sci-fi film Altered States as it relates to the existential question of life’s meaning.
Altered States follows the journey of Edward Jessup, a psychopathologist who is in search of deeper truth about other states of consciousness that he believes is just as real as our waking ones. At first glance, this movie was not one that I thought I would enjoy, however it posed some interesting questions that made me think about what could happen if one rejects the moral and religious boundaries in pursuit of scientific truth.
One of the themes that stood out to me while watching this film was the idea of isolation, both in a literal and metaphorical capacity. We see Eddie experimenting with sensory deprivation using a floatation tank, and throughout his journey of exploration and even experiencing the physical and psychological transformations, he is consistently on his own. While he has other researchers present to help him, none of them are as involved or invested in the cause as he is, and towards the end, they turn against him and beg him to halt his research after seeing the dangers and negative consequences of the experiment. Eddie is shown to be full of unbridled egotism, narcissism, and is incapable of forming meaningful relationships. His solitary confinement within the tank can be considered to be a metaphor of solipsism- the theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. Another example of Eddie demonstrating solipsism is when he says, “it is the individual mind that contains immortality and truth”. He makes his belief clear that the evolutionary truth exists within the human DNA and that he needs no one but himself to uncover the truth.
Eddie mentions at the beginning of the film that his father’s death was a traumatic experience for him, so I view Eddie as an isolated figure long before he started working on his experiment and withdrawing from the world as a result of being absorbed within his pursuit of the truth. His father’s death also symbolizes the “death of God”, the isolation from religion following a crisis in faith, and as a result, turning towards science. The film also shows powerful religious imagery that portrays the death of God and religion in Eddie’s life, such as the multi-eyed beast-headed Christ figure that is floating mid-air on a crucifix in the clouds. In Eddie’s case, I believe the death of God is liberating for him in a way, because while the main motivation of following religion in the Abrahamic faith is because of the promise of eternal bliss (i.e. heaven), the philosopher Nietzsche argues that truth is what is eternal, and that is exactly what Eddie is on the search for.
By releasing himself from the shackles and boundaries of religion and morality, he has transcended the finiteness of human beings by attempting to access a different version of eternity. However, “worshipping” the pursuit of alternative consciousness and replacing God with himself as demonstrated by his egotism and solipsism is eventually what leads Eddie to be swallowed up by the abyss of self.
I found that Eddie’s perception of the meaning of life at the start of the film resembled that of Schopenhauer’s pessimism- he mentioned that “all our suffering was just more suffering”. However, as time went on and he dedicated his life to discovering the ground of consciousness, he had finally found a way to channel his suffering into what can be identified as Eddie’s “purpose in life”. I think that having purpose is one of the fundamental keys to happiness. You can have all the money, fame, or power in the world, but if you don’t have a purpose in life then all of those things are meaningless. As a result of Eddie having found this newfound purpose of finding the truth, I thought his character was on the way to finding conventional happiness. Instead, as Eddie became more and more exhilarated as his research developed, he was also placing a great amount of emphasis on finding happiness in this alternate consciousness that he believed existed. It was almost as if this pursuit for truth became an addiction, and just as an addiction to alcohol or drugs can lead to detrimental effects on one’s health and relationships, the same can be seen with Eddie’s intoxication towards his passion. Nothing in the human condition was real to him anymore, and instead, he found love in the pursuit of truth. That is why I believe he was not capable of reciprocating the love that Emily had for him, and I found Eddie and Emily’s love story to be one of unrequited love despite them being together. In the end, Eddie does end up finding out the truth, but it is not the one he is looking for. As he puts it, “the final truth of all things is that there is no final truth. Truth is what’s transitory, it’s human life that is real”. At this moment, I believe Eddie has found not only the truth but also acceptance of his reality.
In conclusion, I think Altered States is an extremely thought-provoking film that brought up a lot of intriguing concepts, such as solipsism, the pursuit of truth in the meaning of life, the death of God, and crossing the boundaries of morality. Eddie starts as an isolated individual seeking alternate realities of human consciousness as a means of finding purpose in life and ends up realizing that human life is not transitory. At last, he finds the remedy of his isolation through his wife and children, who had been there all along.