The screenplay of Altered States is credited to Sidney Aaron, a pseudonym for Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the script based on his own novel but asked that his name be removed from the final product. Janet Maslin had an interesting theory about this: “It’s easy to guess why (Chayefsky) and Mr. Russell didn’t see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.”
This was the first movie for both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore, who was 5 at the time and appears very briefly as one of the Jessup kids. A young John Larroquette has one scene as an X-ray technician. And Hurt’s right-hand man is played by the great Bob Balaban, veteran of everything from Midnight Cowboy to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but perhaps best known as the NBC executive on Seinfeld whose love for Elaine causes him to lose his mind and eventually his life.
An isolation tank also appears in the tragically underrated Simon, where Alan Arkin plays a philosophy professor who’s tricked into believing he’s from another planet. IMDB calls Simon‘s tank scene a “parody” of Altered States, but seeing as both movies were released in 1980 and Altered States came out on Christmas, I don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you’d like to judge for yourself? Unfortunately, Simon remains out of print. To the YouTube!