Altered Perceptions opens with an aerial image of the Statue of Liberty – that symbol of American freedom and openness to others – at night. To the right is scrolling text that reads “THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION” (sometimes written forwards, but mostly in reverse via mirror writing). As though to validate that message, to the right is a rapidly rising count up of the number of “fatalities due to the virus”, except that the number is soon about ten times higher than the total population of the world in 2023 (when most of the film is set). Sure enough, there is a prologue set “maybe two years” from now in a post-apocalytpic future, where Alex Feretti (Oran Stainbrook) walks alone and forlorn in a forest reflecting grimly in voiceover on his new status as a rare survivor. Now even his name has been changed to a number to mark the sudden, total erasure of his family lineage. “We lost it all in a matter of months,” he will say, “There was no nuclear devastation or global warming, it was a war without a war, without a single shot being fired.”
The rest of Jorge Ameer’s feature, scripted by Wayne C. Dees, traces the rapid unfolding of that apocalypse in a world not only very much like our own, but ripped from the headlines. As a virus starts sending men – and they are all men – mad, so that they commit suicide or go on killing sprees or both, Alex will prove a pivotal bridge between his father Dr Joseph Feretti (Matt Fling), who, as a globally respected neurologist, is racing to find the source and mechanism of the virus, and Alex’s employer Ted DeMarcos (Danny Fehsenfeld), a demagogic Republican Senator in Texas, who is keen, for entirely political reasons, to blame the virus on Covid vaccine users, African Americans and gays, even though there is no evidence to link the disease to any of these groups. Joseph is himself gay, happily married to the author Pater Cardenas (Vincent Giovanni), and as DeMarcos’ bid both to cling to his seat and to acquire further power becomes ever more heated and desperate, Joseph will find his personal and professional lives increasingly at odds with DeMarcos’ ruthless political ambitions.
Meanwhile a man who calls himself Gary Becker (Joseph DeMatteo) keeps materialising butt-naked through a sparking portal – like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) – and appears before Alex, using Alex’s own voice. Whether Gary has come from the future, or from an interstellar dimension, or from Alex’s own fragmenting, disease-riddled brain, he insists that Alex act to keep Joseph safe and to stop DeMarcos bringing about the annihilation of humanity. Occasionally Gary even intervenes himself – although unlike the Terminator, he never bothers to find clothes and remains absurdly all-nude throughout.
The title Altered Perceptions may seem to refer to the condition of men suffering from the virus, as their shifting brain chemistry causes them to hallucinate and to behave bizarrely. Yet the film is regularly punctuated not only with scenes of the deranged rampages of these men (including a hilarious cameo from Eric Roberts as a demented patient), but also with the question of how they are presented on the news and readily co-opted as ‘talking points’ for ideological ends. As De Marcos’ Trumpian style of campaigning and his machiavellian plans for an insurrectionist coup come to the fore, there is a parallel focus on the way that our perceptions are altered by the media, and that consent is manufactured. Here the virus is just a metaphor for an America overtaken by easily manipulated male toxicity and rage, and by a political conspiracy with no less than national insurrection in its sights.
Explicitly drawing on polarised attitudes to the Covid vaccine, the rise of dog-whistle politics, the increased mainstreaming of homophobic and white supremacist movements, the co-opting or sidelining of scientists and science, and the United States Capitol attack of 6th January 2021 – and extrapolating from all of these an apocalyptic end to humanity as we know it – Altered Perceptions is indeed a work of fiction, but comes with plenty of notes that ring true. The same could not be said of its presentation. For this is a glitchy, channel-surfing trawl through recent American history, where the dialogue is stylised and repetitive, the characters dumbed down, and the narrative unbelievable to the point of surrealism. Yet this is part of the point: for here, as in a Neil Breen film, artifice is foregrounded, the medium is the message, and ultimately it is the viewer’s perceptions which are altered, as Ameer – who also plays one of DeMarcos’ aides – infects us all with the maddening irrationality of America’s contemporary culture wars.
strap: Jorge Ameer’s apocalyptic sci-fi satire shows an America, manipulated by politicians and media alike, unable to see the wood for the trees
© Anton Bitel