‘Altered Perceptions’ Review: DIY Sci-Fi Gets Lost in Its Repetitive Message

One might think, upon watching Jorge Ameer’s “Altered Perceptions,” that it’s the work of a novice filmmaker who hasn’t quite figured out the basics. In reality, the shoestring sci-fi effort is Ameer’s dozenth narrative feature since 1994, and while it deserves grading on a curve alongside fellow tiny-budget indies, it also represents an aesthetic step backward for the DIY creator.

Announcing itself as a work of fiction in its opening onscreen text (alongside a mounting death count, from an unnamed virus, that steadily grows to 80 billion), “Altered Perceptions” unfolds with distinctly real-world politics, despite featuring a fantasy pathogen that turns people violent. Ameer’s movies, sci-fi or otherwise, have always worn their queerness on their sleeve, and his latest is no exception, though its political entanglements are rarely deeper than cartoonish, caricatured villainy.

More from Variety

As the viral illness spreads, a related political conspiracy unfolds in the upper echelons of Texas power, told through the eyes of senate aide Alex Feretti (Oran Stainbrook). The son of a gay neuroscientist (Joseph DeMatteo), Alex also assists the deeply racist and homophobic politician Ted Demarcos (Danny Fehsenfeld), a thinly veiled Ted Cruz (though not as flimsily disguised as the movie’s Ron DeSantis stand-in, Ron San Diego). Demarcos first makes his objections to gay people known to the audience while at Alex’s father’s wedding, even though everyone in the scene seems well aware of his bigotry. Watching this and other lengthy, talky sequences unfold involves a fair amount of incredulity when it comes to who is where, and why they say the things they do, though these questions are at least fun to parse when Alex is visited by a naked, Terminator-esque figure (Joseph DeMatteo) claiming to be from the future.

This alleged time-traveler’s warnings about Demarcos’ schemes align with what’s already unfolding in the world at large, with localized eruptions of violence that conservative politicians blame on everything from Blackness to Queerness to the COVID-19 vaccine. That “Altered Perceptions” takes such a direct stance against far-right misinformation is intriguing, but its methodology is less so, despite its initial promise. A handful of early scenes hint at something inventive in terms of framing and editing, between socially-distanced news broadcasts that seem to repeat and double back on themselves, and a prologue (one of several) involving a painter convinced that some being or presence is infecting his TV.

However, these seeming metaphors for propaganda and paranoia nestled within sci-fi weirdness soon give way to rote dialogue scenes that long outstay their welcome, after re-stating the same bits of info ad nauseam. The film was written by neuropsychologist Wayne Dees, but its insights into the workings of the human mind begin and end at vague references to the virus altering perception in a manner akin to dementia. After the first time this is established — during a speech accompanied by a well-edited, impressionistic montage that runs the gamut of lived experience — it’s merely repeated in words, with no sense of discovery or narrative transformation.

At two hours in length, “Altered Perception” soon becomes difficult to watch, despite its gestures toward comedic detours (one in particular, which over-explains itself before disappearing, happens to feature Eric Roberts). Where Ameer’s previous works at least featured hints of lurid (or at least motivated) lighting, his latest appears to have foregone any such decisions, opting for a flat and noncommittal appearance, with more effort having been put into eerie music reminiscent of ’50s sci-fi. The film is at least sonically effective on occasion, but music is the only element of its sound that’s at all polished or professional; the dialogue is, at times, very hard to hear.

With its points about extremism and misinformation made early on, it all but trudges through its plot with outstretched, repetitive exchanges likely to force even its most forgiving viewers to mentally check out. That’s a shame, since it approaches hints of poignant character drama in its final few minutes — involving Alex spending time with his father’s new husband, played by previous Ameer collaborator Peter Cardenas, as the world falls apart — but by then, it’s too little too late.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.