Saturday, 6 June 2015

'That creature is no girl': A look back at Lifeforce (1985)


Here it is. The one review you have all been waiting for. And by waiting for, I mean you have heard me rant about this movie for the last 5 years. Life-force, the magnum opus of the Cannon Group, the 80s studio known for making breakdancing exposes, Chuck Norris action flicks and Sly Stallone arm-wrestling epics. What makes Lifeforce so special is that it is the one movie where Cannon actually spent money on it (to the tune of $25 million), and hired a talented creative team (director Tobe 'Poltergeist' Hooper, screenwriter Dan 'Alien' O'Bannon and effects maestro John 'Star Wars' Dykstra) to realise it. 

How much do I love Lifeforce? I own the Blu-ray, the soundtrack AND a copy of the novel it is based on with the movie tie-in cover. This movie is like a smorgasbord of other movies. You like vampires? Aliens? Zombies? Naked chicks? Patrick Stewart? All are present and accounted for.

This movie is a glorious mess, in which talented people were given too much money, too much Coke and too much freedom. Every idea the filmmakers had appears to have been pasted on a big cork board and then put on screen. The movie's title could have been Kitchen SinkOne of the things I like most about Lifeforce is that it does not feel like one story. It seems to jump from one story to another, and from one genre to another, until it all comes together in complete incoherence at the end. It really feels like four different movies. In the spirit of the movie, I'm going to review Life-force as four different movies. Like its inspiration, this approach might be a complete failure. Ah well, here goes...

MOVIE ONE: Space vampires!

Summary: The Anglo-American space shuttle Churchill is on a mission to study Hailey's Comet as it passes Earth. What they discover is a massive alien ghost spaceship, containing a long dead race of giant bat-like aliens. They also discover a womb-like chamber containing three human-like figures in glass cases, which they then bring back to the Churchill. One astronaut in particular,  the leader of the mission, Carlsen (Steve Railsback) is suddenly affected by the discovery of these bodies, and begins to experience an overpowering sense of lust toward the female specimen. 
Review: Whatever its other narrative deficiencies, Lifeforce starts with a bang. The acting is solid, the visuals spectacular and the ghost space ship is a fascinating, eerie concept. As soon as Railsback locks eyes with Mathilda May's comatose alien, you know something is about to go very, very wrong. 
Best bit: The moment when the astronauts enter the womb-like space ship to discover hundreds of dead aliens suspended in mid-air. It is the best evocation of Lovecraftian horror since the original Alien.
Worst bit: The science is naff, but that's about it. 
Score: 9/10

MOVIE TWO: Killer Boobs from Outer Space!

Summary: Months later, the Churchill returns to Earth. Ground control is perturbed by the lack of communication from the shuttle and a rescue mission is launched to investigate. Inside, they discover the crew dead, the cabin burned in a massive fire, and the three glass coffins, which, bizarrely, have remained completely unaffected by the blaze. The coffins are taken off the Churchill to the London HQ of the European Space Research Centre, where Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) struggles to figure out what is going on. That night, the Space Girl awakens from her coffin and drains a security guard of his 'lifeforce'. She then escapes from the facility into the night. 
Review: At this point we are still in the 'sane' part of the film, and what started out as a space adventure takes a welcome shift into full-on erotic horror with the introduction of Mathilda May's Space Girl. Regaining consciousness back on Earth, she proceeds to do a 'terminator' and just walk out of the facility, buck naked and packing (literal) heat. While the obvious approach would be to highlight the physical attributes of his star, Hooper shrouds May's nudity in shadow and throws in a little blue filter to heighten her otherworldliness. Hooper's approach pays off, because the sequence would have come off as completely ridiculous and exploitive if shot more conventionally. What is sad is that Hooper sets the Space Girl up so well to be a great villain (she's basically an intergalactic Dracula), and then forgets about her for the rest of the movie. 
Best bit: Shot by Hooper with an emphasis on atmosphere and slowly escalating tension, the sequence where the Space Girl escapes captivity is the closest the film comes to approximating genuine horror. Mathilda May's silent, tightly controlled performance (she was a former ballerina) makes the Space Girl a truly otherworldly presence. 
Worst bit: As the Space Girl walks past a terrified guard, Tobe Hooper frames her like a 50s monster movie -- as a silhouette crossing the frame, with the shadow of her bust crossing the terrified guard's face. It's hilarious. 
Score: 8/10

MOVIE THREE: Body jumper!
Summary: Carlsen re-appears, having escaped the Churchill as it entered Earth orbit. After explaining the Space Girl's origin, he joins SAS Colonel Caine (Spooks bigwig Peter Firth) in tracking down the alien menace. After discovering that Carlsen has developed a mental link with the Space Girl, the duo use it to track her to a mental institution for the criminally insane. Eventually they discover that the Space Girl has possessed the head of the facility, Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart) and capture him. After an attempted interrogation proves useless (and fatal to certain indiscriminate supporting players), Carlsen and Caine attempt to take the possessed Armstrong back to London. However, the Space Girl escapes Armstrong's body and vanishes. It is then that Caine learns what really happened on the Churchill -- obsessed with the Space Girl, Carlsen had woken and freed her. This allowed the Space Girl to then use his crew as a food source. Coming to his senses, Carlsen had set fire to the interior of the Churchill and escaped.  
Review: And this is where the movie goes off a cliff. Sure, there are a few weird things in the first half, but once our heroes head after the Space Girl, the movie takes a sharp turn into crazy town. Suddenly characters are having visions about the Space Girl's intentions, the Space Girl starts possessing random people for no real purpose, and it all climaxes with a deranged Railsback making out with a possessed Patrick Stewart while the room around them erupts in electrical discharges.
Best bit: The Space Girl's escape from the helicopter is fantastically weird -- blood free flows out of the possessed captives' bodies to coagulate into a massive blood clot that quickly forms the body of the Space Girl.
Worst bit: Oh god, the entire asylum sequence is such a buzz killer -- it just drags on forever and adds absolutely nothing. And then there's this piece of gold.
Score: 2/10

MOVIE FOUR: Zombie apocalypse!
Summary: Carlsen and Caine return to London to find it completely overrun by hordes of zombified citizens and balls of blue light which just seem to fly through the city and occasionally blow up a building. While Carlsen goes off to confront the Space Girl, the derelict alien ship makes its way towards Earth, where it begins to store the life-forces of the people that the Space Girl's undead army have killed. In the end, Carlsen sacrifices himself by impaling both himself and the Space Girl on an ancient sword (don't ask), which ends the apocalypse and leaves Caine to watch the re-energised alien ship about face and head off back toward Hailey's Comet.
Review: While I like the overall idea of London succumbing to a city-wide plague, the execution leaves something to be desired. For one thing, it comes out of nowhere. Carlsen and Caine do not even hear about it until they are flying over the city. Now I have no idea how long it would take for this disease to spread, but it appears to have happened in about 5 minutes. Either that, or nobody heard about it at the asylum. The other thing I have a problem with is that the 'zombies' look almost nothing like the shrivelled corpses from earlier. While I am sure this is the result of the limits of make-up and special effects circa 1985, their look is so much more evocative of traditional zombies than what we have been lead to expect. 
Best bit: Catching sight of the infected British Prime Minister draining his secretary of her life-force, Carlsen and Caine calmly make their escape from Whitehall while the disease rapidly spreads through the MPs and soldiers around them.
Worst bit: I still have no idea what the ending means. After impaling himself and the Space Girl, Carlsen and his true love/worst enemy are beamed up to the space ship where their appearance appears to reenergise the entire ship and then it flies off into deep space. Credits. What?
Score: 5/10

Final verdict: While it is not a great movie, Lifeforce is far from the outright turkey it is accused of being. It also has something missing from today's blockbusters: a sense of fun. While the trend now is for big movies to be either post-modern and glib, or completely serious and somewhat grim, Lifeforce, whatever its faults, has an appealingly earnest approach toward its genre tropes. Space vampires, zombies and naked Space Girls are inherently silly, but the filmmakers seem to recognise this quality and don't try to hide the hokeyness or make fun of it. They know that the cheese is half the fun. 
However there is no denying that Lifeforce is deeply, hilariously flawed. The opening space sequence is great, Mathilda May is a knockout, the special effects are fine, and Henry Mancini's memorable score still stands up. Everything else is varying degrees of WTF. The actors appear to be acting in different movies, the dialogue is insane, and the second half of the movie just appears to be an assemblage of random ideas. There are moments which are genuinely exciting, and moments which are contenders for the worst scenes in movie history. Oscillating on the border between 'good' and 'bad' movies (sometimes within the same scene),  Lifeforce is a strange, one-of-a-kind experience that I cannot recommend enough. 


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