June 4, 2012

Lifeforce plays like a good 1950s sci-fi thriller, full of aliens multiplying, populace feeling, and scientists wringing their hands dourly. It’s almost a relief, after a rash of revisionist sci-fi movies that make fun of the genre, to see a film that plays it straight.

As much as that attracts me to Lifeforce, I have to admit that a lot of it is derivative. The visual style of the first part of the film, aboard a space shuttle, is reminiscent of 2001, and the later section conjures up Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the British Quatermass movies.

Director Tobe Hooper (he of Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does get his own brand of eerie foreboding in the early scenes. The space shuttle is investigating Halley’s Comet, and they find a trio of humanoid bodies frozen in pods, which they load onto the shuttle. Cut to some weeks later, as a rescue mission finds the burned-out shuttle with the pods still intact.

The rescuers bring the pods back to London, where the things quickly break out of their shells and run wild. Seems they suck the life force out of their victims, who then become carriers of the vampire-like disease. These aliens are led by a spectacular-looking woman (Mathilda May) who spends most of the film naked and alluring.

When she escapes and infects London, a team of experts goes after her: a cop (Peter Firth), a scientist (Frank Finlay), and the leader of the shuttle (Steve Railsback), who feels a strange kinship with the alien woman.

Hooper manages the exposition crisply and spookily, but once the alien gets free, the film starts breaking apart. The whole logic of the life force business is pretty hazy, as is Railsback’s connection with the woman (he seems to be telepathically in touch with her). And halfway through, Finlay starts raving about how a previous appearance by these aliens gave rise to the legend of vampires centuries ago—and how, apparently, vampirism is no legend after all. Indeed, he deduces that the way to destroy the evil is with the standard stake through the heart.

That sounds pretty hokey, and some of Lifeforce plays that way. But a lot of it is fun, and Hooper knows how to keep things moving. He’s also backed by a remarkably first-rate production team: Henry Mancini did the music, John Dykstra (Star Wars) worked on the special effects, and the screenplay is by Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder).

The supporting players, mostly British, are good to have around. All in all, not bad, but not major, either. That can’t be good news for Cannon Films, the independent-minded studio that poured upward of $25 million into this movie. They’ll be very lucky to make that back.

First published in the Herald, June 25, 1985

Hooper did Invaders from Mars around the same time, and both movies stumbled; his subsequent career might’ve been different if they’d scored really well. But casting Steve Railsback could have been the error in this case.