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Entries in Lifeforce [1985] (1)

Sunday
Feb242013

Lifeforce (1985)

Boobs Versus Boobs

Q: What happens when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's director and Alien's writer team up for a sci-fi/horror project shot by Return of the Jedi's DP, with visual effects by Star Wars' Oscar-winning visual effects artist?

A: Cosmic vampire porn.

Were it not for The Music Box Theatre's 70mm Film Festival, I might have missed Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce--and I would've been poorer, spiritually, for it. The film's obvious selling point is that its star, twenty-year-old nubile knock-out Mathilda May, spends ninety percent of her screen time completely naked. But the real joy is experiencing this ambitious but clumsily realized end-of-days epic with a game and lively crowd. And, no, watching the movie at home with a bunch of drunk buddies doesn't cut it. You need a bona fide auditorium to appreciate Lifeforce's crowning achievement--a time-hopping meta-gag that I'll get to in a minute.

The movie opens with a joint American/British space crew exploring Halley's Comet. They find a craft inside its head containing weird, organic chambers surrounded by the floating corpses of giant, winged creatures. In the main room are what look to be three glass coffins, each containing a perfectly preserved humanoid. The scientists drag their discovery back to the ship and, in what has become one of the genre's grand traditions, we flash forward to a secondary craft arriving to figure out why mission control suddenly lost contact with the first.

The sleepers turn out to be aliens whose ability to entrance humans and suck the lives out of them may have been the inspiration for our vampire lore. As the lead villain (May, credited simply as "Space Girl") leaves a trail of shriveled up bodies around London, a hapless trio of government agents and scientists scrambles to figure out what they're dealing with.

Imagine The Three Stooges starring in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you'll come close to understanding how weirdly written and miscast Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, and Frank Finlay are as characters we're meant to root for. If nothing else, Lifeforce made me really appreciate sci-fi horror movies with strong female protagonists: as Space Girl handily picks off one horny doofus after another, making undead essence-suckers out of half the population, I wondered how long Ellen Ripley would've put up with Mademoiselle Sugar Tits.*

I don't want to give Hooper and screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (working from Colin Wilson's novel, "The Space Vampires") credit for parodying 1950s space-invasion movies. Lifeforce just plays as too stupid to have anything else on its mind beyond T&A and gore. But it's hard to watch this thing and not imagine a coked-out Golan-Globus exec watching John Carpenter's update of The Thing and (mistakenly) thinking, "Yeah, we could top that". With outer space production values that call to mind both Alien and Fantastic Voyage, and an Earth-set race-against-the-clock storyline, I don't doubt that the minds behind Lifeforce believed they were creating the era's definitive, paranoid epic. Sadly, the production undone by a baffling ineptitude on the part of everyone involved.

But Lifeforce proves that great comedy can emerge from great tragedy. If you don't giggle at the exploding London miniatures, melting-face dummies, and the military installation whose idea of a secure wing includes several rooms of shatter-prone glass walls, then there's something severely wrong with you (or you're the humorless Toby Hooper).

I'll make you this promise, though: all red-blooded, non-space-vampires will lose their freaking minds at the site of Patrick Stewart being knocked unconscious and thrown into a wheelchair during our heroes' visit to a mental hospital. It's a visual gag that meant nothing in 1985, but which will have X-Men fans roaring with approval. The reaction in the Music Box crowd was that of a special and very powerful joke wave, which gradually hit everyone in the auditorium and made the next several minutes of dialogue nearly unintelligible.

Lifeforce is a terrible movie that could have, I guess, been an alternate-dimension classic. It's an odd choice to have received the 70mm treatment, unless Hooper was so in love with Mathilda May's adorably toned lower-back dimples that he wanted the world to experience them in stunning high definition. Part of the film's charm is the fact that so many talented people spent so much money on such a cheap-looking and narratively incoherent production. This is the ultimate celebration of hubris and failure, a top-priority, front-row phenomenon if there ever was one.

*My guess: five seconds, tops.