What’s it about?
When Halley’s Comet passes near Earth, Space Shuttle Churchill is sent up on a fact-finding mission with a joint British-American crew led by Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback). When they get close, they find a 150 mile long spaceship hidden in the comet’s tail, so they suit up and drift out into the vacuum to investigate. When inside the ship, they find hundreds of desiccated alien corpses that look like giant bats, and three naked, well-preserved humanoid bodies inside glass coffins - one female, and two male. They decide to take these bodies back with them to Earth.
30 days later, and Churchill is drifting back into the Earth’s atmosphere, but failing to respond to radio communications. Ground control sends up a rescue mission to the shuttle. Once there, they discover that the spacecraft is a burnt-out husk with little but charred corpses remaining of the crew. However, the three humanoid bodies are still intact, so they are taken back to the European Space Research Centre in London so that Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay) and Dr. Bukowsky (Michael Gothard) can examine them.
A junior doctor goes in to start the autopsy on the female. She awakens, steps up to him and then drains his life force via a kiss, leaving a wrinkled corpse. Afterward, she escapes the facility. Another doctor attempts an autopsy on the junior’s corpse, only for him to suddenly spring back to life, draining the other doctor’s life force in turn and regenerating his original form.
Colonel Caine of the SAS (Peter Firth) is brought in to investigate these bizarre and threatening occurrences. Meanwhile, it is discovered that Colonel Carlsen actually survived the slaughter aboard the Churchill and came back to Earth via escape pod. Not only that, but he has acquired some sort of psychic link with the space girl - a link that could prove crucial in tracking her down.
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Why is it significant?
The film was based on a book by Colin Wilson called The Space Vampires, and was an attempt by low budget movie production team Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus (Cannon Pictures) to craft a big budget sci-fi blockbuster. They certainly had plenty of reasons (in theory) to think it would do well for them. Firstly, they had director Tobe Hooper, who had hit the big time with Poltergeist in the early 1980s, at the helm (indeed, they had signed him up to a three picture deal including this one, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and Invaders From Mars). Secondly, they had brought in writers Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby, who were hot from the success of Blue Thunder (1983) and, in the case of the former, Alien (1979). It has been alleged, however, that their original script was dumped and replaced by one written by Michael Armstrong and Olaf Pooley, despite the former duo remaining on the credits. Thirdly, acclaimed SFX artist John Dykstra was brought onboard to craft the film’s elaborate visual effects. Fourthly, it tied in with the then-imminent real-life event of Halley’s Comet passing the Earth.
Alas, the film made back less than half of its $25 million budget. Critics largely panned it, while audiences didn’t know quite what to make of such an oddity. It didn’t help that it was released in in the crucial US market in a 101-minute cut with Henry Mancini’s superb score largely replaced by a forgettable one from Michael Kamen. Nonetheless it has gone on to acquire a substantial cult following, particularly in the longer European 116-minute version.
How does it hold up?
Lifeforce is one of those films that people either love or hate. I personally fall into the love-hate relationship category; it’s clearly a mess of a film, but on the other hand it’s a highly imaginative and entertaining one.
Lifeforce is certainly a treat to look at, with many extravagant special effects depicting space craft, spectacular destruction and the effects of the space girl’s vampiric activities. As well as this, Tobe Hooper goes all out imbuing the film with plenty of old-fashioned creepiness via primary-coloured lighting, skewed camera angles, fisheye lenses and the like. The bombastically strident orchestral soundtrack by Henry Mancini also adds to the film’s pure exuberance.
Unfortunately, the script is littered with inconsistencies and bites off a lot more than it can reasonably chew. There’s an interesting core idea that occasionally shines through: the space vampires are destructive, but at the same time irresistible because of the way they tap into the human, primal instinct to have sex and reproduce. We see this come across potently with such imagery as the space crew floating through the vaginal red tunnels of the alien space craft, with Carlsen saying “I feel like I’ve been here before” - maybe while emerging from the womb? Mathilda May spends most of her scenes stark naked, displaying a striking example of the female form. There are hints of a bond of love between Carlsen and the space girl, something that adds a rather intriguing extra dimension to the proceedings.
The trouble is, as well as being a space sex vampire flick, Golan and Globus evidently also wanted a de facto zombie flick, with masses of decayed hordes out to feed on life force ‘lest they explode in a cloud of dust and bones. Oh, and a de facto demonic possession flick, as the space girl’s mind can take over other people to disguise herself. And… for good measure an alien invasion flick with London going up in flames. It feels incoherent and frequently lacks logic as it jumps all over the map from A to B to C.
Performances are variable: Steve Railsback method-overacts in a manner that would make Nicolas Cage blush, delivering every single line as if he has just had a sword plunged through his gut. Colin Firth is great though, proving wonderfully deadpan in his delivery - one soldier guarding a compound in the ravaged London says: “You don’t want to go out there, sir!” Firth’s Caine calmly responds “I know I don’t” as he drives into the danger zone. Various British character actors such as Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart and the late Aubrey Morris aren’t given many scenes to run with but they do ham it up enjoyably enough. Mathilda May’s acting range is limited to intense glaring, but then she is supposed to be an alien presence so this fits in quite well in its own way.
You can easily accuse Lifeforce of being muddled because there is just too much going on, but for that same reason you can’t accuse it of being dull. The divided opinions are hence likely to remain so for a long time to come. Colonel Carlsen says it all for me, describing leaving the space girl in the shuttle as “the hardest thing I ever did” despite her killing the rest of the crew. I feel this is the hardest mixed review I ever gave, despite the film’s evident flaws.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Tobe Hooper
Script: Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby, Michael Armstrong, Olaf Pooley, from a novel by Colin Wilson
Starring: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Aubrey Morris, Nancy Paul