Sunday, May 17, 2009
That Girl Was No Girl
I haven’t seen Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE in years and just about the only thing I remember about it is…well, if you’ve seen LIFEFORCE you know what that is. But let’s be adults here. Those who haven’t seen LIFEFORCE may be aware of it from its pretty cool poster art, showing a single eye staring downward at the planet earth promising an austere, 2001-like experience. I even remember a TV spot at the time that made striking use of this image, but it’s nowhere to be found on YouTube. To say that the actual film is different in tone than what this promises is putting it mildly, something that I think the people who were there for the recent 70MM screening at the Egyptian were aware of judging by their applause for the credits for Cannon Films and Golan & Globus during the opening titles. There was also applause for composer Henry Mancini, but that consisted of maybe three people, including myself. LIFEFORCE is a ludicrous work, yet sitting there watching it I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face the whole time. It was the second feature after THE ROAD WARRIOR and sure, that film’s great and all but LIFEFORCE may have been the highlight of the evening. In many ways it’s the cinematic equivalent of an all you can eat buffet, with all sorts of things that taste great on their own but if you put them together it’s kind of like pouring ranch dressing on pizza. Which still sounds pretty good, but maybe that’s not the way you’re supposed to eat it.
While investigating Halley’s Comet, the American/British crew of the Space Shuttle Churchill let by Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) discovers a mysterious vessel hidden in the comet’s tail which contains three bodies in suspended animation. Soon after, all communication with the shuttle is lost and a second is sent up to investigate. They discover a Churchill gutted inside by fire, but the three bodies which include a beautiful woman (Mathilda May) are still intact. They are brought back to earth to investigate but the dead woman turns out not to be a dead woman at all and the naked girl soon calmly walks off, wreaking havoc everywhere she goes (“Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.”). Things become more complicated when Col. Carlsen turns up back on Earth in an escape pod with his own story about what happened but even though he may have some kind of psychic connection with the girl, even he may not be able to prevent the mass destruction that is beginning all through London.
Playing like an ALIEN knockoff that Hammer might have made if they still existed and worked with actual budgets, LIFEFORCE is a difficult movie to defend on any serious level but impossible for me to dislike, considering the massive entertainment value of everything that occurs in it. In some ways it’s everything you want in a movie—It’s got stuff in outer space! It’s got zombies! It’s got massive explosions! It’s got a naked girl walking around killing people! Not to mention the almost endearing insistence on playing everything relatively straight, with next to no (intentional) attempts at humor but instead of draining out the fun in context this approach somehow manages to make everything more entertaining than it might have been otherwise. Even much of the casting which consists of able actors who probably would have played the third cop from the left in most other movies adds to this odd feel. Based on the novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby of ALIEN fame, the very nature of the story—space movie to vampire movie to manhunt movie to zombie movie to disaster movie—is so erratic in how it’s structured that it’s tough to understand how coherent this could have seemed on the page. This scattershot plot is handled by Tobe Hooper about as well as anybody could—he does, after all, give it a genuine feel of size and there’s no denying that he definitely knows how to take advantage of the concept of a beautiful naked girl going around killing people (if only SPECIES had been this much fun). There’s just a definite lack of discipline to the whole thing as if nobody ever sat down and asked, “So what the hell is thing ABOUT, anyway?” Golan & Globus certainly weren’t going to do that, since their talent as producers was in making deals. As a result, it feels like a would-be blockbuster made for a parallel universe where this was what people wanted to see (and, in a refreshing switch, treats England as the center of the world instead of the U.S.) but accidentally got released here. I should note that the 70MM print screened at the Egyptian was of the 101 minute theatrical cut which for the most part has been superseded on home video by the 116 minute international cut. One thing’s for sure, the shorter version never stops moving—I think at least some of the major cuts came from the opening outer space sequence. Maybe somebody decided that since the story doesn’t really begin until the bodies get to Earth they made this section more of a prologue than anything which gets things happening quickly but does give a certain choppy feel to the start. All the on-screen chaos at the end makes me think of a larger-scale version of the climax of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and the denouement plays like an R-Rated version of the end of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE and it’s just as much of a mish-mosh as that makes it sound. Sure is fun to watch, though.
Steve Railsback, it has to be said, is pretty terrible, maybe another reason why some of this stuff was cut. It feels as if there was a conscious attempt to cut him down, making this at times a movie without a lead character, which only adds to the feeling of disorientation we may feel at times (and, possibly, to the delirium we feel at the ludicrousness of it). The bulk of the Brits, the ones who never get roles this big in other movies (with one key exception) give this absurd story a huge amount of credibility, including Peter Firth, Michael Gothard of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, Aubrey Morris and especially Frank Finlay (Adrien Brody’s father in THE PIANIST) as Dr. Fallada who brings the utmost conviction to every ridiculous line he has and somehow is able to give it a huge amount of weight. It’s as if he knows what all this is but dammit, he’s going to have fun trying to make it all work. When he is sidelined from the storyline for a period his energy is missed. Patrick Stewart, the one exception who did make it big otherwise, plays Dr. Armstrong, director of Thurlstone Hospital. Mathilda May, in case I didn’t make it clear, is gorgeous. The outer space special effects by John Dykstra are maybe a little dated but still pleasing in that old-school optical way. There are also zombies and they’re pretty cool. Henry Mancini’s score (there’s some “additional music” by Michael Kamen as well) is fantastic, fully embracing the madness onscreen. It’s too bad that he didn’t get to do enough of this sort of thing in his career.
The film was a big flop when released in June of ’85, a real indication that the Cannon formula was never going to work on a blockbuster scale. But there is a cult around for it and it’s clearly aged in a more interesting fashion than a few other movies from that summer that I can think of. After the screening, I briefly got to meet Tobe Hooper and tell him how much I enjoyed the film. I wasn’t kidding—I really did have a blast while watching it, much more than I expect from a lot of movies I’m going to see this summer. It has a massive amount of problems, which I think could have been solved somewhere along the way if somebody could have clamped down on the script and certain other matters. Since this didn’t happen, we have this ultra-bizarre example of sci-fi/horror that can puzzle and entertain us for a long time to come. Late in the film I happened to glance over to the other end of my aisle where someone I know was sitting. She looked over in my direction and, clearly enjoying the film as well, gave me a huge smile. Maybe you had to be there for the moment, but to me that just about says it all. LIFEFORCE can’t be defended with any real seriousness, but it’s still a blast to sit through and I feel no guilt whatsoever in saying that.
“I’m fascinated by death itself. What happens as we die, when we die, what happens after we die.”
“You mean life after death.”
“Life after death.”
“Do you really want to know?”
“But to answer your question, yes, I think there is.”