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Lifeforce review

A group of astronauts find a seemingly abandoned spaceship hidden in the tail of Halley's Comet. Exploring the ship, they find the freeze-dried remains of some human-sized space bats and three glass coffins each with a naked, human-ish thing inside. They bring the coffins back to Earth with them, but by the time their shuttle reaches orbit a mysterious fire has destroyed everything... except for the coffins, which are brought to a research institute outside of London. Of course, the humanoid things are actually space vampires and their female leader proceeds to seduce a bunch of guys, sucking out their 'lifeforce' and leaving them as mummy-like husks. The bodies of her victims reanimate, however, and are hungry for the lifeforces of others, too. Soon half of London has been turned into lifeforce-sucking zombies, and its up to astronaut Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), detective Colin Caine (Peter Firth), and scientist Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) to find the original space vampire vixen and put a stop to the madness before the military nukes already-quarantined London. Did ya get all that? Good. That's Lifeforce.

As you can see from the above plot summary, Lifeforce would make a great Sunday afternoon TBS or Sy-Fy channel movie... except for the gratuitous boobs in virtually every scene in the movie. Remember that space vampire vixen I was telling you about? Yeah, she's 100% naked the entire time. So, you know, kudos to actress Mathilda May, that's gotta take some guts. Plus most of those sets looked pretty cold. She's far from a great actress, but when was the last time you tried naked acting for an entire 2 hour movie in front of what looks to be a rather large cast and crew? I thought not.

The real star of Lifeforce is the effects work. The highest complement I can give is that at many times I had a hard time telling if what I was seeing was practical effect or early CGI, specifically in some of the spaceship scenes. Due to Lifeforce's 1985 release, I'd guess it's all practical. That I can't be sure really is a testament to the quality of the work here. If you've ever seen behind-the-scenes documentaries about the special effects work in the Star Wars movies, you might remember about creating the effect of a ship moving though space by actually keeping the ship stationary and moving the camera on a bluescreen, then matting the results over a stationary 'star field.' Lifeforce took that process to the extreme, with multiple objects moving in different directions and on different axises simultaneously. That can't be an easy effect to pull off, and effects master John Dykstra does awesome work. A quick glance at his IMDB rap sheet reveals that he is actually the very guy responsible for those awesome spaceship effects in Star Wars, so there you go.

Lifeforce screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who passed away last December, is also responsible for classics and near-classics like Alien, Total Recall, Heavy Metal, and Dark Star. Each of these movies creates a discrete, unique, and typically fascinating sci-fi universe. Like his other movies, Lifeforce succeeds in always staying true to it's initial conceit and the world O'Bannon created.
It fails, however, in making the characters remotely interesting. This doesn’t ruin the movie – not by a long shot. But it does keep it from being a classic like some of O’Bannon’s other efforts. Imagine if a character as engaging as Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett from Alien or Mel Johnson Jr's Benny from Total Recall showed up in Lifeforce. The absence of those sort of interesting characters is the missing puzzle piece that holds Lifeforce back from being as great as it could have been.

Like Dan O'Bannon, director Tobe Hooper is also at the top of his game when dealing with interesting or ‘earthy’ characters – the 20-something stoner kids and psycho-hillbillies from Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the laid-back suburban family from Poltergeist. But his baroque, detached shooting style post-Poltergeist comes off as sort of sterile when all he has to work with are stock-character scientists, all-business detectives, and personality-free astronauts.

Despite it’s shortcomings, Lifeforce’s triumph is that it is literally bursting with fantastical images that will rattle around your head forever after you see the movie, and that it somehow manages to string all those images together with a plot that – as far fetched as it sounds – actually manages to make a certain amount of sense. The world that O’Bannon created (or adapted really, from novel The Space Vampires) fires the imagination. In an early scene, the astronauts who have boarded the alien spaceship enter a room full of dead, frozen, human-sized space-bats suspended in midair. It is such a bizarre sight – a total surprise and something I never would have expected to see in a movie. It’s not a perfect plot and engaging characters that make Lifeforce worth watching, it’s moments and sights in an imperfect movie that you nevertheless cherish. Fits of inspiration and vision to knit into the fabric of my movie knowledge, even while the whole is lacking. O’Bannon and Hooper come dangerously close delivering a classic, and this is very highly recommended even though it falls short. Movies don't need to be perfect to be worth your time, and Lifeforce is a great reminder of that maxim.

Up next on my “see all the Dan O’Bannon movies” list is The Return of the Living Dead, which I’ve seen bits and pieces of on TV over the years but haven’t ever actually sat down and watched from start to finish. There’s no time like the present.

Magic Moment: Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, shows up for an extended cameo as a psychiatrist who has been possessed by the vampire space vixen. You know he's possessed because he has sweat on his upper lip the entire time he's onscreen. This 'serious' actor very nearly shares a passionate kiss with (male) lead Steve Railsback, and his death scene, in which all of the blood in his body is sucked out through his mouth and nose, is one for the record books. So yeah, Patrick Stewart wins the Lifeforce game.


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Lifeforce review + watching hour