Sometimes a movie tries to be an epic, but has a hard time shaking off its b-movie stink. Such is the case with Lifeforce, the 1985 sci-fi/horror film from director Tobe Hooper and writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby. The film opens with a bombastic score composed by Henry Mancini, in quite a departure from the type of music cinema buffs would associate with him. The camera flies over an endless asteroid that looks plucked from the long, dichromatic shots that Stanley Kubrick filmed for 2001. What follows is a quick introductory voiceover that takes care of all the backstory and character development. Viewers are told of the mission of the HMS Churchill, a joint American/British space shuttle mission tasked with exploring Halley’s Comet upon its dodranscentennial approach to the earth.
The shuttle, commanded by Colonel Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback), approaches the comet and its radar detects an alien spacecraft shrouded in the comet’s coma. Carlsen leads a team aboard and discovers that the deceased crew of the derelict ship are man-sized creatures that resemble bats. Further in the ship, the team discovers three naked human figures in suspended animation. In a decision that sets the plot in motion, Carlsen has the three figures, one woman and two men, brought aboard the Churchill.
This entire introductory sequence sets a viewer up for a completely different movie than what is ultimately delivered. Much of its style and tone differs from the rest of the film. Not so much that the film feels disconnected from the intro, but the intro has a freewheeling sensibility about it that reminds me of old sci-fi comics and movies. All the complicated exposition is gotten out of the way by the awkward voiceover, like a caption bubble in the first panel of an issue of Weird Science or 2000 AD. Carlsen and his crew evoke Dan Dare and his band of adventurers, while the interiors of the alien spacecraft could have been sprung straight from the mind of Massimo Belardinelli. It doesn’t have the meticulous realism of the sets in something like Alien, but it has a dreamlike quality that overcomes its implausibility.
Fast forward about a month, and the Churchill returns to earth, sans crew, but the rescue mission sent into orbit to intercept the Churchill finds the three alien humanoids still in their cases. In London, the body of the woman (Mathilda May) is prepared for autopsy, when she suddenly awakens. Still in the buff, the alien woman uses sexuality and hypnosis to lure in men. With a kiss, she drains their souls, leaving desiccated zombies in her wake. It turns out that the three aliens are a sort of vampiric species, their previous visits to earth possibly the origin of our vampire myths. But these creatures, having drained souls, are after much more than our blood.
Meanwhile, Colonel Carlsen comes back on the scene. Things went sour aboard the shuttle on the way back to earth, and Carlsen bailed out in an escape pod, but not before trying to destroy the alien vampires. Upon learning his efforts failed, he is joined by British SAS Colonel Colin Caine (Peter Firth), and the two try to stop the aliens from harvesting the population of England.
Aliens, vampires, zombies, a little touch of Italian soft porn, and even psychic bilocation. Lifeforce, at times, could be accused of not knowing what it wants to be. But despite all the genre-hopping it does, the plot is a lot less convoluted than it could have been. Things don’t really become laughably ridiculous until Patrick Stewart finds himself channeling the female alien and Carlsen leans in for a kiss. This is one of those scenes a person comes across occasionally in film that must be seen to be believed.
Lifeforce is a fearless movie, in that the filmmakers didn’t hesitate to reach beyond the capabilities of both the script and the production. I would like to say it could have been better handled with an entirely different set of names in the credits, but that would have robbed us viewers of something special. Lifeforce is a film that threatens to fly apart during every scene, yet it does not. It’s not a great film, nor is it good throughout, but it sure as hell is interesting.