Monday, June 23, 2008

The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my lifeform.

The following is my contribution to this month's Film Club at Final Girl.

A friend of mine summed up the basic appearance of Lifeforce when he fondly recalled Mathilda May's performance as a naked space vampire as the source of one of his first erections. The first time I saw Lifeforce, around six or seven years old, I was too young to be anything but confused by the camera's constant focus on May's breasts. I knew what sex was, and had a vague idea that adults enjoyed it, but its appeal as anything except a reproductive act was beyond me. Watching Lifeforce at two in the morning on cable (I was an elementary school insomniac), I was vaguely aware that I was seeing something I shouldn't, but I couldn't understand why the movie was more about doing it than space or vampires. The tension between my friend's and my own reactions suggests that Lifeforce, with its uneasy combination of kid-friendly special effects and monsters and near-constant nudity, as a horror movie for adolescent boys faced with the growing suspicion that their penises are about to get them into trouble. As a horror movie, Lifeforce can't compete with the wealth of genre classics (including Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead and Fright Night) that opened in 1985. But as porn for Fangoria-reading 13-year-olds, it's pretty great.

Adapted from Colin Wilson's novel Space Vampires, the film opens with a space shuttle mission investigating Halley's comet and discovering an alien spacecraft in the comet's cone. Members of the shuttle's crew, including Col. Tom Carlson (Steve Railsback), are sent in to investigate the craft; its interiors are unmistakably vaginal, so, naturally, the astronauts discover ominous caverns, giant bats and, most curiously, three human-looking aliens in a state of hibernation. By the time the shuttle returns to earth, everyone onboard has died except for Carlson and the humanoids, who use their physical perfection and powers of mind control to seduce humans and drain them of their life force. The aliens turn everyone in their wake into zombies who must either consume the energy of others or suffer a sudden, explosive death. On a pure entertainment level, it's a great concept, allowing for lots of exploding bodies, fantastic optical effects and random kinkiness. But screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby also cannily exploit the story's subtext; it's fun to watch May use her sex appeal to destroy astronauts, scientists, soldiers and other boyish archetypes, and I'd be surprised if they weren't intentionally playing to their young male audience's anxieities (O'Bannon, after all, wrote for Heavy Metal). One of the funniest moments in Lifeforce is when Col. Crane (Peter Firth) is asked if his encounter with the space girl was sexual in nature and he responds, fearfully, "Yes - overwhelmingly so."

Unfortunately, Lifeforce never finds the right tongue-in-cheek tone that O'Bannon or his Dark Star collaborator John Carpenter might have brought to the film. Tobe Hooper's direction is aimless and, by the film's apocalyptic end, chaotic - the movie's style is far too heavyhanded to work on the B-movie level that a movie originally titled Space Vampires demands to be taken at. If Hooper is to be believed, the pressure of his producers at Cannon Films is to be blamed, as they saw Lifeforce as a chance to break out with an effects-packed summer tentpole. And while the film looks marvellous (courtesy of Star Wars' John Dykstra), the scale of it is oppressive; it's bloated and overlong, and too preoccupied with its fireworks to remember why its funny. As kitsch Lifeforce is a blast, but it could have been a classic had everyone involved remembered to breathe. In Hooper's defense, he did achieve a darkly comic sensibility the next year with Invaders From Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that would have worked perfectly here; sadly, after all three films flopped, he was prematurely sent to direct-to-video hell.

It's a shame, because even though Lifeforce doesn't really work, it's stranger and more interesting than 90% of the big-budget attempts at riding the coattails of Star Wars and Alien. Where else are you going to see Patrick Stewart kiss Steve Railsback, or Mr. Deltoid from A Clockwork Orange explode? Lifeforce is what friend and Samurai Dreams contributor James fondly refers to as a "buds 'n' suds movie," one best enjoyed with a few beers and friends sharp enough to laugh at the movie's fear of teen horniness. When Lifeforce reaches its totally 80's (i.e., coked-out), seizure-inducing wet dream of an ending, it triumphs as an affirmation of the cosmic-scale creative and destructive force of the boner. I don't really have a way to wrap this up; I just hope that last sentence ends up on a DVD case.


Paul C. said...

I saw the director's cut of this at a sci-fi marathon back in 2001. Watching it at 4 in the morning in the middle of a 24-hour sci-fi bender made it seem like simultaneously the greatest and the worst movie ever made. It's still pretty awesome/awful, I gotta say.

Also, why is this movie so afraid of teen horiness? It's not a crime, after all.

Andrew Bemis said...

I've heard great things about the marathon you're talking about. If it's still around when the kids are of an appropriate age, I think I'll have to make the trip.