"Aw, MAN!", I cried, "This is NOT a good sign!" Although the next words "A Golan Globus production" were redundant after the admission that this was from "The Cannon Group", somehow it still filled me with a cold, down feeling. How could this be? The Cannon Group? Those guys are to film what fire is to a rainforest. For some, the next words "A Tobe Hooper Film" might have caused them to give up completely. Not me. I like ol' Hooper and I figured, why not? After all, this film has been lauded in some circles (though condemned in others), featured the music of not just Henry Mancini, but also Michael Kamen (performed by The London Symphony Orchestra to boot), the directing of Hooper (whose last film was Poltergeist, the acting of X-Files fan favorite Steve Railsback, a pre-Star Trek Science-Fiction role for Patrick Stewart, the special effects of John Dykstra and even the writing of Alien's Dan O'Bannon.
What bets did all these guys have to lose to work for The Cannon Group? Therefore, imagine my surprise again when Lifeforce turned out to be pretty damned good. It maintains its b-movie sensibilities, but also exists in a strange realm between the serious sci-fi and the unintentionally silly. It does come off as somewhat dated, but also manages to hold up in a lot of ways, even today.
Dan O'Bannon (who wrote this screenplay with Dan Jakoby and the uncredited contributions of Michael Armstrong and Olaf Pooley) is best known as the writer of Alien and the director of Return of the Living Dead. Hence, it came as no surprise whatsoever to note that Lifeforce is somewhat of a melding of those two concepts. Aliens from Outer Space and Earth bound Zombies.
In fact, Lifeforce starts off feeling so much like Alien that it's impossible not to notice the similarities. The crew of a space ship discover a derelict alien ship with strange organic components and a large, foreboding corpse along the way. As the people in the space suits enter a pod-ridden chamber they discover the creatures that they will bring aboard and ultimately lose their lives to.
However, this is right about the point that Lifeforce takes a strange turn all its own, seeing as how the Alien Life Form they discover isn't a betentacled monster who latches onto your face, but an incredibly beautiful, completely naked woman.
See, the crew of the space shuttle Churchill is a joint British/ American team sent to investigate Halley's Comet in their strange ship that looks like your standard Nasa shuttle with a solar sail that could stretch from Miami to Bismarque. What they find inside the comet is a strange, organic ship that contains the remains of a Man-Bat like Alien Race, apparently sucked of all life. Deeper inside they find three transparent pods containing what appear to be the bodies of three human beings. On one side, you've got Bill Malin, on the other you've got Chris Jagger... front and center, wearing every bit of what she wears in the shower, is former French Ballerina Mathilda May (credited as "Space Girl")! Because of the fact that the leader of this mission is one red-blooded American named Col. Tom Carlsen) (Railsback), the question of whether or not they're brinnging her aboard is pretty much Moot!
Things get even more serious when it is discovered that these pods that the Aliens have been found in are actually COFFINS... and the trio of terror aren't actually dead... but something akin to undead. Yes, if the fact that the screenplay was based on Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires won't clue you in to the nature of this film, not much will.
But by the time the protagonists of this film are clued in, it's far too late and the Vampires are on Earth... again. Mathilda May is even more amazing in her almost constantly naked form on Earth, as she is still defying gravity. She is a truly beautiful woman and her acting, though largely silent, is quite good and manages to help her become both terrifying and enchanting.
The plot thickens as the Vampires begin to infect the planet, creating not more exactly like them, but an entire race of Zombies (so called even in the credits), hungrily hunting for life energy before they explode into dust. But how can the Vampires and the Zombies be stopped, especially considering the Space Girl's control over men?
On Earth, the daring, yet consumed Carlsen is joined by Michael Gothard's Dr. Bukovsky, Frank Finlay's Dr. Hans Fallada and Carlsen's own British counterpart, the equally heroic Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth). It's the duo of Carlsen and Caine that create the most excitement, outside the Vampires themselves (or, rather, one particular Vampire). Their quest to stop the destruction of their planet leads them through many clues alliances and dangerous liaisons (including one with Patrick Stewart's Dr. Armstrong) until the final showdown.
Lifeforce isn't your average Science Fiction film, nor is it your average Horror Movie. Aside from the villain being the strikingly beautiful and unclothed Mathilda May (who would later star in 1991's Naked Tango), Lifeforce also features some interesting takes on Vampire Lore. These undead don't actually suck blood (though blood does play a role here), instead consuming the "Lifeforce" of a human, which looks like an electrical disturbance coming from the eyes and mouth. Further, these Vampires aren't dispatched in the usual way and they're definitely hard to find and harder to kill.
There are a lot of killer visuals in this film as well. They don't look so great as compared to today's world of special effects, but compared to just about anything else with Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan's names on it, it looks fantastic. In truth, many of the Zombie and Corpse effects look more humorous than frightening and there are some physical effects like fake rubber heads that simply couldn't convince a blind guy. The optical effects are the surprisingly interesting and successful things here. Even the outer space scenes are relatively good (especially compared to Cannon's later work on Superman IV!
Still, all this might not be enough for some viewers. Hooper was going for something different than he had before here and seems to have had every intention of making a good, exciting thriller that still stays firmly planted in the B-Movie legacy that it follows. This one often has the feel of a '50s Alien Invasion thriller, mixed with some 1980s modernity and a beautiful, fully frontally naked woman walking around therein. This might not mix with many viewers, who likely prefer their genres straight. Clearly this was the case upon its release when it failed to successfully invade the Box Office's top spots.
In truth, Lifeforce can be somewhat cheesy and is always very weird. Some of the acting is just too over-the-top to be believed (whether intentional or not) and quite a bit of the plot points don't match up in a logical way.
That said, Lifeforce is a purely entertaining movie, combining elements of some of the best sci-fi and horror puzzle pieces into a fun tapestry with just a bit of erotica to go with it (note, this is no soft-core porn, it's surprisingly subdued and sensible... and appreciated). It's definitely not for everyone, but those who can appreciate the fun in movies without dismissing them for maybe being a little more fun than wise... this just might be your movie! It makes one hell of a prototype for Species!
Three Stars out of Five for the surprising and entertaining Lifeforce. If only all Vampires could be this hot. Or all Aliens for that matter. I wonder how much of this was actually Dan O'Bannon's idea. It would seem that Captain Bow-Tie over there has a certain knack for finding ways of getting lovely female characters naked and leaving them that way for quite a lot of screen time (see also Trash in Return of the Living Dead). In this admittedly derivative (in some, but ONLY some, areas) film it all comes off as surprisingly mature and not funny at all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think it's time to procure a copy of Naked Tango. I have no idea what it's about, but I know who stars in it and the title, coupled with her name in the credits... that's enough to make me a gambling man. Let's just hope Cannon's name isn't on that one. They're not redeemed just yet. Even a broken clock is right twice a day! See you in the next reel.