Monday, June 6, 2011

Lifeforce Review

Tobe Hooper directed this 1985 pic, which stars Steve Railsback (as Col. Tom Carlsen), Mathilda May (as "She"), and Peter Firth (as Col. Colin Caine (fun name!)). "Lifeforce" is difficult to review. Why?

That's why. I covered anything that may be inappropriate for kiddies, and I'm not a pig, but believe me there is nothing offensive about this woman. She walks around fully naked a whole lot in this picture, so I'll admit up-front that maybe (?) my brain's scrambling to justify this movie.

"Lifeforce" is patterned off of smart 70's scifi - maybe something like "The Andromeda Strain." At times it seems influenced by "Suspiria" with its weird sequences and lighting changes. If you like this picture, you like it as a hybrid of loud popcorn blockbuster elements that were grafted onto B-movie sensibilities and execution.

I really want to write "this is a good movie; see it." But I have to point out that it has big, huge flaws that make the whole experience shaky. This leaves me with "'Lifeforce' is entertaining, and doesn't need a drop-dead gorgeous woman walking about nude for a good 20 minutes. That nudity does, however, distract from some awful dialogue and acting, as well as loose plotting and a weird space vessel. Also, Patrick Stewart: what were you thinking?!"

Got anything better than "squid-umbrella, in space?"

I like how relentlessly dangerous the bad guys are; their threat is really impressive, if seemingly overwhelming. This also means that really neat horror scenes - ones that actually matter to the story - occur often. I like how conceptually creative this pic is, and how many different aspects it puts into play. And I won't pretend I don't like looking at Mathilda - just that it shouldn't be the selling point.

I suppose before I get into it, I should show you what imdb and wiki say about the 116-minute cut that I watched:
The initial first cut of Lifeforce, as done by Tobe Hooper, was 128 mins long, which was 12 minutes longer than the final version, with mostly scenes on the space shuttle Churchill cut.
And then it got edited for a US release:
The film was edited for its U.S. theatrical release by Tri-Star Pictures to a 101 min domestic cut version that was partially re-scored by Michael Kamen, with a majority of Henry Mancini's original music still left remaining. The original 116 min international theatrical cut version... contains more violent and erotic footage that Tri-Star cut from the domestic version, along with the entirety of Mancini's full music score...
The result: it made half what it cost. It was beat out at the box office by "Cocoon," with its nearly-nude Wilford Brimley. As you'll read later, there's a lot of things that don't make sense in this picture, and reducing the length by 15 minutes must have made for celluloid hell. If this sounds like exaggeration, you haven't heard the story.

Essentially: a manned space mission finds a ship with healthy-seeming humans in glass cases. The shuttle goes non-responsive, and upon recovery is found gutted by fire, with only the glass cases preserved. May's nameless character, who I'll call "Selene," was in one case. She proves to be an energy vampire (?!), that, after getting free, drains people who then become vampires themselves. A team tracks her around England. The vampire problem becomes a plague that's decimating London. The good guys race to stop her.

Would you like to imagine what happens to a movie with that kind of story when you reduce it by 28 minutes?... Well, let's take the scenic route:

A new space ship has been developed for fast, long-distant travel. A 9-person crew is sent to investigate a comet (Halley's) and they find - what turns out to be a g-d spaceship hiding behind the rock at the comet's head! The crew sees this thing that looks like a phallus or a worm, I guess. Later on it looks like a squid with an umbrella.

Then again, there are ridiculous moments like their entry into the spaceship. 4 of the crew go EVA and find a tunnel-mouth with perfectly-symmetrical "teeth" around it, then enter a long red tunnel. Carlsen, the lead astronaut, actually says "I almost got the feeling I've been here before." Yeah, pal, given your white suits and what you're traveling through, I expect you to find a giant ova soon. We've ALL been there before.
They find the 3 boxes containing what looks like humans. This is especially weird as the ship itself seems to be organic, and there are several floating bodies of what look like man-sized alien "bats." All 3 boxes will be transferred to the earth-ship. Then we're told that it's a month later and the ship is unresponsive, and the Earthlings send a second ship to retrieve the first ship. They find only traces of a fire, a missing escape pod, and the 3 pristine boxes. I wonder what could go wrong?

I suppose maybe it is Ms. May's beauty that makes me want to see the good in this picture. In the character's first moments, she wakes up, then, in a great special effect, drains a man who was looking over her. Another man runs in and she easily hypnotizes him. She starts with "Use my body," which is a pretty good line in a world just waking up to the AIDS scare.

My people have evolved beyond "underwire."
It's pretty nice that, in 1985, what followed was a woman acting a scene that could've been made for "Terminator." Selene descends a staircase to leave, but 3 guards block her. She raises a hand, and I swear it looks like glowing light is coming out of the lower half of her body, which makes one guard choke(?!). The 2nd guy just looks scared.

The final guard runs up, and she raises her hand in the air, sort of flamenco-style - there's a flash of light (not from her nethers this time, thank heaven) and he flies backwards. Selene walks up to the plate-glass walls of the building she's in, and blows them out.

The last effect is really good, actually, but I still feel like I'm judging the Olympics. And I'd give the sequence 7/10, but I don't know how much of that is because of the gorgeous nudery of Selene. Should the score be even higher?...

I'm also bothered that Ms. May's role has no name. That choice may be debatable, but I hate her listing as "Space Girl" in the credits. In truth, her beauty is so stunning as to make her powers seem possible (or, hell, likely), but she should've received more time & attention, and I don't mean more buff shots. By sticking to Carlsen so much, the story misses the chance to have any more fun with an energy vampire with a massive spaceship and the ability to take over and travel in people's minds. She's as omnipotent as the creature from "The Thing."

If you think about her lines, most of her dialogue is simply too vague to be satisfying, and we don't learn enough about her. So I guess her character is only handled 5/10 by this story. I consider this an especial shame - you ask someone to be that nude, you write them something so meaty it's almost "Sophie's Choice" for a scifi/horror film.

I suppose that's one of the biggest problems with the whole production. There is a certain formality to how it plays out - many events play out credibly, and the government doesn't screw up too badly. Yet the actions of the investigators don't generate much confidence in a viewer.

This sort of 50/50 commitment combines with often-weak dialogue, which really veers too often into "Rocky Horror" territory. At the start, the astronauts are all jumping to huge conclusions. After the amazing nude-o-vision jail break, Firth's character finds a naked, dessicated female in the countryside - clearly Selene's victim. Firth says "Now she's got clothes." Yeah, buddy, NOW we have no hope.

She's dead, Jim.
Despite really nice effects, these poor elements persist, so this pic doesn't cohere. There's a voice-over - "He had no memory of what he'd done," immediately followed by one actor sitting in a chair, saying "I don't remember... I've been feeling weak recently. Not myself. Just. Don't rememb-er." I feel kinda guilty, but he's either a bad actor or that was awful ADR work.

Try this line, one I felt compelled to write down. "She's looking for a man. Any man. A healthy man."

Any moment of "Lifeforce" might fall a little flat like that, or even in multiple simultaneous ways. It's supposed to be fun and scary and big and a bit off, and the movie is entertaining. I can only imagine what would've come out under a steadier hand - or the longer cut and some obvious new ADR/re-shoots.

The hit-and-miss ratio is surprising. You get a good setup - 3 characters talking in a room, filmed with a great shot composition. The interrogation scene that follows, starting around 1:13:40, is one of the most hysterically bad moments I've ever watched. It almost transcends its own awfulness.

Our freaking hero - who's getting a lot of faith, considering his sole survivor status and melodramatic behavior - basically tortures Patrick Stewart. He puts Patrick's life at risk with injections, all to weaken the alien's grip and talk to him. The first thing Carlsen does? He asks if Patrick's aware of what's inside him, then demands "let me speak to her!"

First of all, what a jerk! Second, the guy was already under control and you snap him out so you can put him back under?!

Next, Carlsen starts shouting, "WHAT ARE YOU! [long, weird pause]) WHERE IS YOUR BODY?... LET ME GO!... LET ME GO!" During the rest of the scene he repeats the words "LET ME GO!" at least 10 times. It's almost as bad as the end of the De Niro conviction in "The Untouchables" - not quite that bad, because De Palma was just incompetent, but still pretty damned bad.

It's not just that moments like these are painfully loud and really OTT. It's that it doesn't give any support to the film's mood, or why the characters would follow our surviving astronut. Going by dialogue, there's very little about him that seems especially perceptive, clever, or trustworthy.

Women weaken legs, Rocky!
I have to say that it's nice to see someone take a space movie and make it into an earth invasion pic with vampires that create zombies out of the creatures they drain.

Or the 1:20 mark, when the man on the phone is positively screaming his words. It's like he's IN the helicopter with the two people he's talking to. But they have headsets, and it doesn't sound very loud where they are. Then the first man keeps screaming Carlsen's name, while the two guys who are in the chopper (Carlsen and Colin Caine) just sit there and don't reply. Carlsen's deep in thought for some reason, but... just... can't............... talk. For some reason.

There's no tension with bad scenes like that where even a good actor like Peter Firth seems to be off-pitch.

I think the larger issue that pops up is that the plot to this movie really takes forever to find out. You only hear the full story by the 1:34 mark of a 1:56 movie. I'm not really sure if it's supposed to take this long because the writer didn't want to reveal it beforehand, or because they wanted to portray Carlsen's link with the vampire as growing, or if it was just bad structure.

The "War of the Worlds" element at the end is a pretty big deal. It kind of looks like London is getting attacked by the ark of the covenant from "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

The creature effects are really nice. The sfx are generally just fine - and no wonder, as they were done by the trail-blazing John Dykstra ("Star Wars"). If something doesn't look great, it's at least standard for the time-period.

But we're always mired in senselessness. I can't understand how this disease spreads this rapidly, or why these aliens haven't wiped out the planet already, or how/when people actually stay "normal" after being infected - or why only some even seem to stay "normal." Honestly, someone freaks out in this movie every 20 minutes. Even a helicopter pilot flips out and nearly crashes because of the horror of what's happening behind him.

Then again, I can't fathom how Selene is able to "inhabit" other bodies. Where is her own body while she's doing that? Is she controlling people with her mind, or is she inside them? And is there a psychological component to her constant use of sexuality? She does it even when she's someone else!

The hero blows up his shuttle fairly effectively. While the filmed scene was nice, I'd say another big problem is why burn the inside of your spaceship when you can always just... throw those preserved bodies out into empty space? There's also the larger problem of the protagonist's destroying the video records and communication systems of the ship. Even without the simple "flush them out" option, why would you want humanity to have no warning about the aliens that are hiding in a local comet?

I also can't understand the actions of most of the cast, and this is coming from a reviewer who is totally accepting that the astronaut can read the mind of the vampire and the people she's affected. Or how it is that the 3 creatures from the ship divert life-energy from humans and into their ship - and for some reason, the 2 males collect energy, but send it back to the ship through the female. Is there some sort of symbolism here? Why 2 dudes?

Again, this is a fairly ambitious project, given the variety of ideas, sets, and settings. The latter half of the film tacks on the idea that our vampire legends sprung up from these creatures - that's nifty and all, but the man who pronounces this says he used a large lead-iron sword shoved through the central chakra point in order to kill them. He says that these are "old stories/myths" but a wiki search of the vampire legend doesn't back that up.

Ultimately, the ambition plays out as half-fulfilled over-reaching. In the closing 12 minutes of the movie, as Carlsen is once again shouting his lines of incredulity, questioning, and desired freedom - only right in Mathilda's face, this time. She's wearing a slightly-diaphanous white robe and she's been so naked, I'm kind of happy for her. This is when the movie states that Carlsen is one her species, and that's why she loves him, and she says, "Come with me, Carlsen," reaching her hands up to the ceiling just as the music grows to a little crescendo.

Then we cut back to the street and a shot of a car going through energy-zombie-torn London, Peter Firth running up to, and behind that car. We stay with him to watch London torn apart for a bit. Nice way to undermine what that previous scene was building to, huh? The audience could really use the chance to find out what's going on, and that scene was building to something, then just ends.

I still don't understand how there were so many fires, by the way. I never noticed that London was made of kindling...

We get back to Carlsen and Selene. They were standing together on an altar before, but it looks like a circular hole was burnt through the ground. They're in some black void with energy swirling around them. And she's buck-naked again.

I'm not going to ask "why," but I will ask "how?" And really, I should also ask "why didn't you just give her the last part of the film clothed? She had already been so generous!" Then again, I could also ask why NATO would have a 3-hour deadline to destroying London by nuke. It makes less sense when you consider that the aliens have a 150-mile long space ship in orbit over the city and all your info on them is inside London.

This form of reproduction was banned for causing back-burns and zombie-ism.

At the end, the spaceship flies off towards Halley's, triumphant music blaring. It's a fine Henry Mancini score, but I don't know that it matches the scene. This was only the "2001" of space-horror films in the sense that it's confusing. This is when I think that the crewless ship must have the greatest computer ever. Then I remember that it's organic, so maybe it's a pet or a relative or a future version of the aliens we see.

I'm not sure if "L" actually qualifies as a guilty pleasure or not. Then again, I can't even count how many things I "didn't get" here. In truth, I could understand why some might think this picture is awful. I like the ideas, and a large percentage of the technical execution is great, and I support that spirit of running right at the wall full-steam.

Then again, maybe Mathilda May infected my mind too...

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