Cannon expected Lifeforce to be an absolute science-fiction event, and they sure pulled together a lot of resources to make it happen. Horror legend Tobe Hooper, director of both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, sat in the director’s chair. Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter for Alien, was on the team. John Dykstra, visual effects artist for Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, joined for some space scenes. Henry Mancini did the score. Cannon scheduled the shoot for seventeen weeks. It took twenty-two. The budget was $25 million. Back to the Future, the biggest movie released the same year, cost $6 million less. Even so, Lifeforce was a flop.
Based on a book by Colin Wilson called The Space Vampires, Lifeforce is part Star Trek, part Alien, part Return of the Living Dead, and part whatever it was David Cronenberg had been doing with naked Canadian ladies and gore effects in the 1970s. An international space research team on the Space Shuttle Churchill intercepts Haley’s Comet as it flies by and discovers a gigantic space ship in it. Exploring the derelict vessel, they find many dead, desiccated corpses of humanoid bats and three preserved human-looking bodies. They transport these last three, in their transparent coffins, back to the Churchill. Then no one hears from the shuttle crew again.
The Americans launch Columbia to intercept the now-drifting shuttle when it approaches Earth orbit and discover the insides gutted by fire but the three alien bodies in perfect condition. The astronauts bring the bodies back to Earth. Soon, all three aliens wake up and start sucking the life out of anyone who comes within kissing distance.
I love the bit at the beginning, which looks a lot like the first Star Trek movie. There used to be a lot more of this, but the studio cut it before release. The next act where they are trying to figure out what happened to the Churchill is also plenty creepy.
Then the “Space Girl” — that’s what they call her, “Space Girl” — wakes up and we get a vampire movie. She goes around seducing people and sucking the life out of them. This doesn’t turn them into other space vampires, though. Instead, it turns them into something more like zombies: mindless creatures attacking whoever they can find. The male aliens funnel the “life force” through the Space Girl and back to the alien craft. This is not Freudian in the least.
This is one way the movie goes pear-shaped. We move, sequentially, from hard sci-fi, through medical sci-fi, then erotic vampirism, then zombie flicks, and finally the end sequence of Ghostbusters. Each segment gets wrapped up in a little bow before the next one begins. The plot develops, but the rapid focus changes make it feel like a stranger’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
I suspect, although I have no evidence of this, that Tobe Hooper wanted the vampire bits to be a clever inversion of the Bram Stoker Dracula stories. A beautiful woman entrances men and then drains them of their essence. Mathilda May is the Count, Steve Railsback is Mina. Boom! Gender flip!
The script is not graceful about this. An investigator interrogates one victim: “She was the most overwhelmingly feminine presence I’ve ever encountered,” he says.
“Was it sexual?” the investigator asks.
“Yes, overwhelmingly so. And horrible. The loss of control…”
The exposition is not only weird and awkward, but unnecessary. Hooper is great at visual storytelling. But this is a common problem in Lifeforce: clumsy and weird words come close on the heels of creative cinematography and subtle acting.
Anyway, it may be a gender flip on Dracula but the theme isn’t new. Men in movies and literature obsess about losing their masculine autonomy in the face of feminine sexuality. You can see it in Macbeth, Shaun of the Dead, and Facebook jokes about men getting bossed around by their wives at home. It’s not a clever inversion, it’s one of the most common sexual anxiety themes in literature. The film team makes sure you notice it, too, by making the only major female character homicidal, hypnotic, and buck-naked. And then all the men go around saying how exhausted they are by her femininity.
It’s worth pointing out here that May is a trained ballet dancer, and what do they ask her to do? Lie still and be naked. Smirk at the men. Kiss the men. It’s a waste, but Mathilda does her best with the literal nothing they give her. She can creep me all the way out with the barest squint of her eyes.
What May gives us, Railsback takes away. He veers from stoic to raging within the same shot. In one scene, where he’s supposed to be questioning a nurse who they suspect the Space Girl had possessed, he smacks her around and tears off her clothes. “She wants me to hurt her,” he screams. Railsback chews through scenery and spews the dialog back out like Monty Python’s repulsive Mr. Creosote.
When Lifeforce is being atmospheric and moody, it is quite good. But it rips off too much, too blatantly. Either the editor or the director has too little faith in the storytelling. And no one knows what genre they want it to be. It’s exhausting. Watch it with coffee.