In his “Words of Advice” routine, William S. Burroughs wrote, “If after having been exposed to someone’s presence you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence.” It’s a suggestion that was roundly ignored by virtually every character in Tobe Hooper’s ambitious science fiction horror film, Lifeforce.
In the early ‘80s the team behind Cannon pictures—Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan—obtained the rights to Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires. It was a sprawling, complex, almost epic novel that at once put a few interesting twists on the old vampire legend and at the same time owed quite a bit to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass scripts from the ‘50s. Golan and Globus saw in the novel a chance to make something a cut above the usual low-budget quickies Cannon was known for—a serious, large-scale sci fi blockbuster along the lines of Alien, and something that would be just as successful.
To this end they changed the title to something with a little more prestige and rounded up a high-profile cast and crew including Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper (rumors be damned), Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, composer Henry Mancini, and a cast that included George Peppard, John Gielgud, Klaus Kinski, and Olivia Hussey. The film was budgeted at $25 million (whopping by Cannon standards) and everyone went to work.
Well, then actors started dropping out of the project (including Peppard, Gielgud, Kinski, and Hussey), there were money and schedule troubles, script changes, a number of scenes that couldn’t be shot for one reason or another, all the usual bugaboos. In the end Hooper edited together a two-plus-hour long version of the film. This was then trimmed to 116 minutes, and that in turn was edited to 101 minutes for the US market. For all the troubles along the way, and for the bad taste left in so many mouths after the production was finished (no one was happy with the way things turned out, it seems), it’s still a very entertaining film—it’s just not the film it was supposed to be, is all.
When the crew of The Churchill, a joint British and American mission to study Halley’s Comet, encounters a 150-mile-long alien spacecraft lurking in the comet’s corona, they have no choice but to board it and see what’s what. This is where we encounter the first of the film’s endless narrative jumps. One second the crew, led by Col. Carlson (Steve Railsback) is discussing what to do and the next a boarding party is exploring the massive alien ship. Knowing a bit about the production, it leaves you wondering if this was the result of scenes not being shot, scenes trimmed out later, sloppy and slapdash editing, or on the contrary really good editing that kept the pace of the film snappy. Who knows?
Anyway, moments after boarding the ship the team discovers thousands of desiccated bat-like creatures which should have told them immediately they were dealing with a bunch of, you know, space vampires. But a few seconds later when they discover the bodies of three perfectly beautiful and perfectly naked humanoids sealed in glass coffins, well, all those dead bats became an afterthought. Once back aboard the ship, all the male members of the crew seem to be uncontrollably attracted to the presumably dead large-breasted alien girl. Something odd is clearly afoot.
Before you know it (thanks to a few more big jump cuts) the Churchill has returned to Earth’s orbit. Unfortunately the ship’s been gutted by a fire and the entire crew seems to be dead. This allows a member of the rescue team to get on the radio and, twelve years after it was originally spoken and ten years before it entered the pop culture lexicon, utter the line “Houston, we have a problem.”
But wouldn’t you know it—those naked aliens are still in perfect shape, and so are brought down to a research facility in England. Will these people never learn? Don’t they ever go to the movies?
To the surprise of very few audience members, the nude alien girl (Matilda May, who is too ashamed to include Lifeforce on her resume) wakes up and in the film’s most famous sequence, begins wandering about the facility, sucking the life from nearly every man she encounters in a spray of sparks and lightning bolts. This leads to the picture’s most singularly memorable line, “There’s no way a naked girl is going to get out of this complex.” But of course she does, spreading a kind of space-age vampiric plague throughout London.
Attempting to describe the plot any further at this point is useless, as things get awfully complicated. O’Bannon wrote a grand and grandiose script featuring dozens of characters, multiple storylines, and some big ideas (the central one appears to be “women are evil creatures who lure men, suck the life out of them, then dump them in the gutter”). Henry Mancini’s overdramatic score, which owes an awful lot to the score from North by Northwest, announces in very broad strokes that we’re watching something Major and Important. The actors speak their lines with a measured gravity rarely seen in a sci fi film, and the special effects are surprisingly good.
Like Alien from six years earlier, however, at heart Lifeforce is a low-budget genre picture writ large—a film with big dreams and big ambitions. The difference between the two is that Alien—with its big-studio budget and Ridley Scott at the helm—had the means to pull it off.
If Golan and Globus had been paying attention when they were hiring the cast and crew for this Major Blockbuster, they might have noted that Hooper was better known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than for Poltergeist, that O’Bannon had just written and directed Return of the Living Dead, and that their name star, Steve Railsback, was as well known for playing Charles Manson as he was for his role in The Stunt Man. That may help explain why upon its release, the film brought in less than $12 million. Despite all their hopes and pretensions, they’d made a genre picture with genre names that attracted a genre crowd.
The funny thing is that in the end I still like Lifeforce better than Alien.