Tobe Hooper‘s science-fiction/horror film Lifeforce (1985)—and I’ll confess right up front that it’s one of my guiltiest 80s pleasures, despite it not being “all that good”—is a mess. It begins as an Alien ripoff, rapidly veers into sexploitation territory (where it dwells for a good long while), drops by an insane asylum to pick up some Gothic overtones, then devolves into a relatively generic zombie movie before metamorphosing one last time into something of a vampire flick (which it’s supposedly been all along).
The plot, very briefly:
We open on board the space shuttle Churchill. (Much is made of the fact that this is a joint UK/US mission; apparently Hooper shot a lot of shuttle footage, then had to cut it.) The crew encounters, hidden within the corona of Halley’s Comet (topical!), a vast and seemingly derelict alien ship. Inside they find three naked humans, whom they bring aboard their own ship. Of course nothing good comes of this. Another shuttle, sent up to rescue them, finds the Churchill destroyed, with only the three naked humans surviving. They bring those three to Earth; of course nothing good &c. The trio escapes from a government lab and proceeds to terrify and zombify London by draining the populace’s vital fluids (or “lifeforces”).
It is a bold film. The lead space vampire—played by French actress Mathilda May—spends nearly the entire movie nude. She is stunning. At a midnight screening I attended last year, the entire theater—over 700 souls—gasped in unison when the film finally revealed her in all her pneumatic majesty:
I don’t know what Tobe Hooper was thinking—all right, he was probably thinking, “I’m making a Cannon film; let’s see some boobs!”—but Lifeforce just begs for feminist swerving. May is clearly the film’s protagonist, the movie’s center. I couldn’t have been the only ten-year-old boy who wanted—wanted desperately—for her to win.
She has an opponent: the British military sends in Col. Caine, who’s SAS, wears nice turtlenecks and a leather jacket, and says things like, “Gentlemen, that last remark is not for publication; this is a D-notice situation”:
Caine proves a somewhat innocuous but relatively sympathetic character; he’s played by Peter Firth, who himself went naked—alongside Jenny Agutter!—in Equus (both the play and Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation). Meanwhile, the Churchill‘s American captain, Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback), arrives on earth via escape pod; he teams up with Caine to hunt down their three naked enemies, who turn out to be space vampires (and who in their true forms look like giant bats). One of the two male vampires is portrayed by Christopher Jagger, the Rolling Stones’s frontman’s younger brother—although I can’t tell which one he is; the film doesn’t dwell on them:
The dialogue is fascinating in its ridiculousness. The screenplay was written by the late Dan O’Bannon, the talented screenwriter responsible for Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), part of Heavy Metal (1981), and the Philip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall (1990). And it’s based on a novel by Colin “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century” Wilson:
…which I haven’t read. Wilson despised Hooper’s adaptation; he wrote in his autobiography: “John Fowles had once told me that the film of The Magus was the worst movie ever made. After seeing Lifeforce I sent him a postcard telling him that I had gone one better” (332).
Regardless of what we’d find in Wilson’s original, it’s hard to believe at times that O’Bannon, in his version, wasn’t aiming for camp. He has Col. Carlsen spout lines like, “She’s looking for a man—any man—a healthy man!” and “She’s destroyed worlds!” (Railsback makes a deliciously ineffectual—and therefore paradoxically effective—male lead.) In another scene, Carlsen beats up a woman while screaming lines like, “Despite appearances, this woman is a masochist—an extreme masochist! She wants me to force the name out of her! She wants me to hurt her!”
(See roughly four minutes in.) This scene, at least, must be at least partially knowing. (When Carlsen—seconds away from performing his forcing and hurting—offers Caine the chance to step outside, the man replies: “Not at all. I am a natural voyeur.”)
Col. Carlsen has a psychic link, it turns out, with Mathilda May’s character; I won’t spoil the fun by revealing how this came about. That tried-and-true plot convenience allows the two colonels to track our heroine to the aforementioned insane asylum—and it truly is an insane asylum, full of shadowy corners and echoing shrieks and moans. The unsavory place is administered by one Dr. Armstrong—Patrick Stewart, whose ease amidst this storm of nonsense provides a potent reminder of what a good actor he once was. (Supposedly Hooper wanted Sir John Gielgud for the part, but couldn’t afford him.) The plot unfolds, and Stewart ends up in a wheelchair; minutes later, he kisses Steve Railsback. Those two stretches alone have no doubt spawned one hundred YouTube mash-ups (curiously, however, I’ve yet to see them).
Some critics, too, have had their fun with the picture. (You have to write your dissertation on something, and Alien‘s already been discussed to death…). Here’s a very good queer rereading of the film (although I’m astonished that it omits the Railsback/Stewart kiss). And here’s a broader reading of the film’s graphic sexual content, positing May’s Space Girl as a sex tourist whose “purpose [is] to take the viewer on a wild tour of sexual matters”:
When Carlsen first boards the alien spacecraft early in the film, he finds its interior similar to a massive womb. This similarity is so telling that Carlsen blurts, “I feel like I’ve been here before.” The tiny astronauts, probing deep into the long tunnel to the hidden chamber beyond, might well be the tiny sperm navigating a uterus. When they reach the hidden (egg?) Chamber, they discover May, and their instant lust creates new life in her. When she is returned to Earth, this creature created by the lust of her would-be victims/lovers, the so-called “feminine” in Carlsen’s mind, begins her exploration of every facet of human sexuality. (Muir 456)
I’ll take this opportunity to weigh in with my own preferred reading. The film is, at heart, a science-fiction retelling of Mary Poppins. Think about it:
Space Girl arrives in London by means of a giant umbrella…
…during which a lot of people die laughing.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the entire film is up at YouTube, although the May scenes (i.e., the film’s most compelling content) keep getting taken down. But hunt around and you should be able to find them.
A final note: the film bears no connection with the Nintendo Entertainment System game Life Force, which is in fact a port of the Japanese game Salamander. One has to wonder why, though, that name was changed. The game came out in 1986; Lifeforce was, by then, a commercial flop. But was some savvy Nintendo US executive hoping that young boys would pilot their miniature spacecraft through the often vaginal corridors of the invading alien life form in the hopes of encountering Ms. May…?
I know that I did.