A review requested by Not Fenimore, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

Do you have a movie you'd like to see reviewed? This and other perks can be found on our Patreon page!


The 1985 Cannon Films production Lifeforce is two entirely different exploitation films in one. Three, if you consider "Cannon Films production" to  be its own discrete form of exploitation cinema, and I would not fault you one little bit for doing so. The boring one is that it's an Alien knock-off, something of which there have been so many over the years that it's not even a little bit interesting to point it out. I mean, Cannon Films and rip-off artists extraordinaire Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, producing an Alien knock-off? No shit, of course they would. The other one is the exact opposite of boring - it's a weird little attempt to cash in on a major cultural event that, to my knowledge, not one single other feature film tried to cash in on. Which is itself a bit odd, but there you go: Lifeforce, the Halley's Cometsploitation movie. The comet being due for a very famous arrival in Earth's night sky in February 1986, eight months after the movie hit theaters, as one of those great big, ballyhooed "science fun for the whole family" experiences. Credit must be given to Lifeforce for hanging some excellent pulpy genre conceits on that opportunity: what if the comet was in fact an alien spaceship covered in cosmic dust and ice? What if the aliens were space vampires? What if the regular return of the comet to Earth means that those aliens have been here before, and may in fact have been the source of Earth's vampire myths?

Lifeforce doesn't do anything with those conceits, really, but they make for excellent flavoring. Rather, what the film is mostly interested in exploring is a wholly different question: what if we spent a commanding portion of the running time parading Mathilda May's tits in front of the camera? Now there's the kind of question for a Cannon picture to explore. The answer is probably different for every viewer, but we can at least say that it didn't do anything for the film's commercial prospects: Lifeforce cost a stunning $25 million, a massive budget by Cannon standards, and grossed around half of that, a perfect example the kind of extravagant flop that led to Cannon's bankruptcy not many years later.

We can speculate at length about why the film flared out so badly, but the simplest answer, I imagine, is correct: it's bad. Ah, but the particular badness of Lifeforce is cumbersome enough to deserve more than that level of dismissal. It is remarkably ambitious in its badness, trying to cover lots of ground that surely didn't need to all be covered by the same movie; if it had worked, it might have seemed like one of the great messy masterpieces of its generation, but absolutely nothing about it hangs together. To begin with, in calling it an Alien knock-off, I am selling it short: it is an Alien knock-off swirled together with a 2001: A Space Odyssey knock-off. And even that's only the first act. The film opens with the mission of a British-US spacecraft, the space shuttle Churchill, to go on a near approach of Halley's comet for scientific study. And let us not make too much of the fact that the UK has a space program in this movie, screenwriters Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby don't (O'Bannon, of course, was the screenwriter of Alien also, and I'm not sure that he was ever so shameless in stealing from himself). The crew of the Churchill - we only need to bother with American Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) - finds to their shock a massive, massive spacehip, in the tens of miles long, hiding in the comet's dust cloud, and finds its massive interior full of desiccated bat-like creatures. Also three naked, and very beautiful, humans: one female (May), and two male (Chris Jagger, Bill Malin). The crew decides to take these naked humans and one bat creature back home for further study, and we suddenly leap ahead quite a bit in the story.

Snark as much as I might, but the opening of Lifeforce is honestly quite good. The film's visual effects are, to say the least, uneven, but this is where most of the money was obviously spent, and it was a good investment; aesthetically, if not financially. The film ended up in the hands of director Tobe Hooper, not by any means an intuitive choice for an effects-heavy sci-fi movie, not even one with the quantity of gross-effects that this has, but he clearly studied his models closely, and the sheer scale and slowness of space travel come through very strong throughout. So does the eeriness of the derelict ship, a space haunted house that feels entirely plausible as the construction of some unknown, inhuman civilization, gloomy and dangerous but not showy about it. And the uncanny revelation of the naked humans is a genuine surprise, with the nudity genuinely adding to the strangeness of it all. Hooper's first cut of the film was 128 minutes long, a version that has never seen release: it was cut down to 116 minutes (and from there to a mere 101 minutes for the United States, a ludicrous butcher job that is, happily, no longer the easiest way to find the film), and most of the 12 minutes came from the Churchill's mission. One can easily imagine a version of this that's even more invested in the 2001/Star Trek: The Motion Picture glacial pacing, not least because vestiges of it remain: the ship's travel to and into the derelict behemoth is ribboned with dissolves that are obvious late-in-the-game patch-ups to stitch together scenes that were sliced apart with very little care for rhythm or atmosphere. I can see why Cannon freaked out at what Hooper gave them, but I have to imagine that Lifeforce would benefit from that material being left in; the sense of dread that s-l-o-w-l-y creeps along in this first act is easily the best part of the whole film, unless you're that invested in May's breasts, and stretching things out even more feels like it might have made that feeling linger all the longer.

It would be worth it, because the instant - the exact instant - that we leap ahead, Lifeforce collapses. The Churchill was gutted by fire with all hands seemingly lost, but the three weird humans remain in pristine order. We return to the film just as the bodies are brought to a research center in London, under the care of Dr. Leonard Bukovsky (Michael Gothard) and specialist - in dead aliens, I guess? - Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay). The military is present in the form of Col. Colin Caine (Peter Firth). And with that, I don't see any need to keep up with the plot, because from this point until very close to the end, the movie is just the most aggressively boring thing. This should not be possible, given that its plot, till around the halfway point, focuses on a gorgeous naked female vampire who seduces her pray using something like a forcefield of raw sexual desire. And yet, having now seen Lifeforce a revolting number of times, I can confirm: that's exactly what happens.

There are, I think, a few different forces all working on the movie from different angles. One, it cannot decide how trashy it wants to be. "A slow-moving mash-up of Alien and 2001" and "yowza, look at the tomatoes on that broad" are two extremely different movies, and I'm not sure in either case that Tobe Hooper would have been my first choice to direct. Nor would he have been the name that would have leapt to the front of my rolodex upon adding "also, it's super fucking English" to the mix - not to mention that a Cannon-style exploitation picture built around selling a nubile French 19-year-old and British funding are hardly likely to have the same idea of how much trashiness is the correct amount. With the finished film available to me, I can say at least this much: Lifeforce needed to be much trashier. It might have been nice for it to be longer and more artful in the beginning, but it absolutely needed to be more crass and obnoxious. Not just about the nudity, either! A few times in the early going, we see human victims of the space vampires (the men, of course, also come back to life, but dongs are of less interest to the filmmakers than titties, so they get very little screentime) in various states of desiccation, or occasionally just plain exploding like a water balloon full of blood.

So there's definitely a vein of the most gutter-level instinct for tasteless excess, and I'm all for it. Cheesy exploitation on a big budget with obvious eyes towards courting the sci-fi audience that everybody was hungry for in the years following Star Wars, that sounds irresistible in its grubby way, and while Hooper's name will and should always command respect thanks to his apocalyptic debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of 1974, most of his subsequent career suggests that he's at his best when he's wallowing in the B-movie trenches most enthusiastically. But Lifeforce is a very stuffy, square movie, one that moves too slowly and talks too seriously for its most overheated B-movie elements to thrive.

This shifts over the course of the movie, to be sure. One of the odder things about the film is that every 20 or 30 minutes, it completely reinvents itself, shifting the story and changing up the tone; aghast scientists in a lab giving way to a naked woman wandering around a park is one thing, but eventually we get Carlsen coming back, with a psychic link to the vampire, or a baffling trip to a psychiatric hospital most notable for getting a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Patrick Stewart in on the fun.* None of these different bits and pieces feel like they belong together, and nobody involved in making the film is trying very hard to force that to happen. In particular, the way that the film seems to keep picking up and dropping new main characters (including the vampire herself; she can hop between bodies, and does so multiple times) exaggerates the feeling of Lifeforce as a cluster of story fragments all pressed into the same two hours mostly in the spirit of having something that could be released to theaters.

The good news is that the film ends on its second-best sequence, a vision of apocalyptic London on the cheap (the budget was seemingly all spent on the first third, because some of this looks pretty dodgy) with a mystical light show climax. This doesn't to be clear, "work", but it at least gets the film back to the realm of gaudy excess and strong genre elements, and it mostly does away with glum Englishmen looking stern at each other. It has some of the space operatic feeling that the opening act was so invested in, and it brings back a feeling of, if not "gravity", at least appropriately convincing fake gravity, right when the film needs to impress on its way out. That middle 70-plus minutes, though, is drab as all hell: uninteresting to look at, stultifying in its narration, and only Henry Mancini's variably bombastic and atonal score makes it particularly easy to stay awake through any of it. The thing is a sordid little B-movie; it shouldn't feel like a British character drama, and it's even worse because that character drama is badly made on top of everything.




*As we know, Sir Patrick has a particular love of nudity-heavy films.