Mess or Masterpiece?
Sample critical reaction: "Lifeforce is a movie about Halley's comet, and if we're lucky, we won't see another like it for 75 years. It's an expensive cheap exploitation movie . . . that will bore even the most hard-core of sci-fi devotees." --Paul Attanasio, The Washington Post
Some films seem bound and determined to make themselves critically indefensible. With 1985's Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper, famous for his cannibal-family parable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, takes Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires and regurgitates a film that's simultaneously obvious and obscure, heady and dumb as a rock, and, just to be really confusing, some sort of messy masterpiece.
The plot alone is so ridiculous that it defies explanation, but here goes: A space shuttle assigned to fly by Halley's comet, commandeered by Col. Carlsen (Steve Railsback), encounters a vast biomechanical alien craft. Inside the craft, Carlsen and crew discover countless naked aliens--looking a lot like depilated models--apparently in suspended animation. Carlsen finds one buxom nude alienette (Mathilda May) especially enchanting; for the rest of the film, she will simply be dubbed "Space Girl."
Carlsen resists Space Girl's charms and returns to Earth. His crew doesn't; she sucks the life out of them for their troubles. (Life-sucking here involves a kiss, crackling blue lightning, and finally, a desiccated corpse.) Space Girl comes to Earth, where she shape-shifts her way through London, sucking as she goes. In an amazing moment worthy of Todd Haynes at his weirdest, Space Girl "becomes" fusty Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), who then French-kisses an understandably confused earthling male in front of a huge David Bowie poster.
Anyway, half of London's population become Space Girl-infected ravenous zombies in no time flat, their blue souls sparking through the night sky to the silent mothership. But all this is mere setup for Hooper's main concerns: the weirdly incestuous (don't ask) love affair between Space Girl and Carlsen and a revision of Christian doctrine that leads to the lovers rutting in a ruined church, complete with what was then considered high-tech transubstantiation effects.
One can understand why critics had little patience for Lifeforce. Paying homage to pop stars and classic Hammer Studios horror movies makes it postmodern; being earnest about its overt psychosexual and
Christ-resurrection subtexts makes it simply nuts. But in an ultimately wondrous way. Hooper creates a sense of discomfiture and awe from his dumbfounding assemblage of resurrection rewrite, zombie film, incest parable, and effects extravaganza. With its iffy sexuality and arbitrary plotting, Lifeforce is alternately scary, silly, and unforgettable. Most importantly, and despite all the above, it makes sense while it's happening. In other words, Hooper was able to replicate the experience of dreaming on film. Which is pretty damned remarkable.