Zardoz and none of the pretensions. Directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby, the movie is based on noted occult writer Colin Wilson's novel, The Space Vampires, and it is a go-for-broke space opera and would-be blockbuster that arrives packed with expensive special effects, gruesome set pieces, deadly serious actors uttering daft expository dialogue, flagrant sexuality and nudity, and complete nonsense passing for a plot. And yet despite all this, or perhaps because of all this, Lifeforce remains a grandly entertaining piece of pulp cinema, is never once boring, and contains some unforgettable imagery.
While exploring the tail of Haley's Comet, the space shuttle Churchhill under the command of Col. Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) discovers an alien spacecraft containing not only carcasses of strange, bat-like creatures but also the bodies of three nude humanoids in some kind of force field containers, and Carlsen orders they bring the humanoids back with them. Thirty days later, the shuttle returns to earth, but only the humanoids are found alive. Soon, the Space Girl (Mathilda May) wakes up and escapes containment, in the process draining the energy, or "lifeforce," out of several people, turning them into zombies that must similarly feed or be reduced to dust. Col. Caine (Peter Firth) of the SAS and Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) head the investigation and pursuit and are at wit's end until Carlsen is found alive in an escape pod. It's soon discovered Carlsen has a psychic link with the girl to help track her, but before too long, London becomes overrun with soul-sucking zombies.
In short, Lifeforce starts out like Alien, turns into something resembling The Quatarmass Experiment crossed with Dracula and ends up like a cosmic take on a George Romero zombie movie. The change of style and genre from scene to scene (and sometimes within a scene) is quite baffling at times and enough to make your head spin. The movie also moves at a brisk pace that really doesn't allow the viewer ample time to absorb and process everything that's happened or been explained, so if you're not on your toes, you'll fall behind.
What the movie does having going for it is a first-class production team. The special effects - the space ship in orbit, Haley's Comet, the destruction of London - are done by John Dykstra, and they are quite impressive. The space scenes, in particular those shots that make these tiny, floating astronauts look so minuscule among vast surroundings, is hypnotic and awe-inspiring. Hooper utilizes a lot of dissolves and unorthodox camera angles (upside down) to not only suggest weightlessness but also a dreamy, surreal sensation. Composer Henry Mancini turns in a rousing and bombastic score that not only builds anticipation but suggests an epic scope seldom realized in this kind of movie.
The movie proceeds from one spectacular set piece to the next. The death scenes are impressive. The victims are drained right in front of our eyes, shriveling up spectacularly into wrinkled, walking corpses, and when they occur, the screen fills with flashing lights and electricity. It's gross but not revolting and in retrospect obviously fake, but these and other attacks work in a comic-book kind of way. The mantra of the film seems to be pile on one outrageous deed after another whether it be the bizarre deaths, the giant bat creatures, Patrick Stewart locking lips with Steve Railsback, or Mathilda May spending most of the movie completely nude before anyone can get bored.
The Wicker Man. You could also argue Lifeforce is a comment on the then-emerging AIDS epidemic. After all, vampirism here is a seduction by a beautiful woman who leaves her victims emaciated husks. That kind of subtext is hard to ignore.
The actors - a who's who of respected British thespians plus Railsback (an American) - give such deadly serious performances, you'd think they were performing Shakespeare. The characters more than anything else parallel those in Dracula: Carlsen as Jonathan Harker, Finlay as Van Helsing, etc. Even Railsback's venture into the spaceship resembles Harker's trip to Dracula's castle in terms of tone and effect, and the psychic link used to track the Space Girl via hypnosis also mirrors the hypnotizing of Mina to track Dracula.
Despite the Dracula parallels, Lifeforce really resembles Frankenstein's monster. Cobbled together from many different parts and pieces from other works, it can be really ugly, but somehow, it holds together.