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Isn't It About Time You Gave Lifeforce Another Chance?

Lifeforce is a 1985 science fiction horror movie that follows the desperate attempts by an SAS officer and a US astronaut to stem a plague of alien vampires brought back to the planet by a joint UK/US mission to Halleys' Comet. Loosely based on the Colin Wilson novel The Space Vampires , with the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the helm and a script penned by Alien ’s Dan O'Bannon it should have been a major hit. Instead, it was, and still is almost universally panned, a bloated, self-indulgent parade of T and A, nonsensical plotting and random gore. Or is it? Alasdair Stuart states the case for the defence, and also reveals the very odd theory he has about Sir Harry from Spooks ...

Case for the Prosecution: “Good morning!”

Case for the Defence: “You're chirpy.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Got an early night last night, slept like a baby. You?”

Case for the Defence: “Stayed in, caught up with the TV. Caught up on Strictly . My God, Artem Chingvintsev's chest.”

Case for the Prosecution: “You're not serious.”

Case for the Defence: “Absolutely, His pectorals are amazing!”

Case for the Prosecution: “But we're discussing Lifeforce ! And by discussing I mean you're going to defend it and fail and I'm going to tell you why it's rubbish! We'll be done by Lunch!”

Case for the Defence: “You'd best kick off then.”

Case for the Prosecution: “You're calm. This worries me.”

Case for the Defence: “We're waiting.”

Case for the Prosecution: “… Lifeforce is a hot mess. A magnificent disaster. The basic premise is fun, sure but look at the thing's production history. In 1983, Sir John Gielgud, Olivia Hussey and Klaus Kinski were announced as starring. None of them were there when the cameras rolled in 1985. George Peppard was attached to the role of Colonel Carlsen. He never appeared. Michael Caine was offered the role of, slightly oddly, Colonel Colin Caine. He turned it down. This thing was toxic even before it got in front of cameras.”

Case for the Defence: “Whilst we're all huge fans of Michael Caine, the fact that he turned this film down, and accepted Jaws IV: The Revenge I feel tells us everything we need to know about his critical faculties at this point in his career.”

Case for the Prosecution: “But what about the others? Gielgud would have been amazing as Doctor Falada and given the film much needed gravitas.”

Case for the Defence: “Gravitas provided instead by Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay.”

Case for the Prosecution: “And almost entirely negated by Steve Railsback being shrieky and nude all over the place.”

Case for the Defence: “Which is in turn part of the plot. The whole point is Carlson is basically hysterical. It's the thing that makes Colonel Caine a perfect foil for him. Let's talk about Colonel Caine for a moment. Peter Firth flat out steals the entire movie, firstly because of his amazing '80s hair and secondly because he plays Caine as utterly, utterly unflappable.”

Case for the Prosecution: “You mean wooden.”

Case for the Defence: “I mean unflappable and you know it. One of his first lines is, “Start from the beginning, assume we know nothing. Which is of course an understatement.” He's so calm he comes out the other side of it into slightly crazy. Possibly very crazy. Plus the moment towards the end where he's driving back across to London, which is now cordoned off and responds to a squaddie telling him, ‘You don't want to go there, sir,’ with, ‘I know’? Like a totally polite British badass.”

Case for the Prosecution: “You're saying he impresses you?”

Case for the Defence: “No, I'm saying he's the heart of the movie. I'm saying without him this is exactly the nudity and blood sensationalistic garbage you claim it is. I'm also saying, in my own personal canon, he's the same character Firth plays in Spooks .”

Case for the Prosecution: “You're not serious.”

Case for the Defence: “They're both calm, rational soldiers who have a sharp tongue and no compunctions about doing what needs to be done. What if Colonel Caine was instrumental in covering up the events in London? A chemical spill maybe? Mass hysteria? Swamp gas? Terrorist attack? All much more plausible than nude alien sex vampires? Works for me.”

Case for the Prosecution: “You're wrong but... that's actually a bit fascinating. If I may, we need to talk about something more contentious, the world's most overt pointless T and A. Defend that if you will.”

Case for the Defence: “There's T and A is in the original novel.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Oh okay, is it handled any better there?”

Case for the Defence: “Not really.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Then why put it in the film at all?”

Case for the Defence: “You are aware that the 1980s weren't renowned for their decorum and sexual equality, right? If not, I have a stack of Benny Hill DVDs for you. And by for you I mean I don't want them back.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Thank you but no.”

Case for the Defence: “Are you sure?”

Case for the Prosecution: “Totally.”

Case for the Defence: “Ple…”

Case for the Prosecution: “Stop it, you're embarrassing yourself. Let's face it you're already doing enough of that.”

Case for the Defence: “Thank you, that's quite enough. My point stands though: to criticise Lifeforce for its pointless T and A is completely acceptable, even compulsory. But to do so also means you have to criticise every other movie and TV show from the 1980s for their pointless excesses. Context is king, especially critical and cultural context. It's like shouting at breakfast TV. All you get is hoarse, tired and eventually Timmy Mallet just happens anyway.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Which doesn't excuse it. Or indeed Timmy Mallet. Let's not forget this is a film where the female lead is a perpetually nude, almost completely silent sexually-crazed monster. This barely even qualifies as sexism it's so incredibly offensive. What do you say to that?”

Case for the Defence: “You're right. It's unforgivable. But I'm right too. It's in very bad company. Let's move on.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Okay. How about the fact that narratively the thing's a mess? There's huge amounts filmed on the Churchill which was cut, huge amounts more clearly missing once the plague takes hold and it doesn't so much end as stop.”

Case for the Defence: “Yes, there's a lot missing from the Churchill but is it needed? Boy commands joint US/UK space shuttle mission to Halley's Comet, meets girl who's naked and suspended in a crystal, brings her home, she and her brothers turn out to be alien space vampires. How many times have we heard that story? It's all on screen too.”

Case for the Prosecution: “What about the missing stuff at I Can't Believe It's Not The British Rocket Group?”

Case for the Defence: “It's a problem but not an insurmountable one. Besides, the fact that things get that bad that fast whilst Carlson and Caine are off in Yorkshire shows how insidious the plague is and the reveal on it reaching the government is lovely. I'll go further too. The fact that the movie is set entirely in England gives it a unique feel. The devastation of London feels visceral and real, the closing scenes evoke the endings of all time greats like The Quatermass Experiment , just with slightly more nudity I'll grant you, and the film plays more like Day Of The Triffids than Alien . That's quite an achievement for a predominantly American production team.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Okay, l will give you production values but this thing is still a disaster. It's over-sexed, cheerfully over-gory, barely coherent and throws characters and events at the wall in the desperate hope that something will stick.”

Case for the Defence: “I'm sorry could you list those again for me?”

Case for the Prosecution: “...Okay. It's an over-sexed, over thought badly written mess with a brilliant idea behind it.”

Case for the Defence: “Anything else?”

Case for the Prosecution: “Oh yes, it doesn't deserve the success it has, and all that people see are the reputations of those involved and the accumulated good will of nostalgia.”

Case for the Defence: “Thank you. Your honour as both I, and my learned colleague have just proved, Lifeforce is worth another chance because without it, Torchwood would never have happened, the defence rests.”

Case for the Prosecution: “I beg your pardon.”

Case for the Defence: “It's Torchwood episode zero. Over sexed, badly written, overly gory, barely coherent, accumulated good will of nostalgia? Torchwood . Episode Zero.”

Case for the Prosecution: “But... Objection!”

Case for the Defence: “To what? The ridiculous sex scenes of Torchwood season one? The dubious editing of several episodes? The needless gore? The needless profanity? The laughable arc plot? Or the fact that many people only stayed with it because of it's Doctor Who association? Get in line.”

Case for the Prosecution: “Ah but , you said season one! Torchwood improved! Season two was noticeably better and season three…”

Case for the Defence: “Was the best piece of science fiction TV of the last 30 years, yes I know. Even Miracle Day was ambitious and tried hard for its sins. But all of them have Lifeforce as a very clear ancestor, as patient zero if you like. Without Lifeforce , the idea of adult or, unfortunately, ‘adult’ science fiction in this country wouldn't have taken hold. Yes it's frequently dreadful and yes, it's pretty much impossible to defend a movie where the female lead's entire character is ‘naked, alien, kills people’ but the sheer exuberance of the rest of the thing almost makes up for that. The entire film is incredibly enthusiastic, Firth and Crazy Railsback are an insanely entertaining double act and the Prime Minister being turned into an energy crazed space vampire is a throwaway event that any other film would have focused on. Lifeforce is so crazy, so incident heavy that it leaves everything on the screen in its mission to entertain and its sins, which I'm not denying, are as much the sins of the time as the sins of the movie itself. Those sins aside, this is a quietly important, wildly eccentric piece of British science fiction that lies solidly between John Wyndham and New Who . Lifeforce isn't a classic, but is a vital step in the evolution of populist science fiction cinema. Plus the closing music is utterly brilliant.”

Case for the prosecution: “That we concede.”

Case for the defence: “Woohoo! How about some lunch?”

Case for the prosecution: “You're buying.”

Case for the defence: “And you're taking those Benny Hill DVDs.”

Case for the prosecution: “I hate you.”

• Read previous Isn’t It About Time…? features

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.