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ROBOTS (2005)

Lifeforce Starring: Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart. Director: Tobe Hooper. Screenwriters: Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby, from Colin Wilson's novel.
Lifeforce is one of those movies that could have been a lot better than it is, and the shame of it is that there is quite a lot of the “terrific” movie hidden in the “mediocre” or "confusing" one.

The story has a nice imaginative spin on the vampire myth, as astronauts exploring Halley’s Comet come across an abandoned spaceship containing three humanoids in suspended animation.   The creatures are brought to Earth, the female escapes, and a swiftly spreading plague of vampirism rapidly overtakes London.

This film is only available in the “European” version, which adds about fifteen minutes to the running time.  This is unfortunate, because the extra footage serves no real purpose except to bloat the storyline, add unnecessary details, and lessen the impact of some moments.  In the “American” cut, the film flies, moving at 300 miles per hour from scene to scene, with hardly a pause to catch its breath; I think this helps to overcome some of the sillier aspects of the film—there just isn’t time to consider them. 

The “European” version seems sluggish by comparison, not to mention awkward and at times ridiculous.

Case in point:  as Colonel Cane approaches the church where the vampires are channeling life energy back to their ship, one of them knocks him aside with a casual glance, as if Cane isn’t even worthy of contempt.   It’s a wonderful moment from a creature that is, essentially, a super-predator.  How else would he regard prey?   Well, the European version answers that:  he looks at Cane and says (in a deep, stentorian voice), “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.”   There’s no way to convey just how ludicrous this is.   It turns a powerful moment into high camp.  (Not to mention the salient point:  these creatures have come to Earth to kill as many as possible of us.  Why would they care if the experience was terrifying or not?)

I hope “high camp” isn’t what Tobe Hooper wanted.  He’s nowadays widely regarded as a director whose reputation is based on one or two extraordinarily lucky breaks, and Lifeforce wasn’t one of them.   It pretty much crashed to the ground and survives today as a smallish cult item.  Just think if it had been successful—there’d be action figures and things.

A Mathilda May action figure—now that would be cool.

I know the “Director’s cut” is supposed to be the favored version among film fans, but I haven’t always found that it’s a good version.   It would be cruel to mention the Star Wars “Special Editions,” so I won’t.   But more of something isn’t necessarily better. Tom Hanks is a very talented actor; if size were everything, making him a hundred pounds heavier should make him a better actor, yes?  (Tom Hanks isn’t in Lifeforce.)

The film is scored by Henry Mancini, who I don’t usually think of as someone associated with horror films; so far as I know, this is his only genre credit.   The music is actually quite powerful at times, though Mancini seems uncertain what to do with science fiction scenes and zombie attacks.   I originally thought his ending theme was kind of silly (it’s a fast waltz, so it reminds me of the polka at the end of Dawn of the Dead), but it has since grown on me and I get a kick out of it.

Toward the end of the film, a sense of desperation creeps in, as if money were rapidly running out.   The church vampire’s transformation, for example, is handled in the old Irwin Allen method—have an explosion right in front of the camera, and when the explosion clears, your creature is transformed.   It looked stupid in "Lost in Space" and it looks stupid here.

The actual ending is something of a head-scratcher.  It doesn’t really resolve anything, as far as I can see.   Were the last vampires killed?   The way they were shot toward their spaceship, it was hard to tell.  In the words of a soldier earlier in the film, “They don’t look bloody dead to me.”  It looked more like a new vampire was taking the place of the old.  Can we expect them back, in seventy-six years?  Or what?

Now that I’ve trashed the film, I have to say I really, really enjoy it.   It’s imaginative and has some scenes of real power, and all those British accents sure make it plausible-sounding.  I particularly like Frank Finlay’s “That girl was no girl.  She’s totally alien to this planet, and our life-form…and totally dangerous.” 

Steve Railsback’s heavy Southern accent just doesn’t work, though; lines like “She had some kind of mental contact with me” and “I’m here—now can this madness end?” just sound all wrong said through his broad drawl.   He definitely has the intensity down, though, sometimes almost frighteningly so.   After his mind-meld with Patrick Stewart, he collapses and bounces like someone having a seizure.   He’s always watchable as an actor, and very magnetic; he just seems to have such a specialized range that I’m not sure he was the best choice, here.   You can't touch Duane Barry, though.

The script was by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby.  Some of the lines are nice and smart (“Are you sure you want to say ‘hidden’?”), most get the job done with a nice flourish, but some are real “Huh? What?” moments, like this one:  “The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my life-form.” 

The first time I heard that, you should have seen my puzzled frown.  But I think I’ve figured it out, as well as some of the mystery surrounding the last third.  So let me re-phrase it:  “The energy of my kind feeds upon and destroys your kind.  It was necessary to adapt you in order to house our essence.  That adaptation has consequences you see as unfortunate, but are only now beginning to understand.  It is time for you to join us.”  A lot more words, but a lot more clarity, too.  (If I'm guessing right.  I've not read Colin Wilson's novel.)

The last third shows one of the most convincingly zombie-overrun cities I’ve seen in movies.  There are hordes of them, running around, attacking the few survivors, and disintegrating as the vampires “harvest” them.  There are explosions and fires and car crashes, and a really excellent sense of chaos enveloping London.   John Dykstra developed a method of shooting a laser against a sheet of plexiglas, then bending it; this is the blue beam that snakes throughout London, sucking up life-energy.  It's pretty impressive, it looks alive and aware.  

What else?  Well, the “autopsy” scene actually had me up and out of my chair and across the room.  In retrospect, I should have expected it, but I didn’t.  Damn.  Too bad the trailer gives it away.  Idiots. 

Mathilda May is stunningly beautiful while at the same time projecting a sense of menace and evil, all mostly with her expression (she only has a few lines in the film).  And she spends almost all of her screen time naked.   Where’s my action figure, damn it?

Well, I sure with I had the American cut in a digital form.  But even bloated and silly, it’s lots of fun if you don’t take it seriously.   But I still want my Mathilda May action figure.   I'm serious about that.


Starring the voices of: Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry, Mel Brooks, Greg Kinnear. Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha. Screenwriters: David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandell.
This is a pretty rote film with a lot of humorous moments and an outstanding production design—all the characters look like Transformers who can turn into cars from the 1950’s.  It's not just the characters, it's the whole world--it's like a tinkertoy box spilled on a table and brought to life. 

That’s easily the most enjoyable aspect of the film, though to be fair a lot of the jokes are funny and the action sequences are well setup and executed.  On balance, it’s certainly fun and funny enough for an evening’s entertainment.  Robin Williams does go nutzoid, but he’s not the main focus and he tends to be humorous most of the time (rather than annoying).

It’s the rote nature of the beast that keeps me from being really enthused about it; it’s as if the writers figured they might as well throw in every cliché they had, whether they were needed or not.  Case in point:  the “romance” between Ewan McGreggor and Halle Berry is so pro forma that it’s even a surprise to them.  Which was kind of funny, but didn’t eliminate the cliché.  Halle Berry’s character also seemed to be thrown into the mix without any real reason; she seems to exist solely to get Rodney out of trouble at the big dance, then she joins the good guys and so on.  She does have cool skate-shoes, though. 

Honestly, I thought Rodney (Ewan McGreggor’s character) was going to end up with the yellow robot.  It made more sense.  Oh well. 

The other rote element that bothered me was why Bigweld (Mel Brooks) was no longer around.  He was a beloved figure, still, among the robots.  Everyone missed him.  There was no “no one wants me” moment.  He didn’t seem to be a prisoner, and when he spoke to the villain near the end, the villain was very deferential.   So why was he gone?  Well, you wouldn’t have had a film unless he was, but that’s really sloppy.  It's possible I missed something, but there sure wasn't much emphasis put on it.  

The voice cast does very good work throughout (did James Earl Jones really need an opening credit for one line, though?).  I especially liked Greg Kinnear’s villain (he was a more complex character than I thought he was going to be).  And Mel Brooks was excellent.  I do have a question, though.  Jim Broadbent has a very distinctive voice.  Why on Earth (or in Robotland) would you hire him, then have him be vocally unrecognizable?  Where’s the sense in that? 

Well, I tend to be a nit-picker so I do that sort of thing.  But I had fun anyway.  I’ve always liked those films that show gadgets automatically doing something, and here’s a whole film of nothing but that.  A little too automatically, at times, but it’s fun anyway.   Assemble the family!