`Lifeforce' is strong on ambition, weak on talent

One reason science fiction has never become fully ``respectable'' is that different people expect different rewards from it. Thus even fans of the genre may scoff at works that don't offer the particular payoff they're looking for -- which can be anything from intellectual depth to space-opera excitement. ``Lifeforce,'' the new SF thriller by Tobe Hooper, tries to please everyone by dragging all kinds of plot, character, and thematic twists into one grand spider web of action, suspense, and myth. It's an ambitious plan, but Hooper's hubris isn't matched by his talent. The movie is undermined by weak performances, idiotic dialogue, and a story that doesn't make sense.

The yarn begins with a strange discovery by a rocket crew: a sort of extraterrestrial bat cave holding three human bodies. Back on Earth these bodies spring alive, wreaking all manner of space-monster mayhem. They also breed more of their own kind, like vampires. Subplots deal with Halley's comet, a bizarre bond between an earthling and one of the villains, and yes, the ``life force'' itself, which is colored an attractive blue.

In splashing this stuff across the screen, Hooper borrows from many sources. Admirers of ``Alien'' will recognize the bat-cave scenes. The plague sequences mimic ``Dawn of the Dead'' and other zombie pictures. Some characters (such as a roly-poly politician) and settings (a spooky ``asylum for the criminally insane'') could have been yanked from a '40s detective movie. It's fun spotting these echoes, but with few new elements to support them, they wear thin very soon. ``Lifeforce'' is an anthology of styles and images more original than Hooper's own.

It's also a badly written movie. Who can listen to a hokey phrase like ``suspended animation'' with a straight face after all these years? Some scenes are so foolish they must have been designed for comedy -- as when the prime minister of Great Britain, bitten by the vampire bug, excuses himself to bite his secretary on the neck. But the picture is played with such thudding earnestness that it's hard to tell whether you should laugh or howl.

Die-hard fans of the genre may applaud the special visual effects by John Dykstra, which are lavish and just about nonstop; and Henry Mancini's music deserves a nod for sheer gumption. These can't sustain the picture, though. Nor can the aimless drive of Hooper's cinematic approach, which falls back on gore, nudity, and empty spectacle when imagination fails, as it frequently does.

Perhaps Hooper should reach in another direction, since his career needs a boost if it's going to keep up its momentum.

After attracting attention with a respected ``cult'' movie, ``The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'' he made no impact with ``The Fun House'' and recouped only with ``Poltergeist,'' which was heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg behind the scenes. Hooper is bursting with energy, and maybe with talent. But he needs a more cleanly crafted outlet than the top-heavy ``Lifeforce'' can provide.

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