I saw Lifeforce and Cocoon on the same day (plus two Japanese movies in between, but that's another story), and they've got my vote for improbable double feature of the summer. That they were released on the same day is almost bizarre. Consider: Lifeforce is a tale of malevolent aliens who come down to earth and suck the life out of people. Cocoon is the story of benevolent aliens who come down to earth and rejuvenate people. Lifeforce models itself on Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while Cocoon decorously steals from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Here we have representatives of two of the more popular film science fiction themes, duking it out toe to toe. Cocoon is the winner by a knockout.
When you come right down to it, neither film has an ounce of originality to it. Scenes and motifs are stolen left and right from earlier films. You can have a lot of fun at either one watching specifically for where you've seen this bit or that shot before. Cocoon's idea of being breathtakingly original is to use old people instead of kids. This kind of twist is the stuff of legendary (or is that infamous?) Hollywood meetings, where some guy wearing gold chains and a loud shirt with an open collar jumps up and shouts, "I've got it!" Lifeforce doesn't have any intention at all of being original, either. Not one element is new, not one twist appears that we don't expect.
Faced with such a stunning display of uninventiveness in script and story, Lifeforce and Cocoon must get by on style. Here's where Cocoon pulls out in front. Ron Howard, director of Cocoon, really knows how to make an old turn look new again. As my mind tucked away instances of things Cocoon was doing over again, it also noted, "but that's a very interesting variation." Howard doesn't have a strong personal style, but he does have a lot of intelligence and a feel for what will and will not work. His last couple of films have reminded me a bit of those great old Hollywood hacks, Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming. No one writes dissertations about them or scholarly articles analyzing their style, but if you made up a list of your ten favorite films, there's a good chance that one or more films by each of these gentlemen would appear. (Curtiz, among many other films, directed Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy and co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood, my own choice of the most beautiful color film ever made. Fleming had a very good year in 1939, when he directed The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.) Their hallmark, like many other studio directors, was that their films were competent, professional jobs which drew from the material, not their personalities. Howard looks like the same kind of director. He knows what can be done to make material fly, even if it isn't material that he feels deeply for. (A good example of the other kind of great director is Steven Spielberg, whose films are intensely personal. Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are the classic examples.)
Lifeforce was directed by Tobe Hooper, whose one undisputed positive credit is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (He received credit for directing Poltergeist, but rumor states that Spielberg had as much or more to do with how the film came out.) Based on this, one would expect that Hooper would play to his strengths. He knows horror. He knows how to build up a shock scene, he knows how much he has to show an audience and how much he should suggest without showing. He knows when to build up suspense and when to back off. Alas, Hooper rarely chooses to play Lifeforce as a horror movie with science fiction overtones, but rather as a science fiction film which occasionally dips into horror. The result is a few good horror scenes and a lot of mediocre sf. Hooper even shortchanges some of the horror scenes, playing them almost perfunctorily. If he was trying to demonstrate his range, his ability to work outside of the horror genre, and this does seem to be his goal, he has failed. He should have stolen even more from Alien.
The difference between the two films can be seen at almost any level, really, from the script on up. The script of Lifeforce is badly constructed, by any standard. We start out on a space shuttle out examining Halley's comet. They discover an alien spacecraft. Now, seeing as how the craft was obviously designed by H.R. Geiger, and that someone on the shuttle must have seen Alien, you'd think that extreme caution would be the order of the day. Well, no. Ok, the shuttle crew does something really stupid and we're prepared to see them get their's, in best horror film fashion. At this point though, Lifeforce chooses to cut away to the shuttle arriving in Earth orbit, sans crew but with some passengers it didn't go up with. The film has lost invaluable shocks here, but that's forgivable. What's unforgivable is it's insistence on flashbacks to what happened, flashbacks which aren't even very well played. From this point onwards, almost every character in the film acts in an incredibly stupid manner, till the film plays out to a cheat of a climax, in that we were told that certain actions would have certain results. Those actions have totally different results, for reasons never explained but suspiciously resembling a desire to produce a sequel. Someone forgot to remind the filmmakers that one only needs to worry about a sequel if one produced a satisfactory film in the first place. The climax is flat and unsatisfying, leaving one puzzled but with little desire to see what happens next.
The script of Cocoon doesn't cover new ground, but it does tromp the old, familiar turf in an assured manner. The dialog is crisp, the characters mostly well delineated, the gaps of logic not huge. The two related subplots, the rejuvenation of some people in a Florida home for the aged and the mysterious activities of a group of people out in the middle of the ocean, are nicely crosscut and merge in a natural fashion. While certain twists do suggest a desire to do a sequel, they modestly murmur sequel, rather than screaming "SEQUEL!!!!!" at the top of their metaphoric lungs, as is the case in Lifeforce.
The performances in the two films are also at contrast. The cast of Lifeforce isn't terribly distinguished (though Frank Finlay once did a terrific Iago opposite Olivier's Othello). Steven Railsback is a very good actor, but Hollywood doesn't know what to do with him. He's been given three good parts in the last decade, Charles Manson in Helter Skelter, the title role in The Stunt Man, and the lead in Lifeforce. His performance in Lifeforce isn't up to his other two, but that is largely because the material isn't as good. Railsback is strong in the part, and when he is speaking the lines, some of the plot inconsistencies momentarily disappear. The rest of the cast, Finlay, Peter Firth, and many slightly familiar faces, almost to a man give stiff-upper-lip style British performances. Very professional, to be sure, but not terribly exciting.
Cocoon, on the other hand, is very well cast. There isn't a bad performance in the film, and almost all of the cast has something special to add. I was particularly pleased with the performances of Wilford Brimley (as the ringleader of the old folks) and Brian Dennehy (the alien in charge). Brimley is natural and very sympathetic. Dennehy, out from under his usual villainous brute role, displays great intelligence and sensitivity. Also excellent are Jessica Tandy, in the best of the older women's roles, Hume Cronyn as an aged husband with tendencies to stray, Don Ameche as a ladies' man whose spirit is still willing even if the flesh is weak, and Jack Gilford as a skeptical old fogey who stubbornly refuses to believe in miracles. Maureen Stapleton and Gwen Verdon are given relatively little to do. The younger members of the cast include Steve Guttenberg, a little frantic at times for my tastes; Tawny Welch, Raquel Welch's daughter, more beautiful than her mother and very talented; and Barret Oliver, as Brimley's grandson. (I wonder if Oliver, who had the leads in The Neverending Story and D.A.R.Y.L, will get to play a normal boy in a non-sf/fantasy story before puberty kills his career?)
Both Cocoon and Lifeforce are special effects movies. Special effects form important components of the concepts behind the pictures. While I can picture Cocoon without its special effects, Lifeforce really needs them. Thus, it is odd that, despite the relative importance of effects to the two pictures and despite the fact that Lifeforce's budget was about $7 million more than Cocoon, the effects in Cocoon are generally more effective and convincing than those in Lifeforce. Some of the spacecraft model work in the latter movie isn't very good, and lots of lightshow stuff seems pretty arbitrary, being used mostly to display what John Dykstra and company can do. The effects of Cocoon, by contrast, are well-integrated and pretty believable. I did find certain spacecraft shots towards the end to be a bit amusing in an unintentional way, as I could practically hear the Industrial Light and Magic folks saying to themselves, "Now what spaceship special effects gimmicks didn't we use on ET?" The best effects in Lifeforce are a combination of makeup and puppetry, and these are quite persuasive. Interestingly, Cocoon features a creature which bears more than a passing resemblance to those in Lifeforce. The notable point here is that the former film effectively uses the creature for pathos, while the latter uses it for shock, and almost the same creature works for both purposes, an illustration that presentation is everything. Cocoon also wins in the category of special effects, then, but neither films' effects stand up to what I think is the best special effects work so far this summer, Will Vinton's Claymation in Return to Oz. (And this Claymation isn't nearly as versatile and amusing as that in Vinton's own Mark Twain feature, due out this fall.)
Considering that both films' budgets hover around or above the $20 million level, it should come as no surprise that both are technically accomplished. The photography in Cocoon gets the nod over that in Lifeforce, simply on the basis of variety. Neither film sports a particularly distinguished score, but both are serviceable. One of the most unexpected aspects of Lifeforce is hearing Henry "Moon River" Mancini proving that he, too, can imitate John Williams.
Between them, Cocoon and Lifeforce display three of the oldest and most familiar concepts in drama: pageant, pathos, and melodrama. (Note that I am not using any of these words in a pejorative sense, but in their original meanings, as descriptive terms for components of drama.) Pageant, back in Shakespearean times, used to consist of marching around small armies on stage and showing off richly dressed kings and their courts. Modern audiences are harder to please, since film and television have taken them places where ordinary people could never go before. Now, pageant requires either incredible opulence or dazzling special effects. The point about pageant, then and now, is that its only real purpose is to awe the viewer. Both Cocoon and Lifeforce have their moments of successful pageant.
Cocoon also has a strong component of pathos and a little melodrama, but not much. (Some comedy, too.) Dying spouses, children wrenched from their grandparents, friendly aliens in peril - this is the stuff of modern pathos. Cocoon greatest success is in the area of pathos. Ron Howard milks it for all it's worth, politely demanding that there will not be a dry eye in the house. Before people get too overwhelmed by Cocoon, though, it's worthwhile to remember that lightweight pathos is really what we're getting, not very much real human drama (though Jack Gilford has a moment or two). The fantastic setting and the handling of the film really lightly brush the surface of the heart. Cocoon does not reach very deep. The melodramatic component of Cocoon is largely held to the ending, and isn't executed with as much conviction as the rest of the picture. I'd guess that Ron Howard, too, is getting a bit tired of the race by the aliens and their friends against the evil/ignorant/unthinking forces of the government. This device deserves to be retired for a few years.
Lifeforce hasn't an ounce of pathos, and this lack works against it. Hooper tries to get by only with lots of pageant and melodrama. The first is moderately successful, the latter only intermittently works. As long as Hooper tries to shock, the melodrama works. His attempts to make the film succeed on the levels of mystery and suspense fail. The device used in Lifeforce finale, the last minute, one or two man dash to save the city/world/universe before total destruction occurs, still has some life left in it, being one of the mainstays of modern cinema, but Hooper doesn't find how to tap its remaining vitality. A notable lack of humor in Lifeforce is also debilitating, while some good comic bits serve to give Cocoon a little variety.
Fundamentally, Cocoon is a winner and Lifeforce is
marginal. Howard gets to direct whatever he wants next,
Hooper's career is in some trouble. Cocoon makes a
bundle, Lifeforce might break even (though, since its
break even point comes at around $60 million, this is
in doubt). Tristar thanks the gods that it backed
Rambo, so that it will have at least one hit to tide
it through the summer, 20th Century Fox breaths easy in the
knowledge that even if its other summer films flop, it
will make enough off Cocoon to keep the stockholders
happy. You'll probably like Cocoon, you are much
less likely to enjoy Lifeforce.
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